LAKEWOOD, Ohio – For many folks, coronavirus posed challenges, closed businesses, changed lives.
Ines Rehner took it in stride.
Rehner’s Sweet Designs Chocolatier has flipped its business model upside down. She has shifted from 90% walk-in and 10% shipping business to the other way around. She works with companies and customers to offer unique packages highlighting messages and logos.
She attributes her ability to survive and succeed on a foundation built on hardship, coupled with continuing determination and creativity. Those traits have served her well: Rehner is marking 25 years in business.
She emigrated to New York in the 1980s, visited Cleveland, and “I just fell in love with this country.”
“I grew up – it was communism. Nobody was in business. Everything was run by government,” she said.
Her parents farmed and her father did masonry work. They made their own wine, sausages and cheese.
“We learned how to do it all, how to survive,” she said. “I believe that with Covid coming, I was ready. Survival for us was always just something you did on a daily basis. When something like this hit, it was ‘You know, I dealt with this all the time.’ People would say ‘Oh my God there is no more food on the shelves, all these aisles are empty.’ For me, are there onions? There are some potatoes, some beans. I know how to survive.”
It was that background that has made her thankful for her upbringing. Hard circumstances and being deprived forced her to appreciate life and to value hard work.
“Chocolate was a luxury,” she said. “If anyone brought a piece of chocolate to my house it was the best day ever.”
The lack of ambition fostered under communism led her to look to emigrate. It would be nearby Italy, with its interwoven cultures close to Yugoslavia, or the United States, where she had relatives in New York City.
She had to study German in school so she took a quick course on English, thinking ” ‘If I ever go to America at least I’ll be able to say ‘How are you?’ and ‘Thank you.’ “
She worked in a retail chocolate shop and began learning, experimenting at home, having friends sample her creations.
“Not only did I not know a language, but I didn’t know how to make chocolate,” she said. “But what I had was a love for chocolate. And I thought ‘You know, we had to figure so many things out growing up, I could probably do it.’ I had in my head this vision, this idea, how the chocolate needs to taste, how it needs to feel, how it needs to look, and then how memorable it is.”
What she learned was not to cut corners. She opened on Madison Avenue in 1995. Her specialty remains making dark chocolate with cocoa butter.
“What you can buy in a drugstore or a gas station, it’s really sugar. … If you are craving true chocolate, you need a lot of cocoa butter. Because that’s what makes it creamy. And that’s what gives you the true experience. The flavor of the chocolate is in the percentage of cocoa butter and what region your beans come from.
“My mother used to always say as she would cook ‘As long as you use good ingredients, most likely your meal will not turn out bad.’ “
But making good chocolate – and being the only certified organic chocolatier in Ohio – is not enough in coronavirus times.
What the current crisis demonstrates, she said, is that “more than ever people cared about each other. They miss each other.”
So she started to incorporate logos and messages in her creations. It has been an economic boost while building a following. She uses an interchangeable box called ‘lasting impressions’. A hole is cut so companies can insert logos or messages, and there is no minimum to buy.
The retail store, located on Detroit Avenue for the past 15 years, is closed to walk-ins for employee and customer safety. Drive-ups are allowed. Staffers work in shifts. She created a menu and a pick-your-own option, allowing more freedom for customers to choose what they want.
Shipping has been equal parts blessing and curse. It’s created more business – and more work. She constantly checks forecasts, tracks temperatures, and includes ice packs. Chocolate can melt if the mercury rises above 75 degrees, she said.
“All of a sudden the business went through the roof, and so did the labor with it,” Rehner said. “I always worked hard, but I don’t think I ever worked this hard. Literally it was starting a whole new look on the business. In order to survive you had to do that.”
Rehner read a media report saying chocolate sales nationally are up 12%. But with all her unrelenting work, it’s no surprise to hear Rehner say Sweet Designs is doing double that.
“You need to be ready for the worst,” she said. “Just opening the door, it’s easy.”
She also has seen a surge in demand for vegan chocolate. She keeps a little black book, a journal of thoughts about her business. She recently looked through her notes from the 2019 holidays.
“I write everything,” she said. ” ‘Improve this, improve this, improve this.’ I wrote myself on Dec. 15 the sales of vegan chocolate shoot through the roof – ‘Be ready.’ “
Rehner is ready. And it’s more than about surviving. It’s about being challenged, and succeeding.
“There is something to be said for the challenge,” she said. “It gives you that ultimate satisfaction.”
Customers recognize her hard work, and drop off homemade meals, soup, pierogi, sandwiches.
“I keep creating for them, and I like that. I wake up in the morning – ‘There is so much to do, I have to keep creating.’ Here I am, 25 years.”
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com.
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