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Fenton chocolate shop hops to it for Easter

Story and photos by Brandy Baker
The Detroit News

In the cramped back room of the quaint shop in downtown Fenton, owner Carol Schuler and her crew craft armies of chocolate bunnies that eventually find their way into the Easter baskets of area children.

Like some rediscovered treasure of a distant past, Sweet Variations is the very picture of a beloved corner candy store: fresh, handmade chocolates, bulbous glass jars filled to brimming with malted eggs, jelly beans and candy corn, a friendly staff always willing to help a young one find the perfect treat for his $2. The kind of place a parent takes the kids for a special treat each Friday after school.

"I try to carry things that are different than you find in other stores, so that people have something special to come in for," said Schuler as she ticks off specialty items like quail eggs, mint eggs and chocolate shoes.

"We've got a jelly bean that's got a lot of nice fruit flavor to it. It's not your usual plain old jellybean. We do filled eggs, but our fillings are better than the ones in the grocery store … We have either real butter or real fruit in them, hardly any artificial flavorings."

For boys who don't want a bunny in their basket, they make chocolate dinosaurs or airplanes. Rabbits are decorated with guitars, basketballs and skateboards, and traditional flowers, hats and jellybeans are available, in a nod to the modern era.

At this is their busiest time of year, the Sweet Variations staff of five women produce some 3,000 chocolate bunnies, chicks, eggs and ducks for the holiday. With an easy charm and meticulous eye, Schuler oversees the operation and usually adds a couple staffers to help keep up with the demand to make, decorate, bag and record the ever-multiplying inventory of candy creatures.

This year, she had to hire a new "Bunny Dresser" as well. Though not a full-fledged chocolatier like Schuler, the Bunny Dresser gives life to the luscious creatures, adding eyes, flowers, hats and other details.

Diane Pohlod, a retired elementary school teacher who was in the shop buying candy for her daughter, said she was talked into filling the position.

"Who wouldn't want to work in a candy shop?" said Pohlod as she slipped dark chocolate rabbits into cellophane bags in the back workroom of the store that's at the corner of West Shiawassee and South Leroy in downtown Fenton.

What qualifications does one need to be a Bunny Dresser? "They have to be meticulous. A little anal and kinda artsy. They are our last bastion of checking (for quality)," Schuler said.

Hair-netted women move about filling molds of every shape and style from baths of molten chocolate, while a radio plays softly in the background. They chat cheerily as they wrap caramel eggs in gold foil or package key lime, purple and marbled bunnies. Pohlod sits in one corner, sticking sugared eyes, lacquered with liquid chocolate, to a line of drying ducks. Then she dresses each one with a tiny straw hat.

"I try to methodically do it as fast as possible," said Pohlod, lining up a string of figures to work on. Once eyes and decorations are added, "They seem to come to life. They have a character all their own."

In the month leading up to Easter, Schuler and crew work long days. Silver trays lined with row upon row of the chocolate creatures crowd the small workroom. Bunnies — which come in milk, dark and white chocolate — are stacked on counters, in racks and on shelves.

"It's a lot of hard work, but ya know I guess we make a lot of people happy with all their different Easter baskets," Schuler said. "We have people that come in and say, 'My kid's 40 years old and I still have to give him an Easter basket from Sweet Variations, and that kinda makes me feel good. After all these years, they still want to come back."