In downtown Sanford, at the corner of N. Steele Street and Carthage Street, down a small flight of stairs, is the chocolate shop you’ll want to visit. As a non-native of the area, I stood for a few seconds looking around, trying to locate The Chocolate Cellar, until I smelled the intoxicating combination of scents any woman can appreciate: chocolate and coffee. 

I followed my nose, taking the steps two-at-a-time. Opening the door of The Chocolate Cellar is a bit like stepping back in time, back when streets were lined with specialty shops filled with homemade delicacies made by the hands and in the kitchens of people you knew. 

I know. I never actually lived in that era, but The Chocolate Cellar is an ode to just that kind of local, hometown, family-run business that makes a girl feel like she has people, community and a place to turn when she needs a thoughtful gift, a truffle to ease an emotional pang or a glass of wine to take that chocolate next level

I spent a few hours with Gene Phelps, General Manager, learning about the family’s desire to create artisanal chocolate right here in Lee County. When his sister, Carol, returned from a stint living in France, she brought home with her a new-found interest in chocolate not as an out-of-the-wrapper bar to be scarfed down between meetings but as an experience, a true pleasure of all the senses. The family got on board, and using backgrounds in wine, science and customer service, they set about creating world-class chocolate to be sold, shared and enjoyed in their own community here in North Carolina. 

I tasted several truffles while talking with Gene and Nick, who runs the shop day-to-day. I was particularly fond of the Key Lime Truffle, as were several ONC staffers who emailed me rave reviews. The Salted Caramel and Cabernet are also excellent. The chocolate is rich and satisfying, never cloying or waxy. I took a bag home for my children, of course, and they were thrilled. The Tiramisu Almonds and Dark Chocolate Pomegranates were a hit even with their refined palates. 

The Chocolate Cellar offers wine for sale as well, with pairing recommendations. Personalized and pre-made gift baskets are available for sale, and the staff is more than willing to tackle larger orders for business events, parties and more. If that isn’t enough, there is also “Iced” Hot Chocolate for these stifling, muggy summer months. 

Like all of the wonderful bakeries and treat shops we’ve featured this year, what makes The Chocolate Cellar special isn’t only the confections but the people who sell them, the personal conversations shared while choosing truffles and the feeling of community when your face, name and favorite cordial are remembered a week later. As Gene says, “The best part of the job is meeting cool people and hearing their stories. Individual transactions can go on for 30 minutes. I love that.” 

The Chocolate Cellar is located at 104 N. Steele Street, Sanford, NC 27330. The telephone number is (919) 353-2439. You can find them online at Hours are Weds. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. and Sun. from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. 

Carol’s Tips for Tasting and Enjoying Chocolate 

1. Allow yourself time to truly enjoy fine chocolates: The enjoyment of chocolate should be an experience involving all the senses. In the hectic, American lifestyle we are not often permitted time to indulge our sensual side. Reward yourself by taking the time to quiet your mind and silence the distractions of the outside world, so that you can focus on the pleasure that chocolate brings. For me this means putting down my phone, opening a bottle of wine, playing some good music on the stereo, and focusing only on the unique taste, texture and appearance of each truffle.

2. Be adventurous: Uniquely infused truffles allow the taster to experience something outside of an ordinary chocolate-eating experience. I initially thought I did not have a palate for dark chocolate; I perceived it as rich but bitter. However, during my time in France, I learned that the appreciation of high-end chocolate could awaken one to a completely new world of taste and flavor. After learning more about how chocolate was made, I began to mix ingredients creating a whole new combination of tastes. Now my favorite truffle we offer is a dark chocolate with raspberry ganache. Truffles such as our dark bacon caramel bring together sweet and savory and our key lime truffle blends creamy textures on top of a crumbly base.

3. Be Creative: Study how to pair your favorite chocolate with other things you love…. wine, cheese, meat, and even beer! You will be surprised how the taste of your favorite food or drink will change after a single bite of chocolate. You can experience dimensions of flavor that are new and unique just by varying the order in which you taste each item.