If you ask Chattanooga natives Wendy and Brandon Buckner what it’s like to own a small business, they aren’t going to sugarcoat it. For this power couple, finding success has had its fair share of challenges. Regardless of the hardships, the duo has prevailed – having served delectable treats at The Hot Chocolatier for over a decade.
By Christina Cannon, Photography by Rich Smith
Ever since she got her very first Easy-Bake Oven, Wendy loved being in the kitchen. As Wendy grew older and worked at several small businesses throughout Chattanooga, she knew that one day she wanted to run something similar. With a grandmother who enjoyed cooking and always encouraged her experiments, it’s no wonder she is now a talented chocolatier, pastry chef, and business owner.
“Well before we even knew we were going to be working with chocolate, I was interested in being a small-business owner,” says Wendy. “I worked at Stone Cup and Rembrandt’s before I left Chattanooga, and I always thought I’d end up with a coffee house of my own someday.”
Fast-forward several years, and Wendy could be found selling the culinary creations she made in the evenings to friends and co-workers. As requests kept coming in, Wendy and Brandon began to contemplate turning Wendy’s passion into something more.
“I had a lot of fun making things; I just didn’t understand the chemistry to it,” says Wendy. “I decided that I really wanted to understand the process, so I started looking around for pastry schools. I found one in Chicago that seemed too good to be true.” Soon after, Wendy enrolled in The French Pastry School, while Brandon continued pursuing his master’s degree in painting at the University of Iowa.
After Wendy graduated from pastry school, the two moved to Asheville, where they worked until Brandon was offered a position with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Once back in the Scenic City, Brandon and Wendy asked themselves what would happen if they ever came across that perfect storefront. The couple reached out to the Business Development Center (BDC) to get more information on what it would take to start their own venture.
“No one had ever run a food industry business out of the BDC at that time, but they were the ones that suggested we start our business there,” explains Brandon. “It didn’t have a full-scale hot kitchen, but operating the business from the BDC was doable.”
The couple settled on a name in 2008, and Brandon used his artistic training to create their business logo. While operating out of the BDC, Wendy and Brandon would often attend the Chattanooga Market to spread the word about The Hot Chocolatier. Eventually, renovations at the BDC would lead the duo to seek another place of operation, and they put down roots at the corner of West Main and Williams Streets.
The new location featured a split kitchen and allowed the Buckners to work with both hot and cold items at the same time. The Hot Chocolatier quickly became somewhat of a misnomer as the menu expanded to offer gourmet pastries, cakes, gelato, and other treats. Even though the new location offered more space, it also came with challenges.
“We were the first retail business in that building besides a self-storage company. The building changed hands, and they started renovating,” recalls Brandon. “I remember standing in the kitchen one day, and water just started pouring down the walls. We had a number of issues like that.”
In 2014, the building changed hands again, and The Hot Chocolatier was asked to move. “It was really a blessing in disguise to come over here,” Wendy says about their current location across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The Hot Chocolatier is now busier than ever and continues to add one-of-a-kind treats to the culinary lineup. With roughly 20 different hot chocolates on the menu, the business is able to offer something for every taste.
When asked what’s on the horizon for The Hot Chocolatier, Brandon says an additional production facility would allow the business to fulfill more online orders, and even ramp up delivery operations. The Buckners aren’t stopping there, however. Currently the duo creates the majority of their chocolaty treats from chocolate bars sourced from the United States and Belgium, but one day hopes to begin creating their own chocolate bars.
“It’s another business all in itself, but we hope to start taking chocolate from bean to bar,” says Brandon. “Right now, we are really busy, but one day we hope to be able to do it all.”
From forgoing paychecks to living with in-laws in the beginning, running The Hot Chocolatier hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake for Wendy and Brandon, but with each other’s support and encouragement, the journey has been just a little sweeter. CS