Kristin Barnes started exploring the world of chocolate part-time while she was working full-time as a marketing executive in Boston. Over time Barnes got tired of the corporate world and wanted to do something more creative. She moved back to Cleveland, where she was originally from, and to reconnect with her old friends, she invited a friend over to make chocolate one evening.
Barnes said they had so much fun making chocolates and sharing their creations on Facebook. People who saw their posts were intrigued, wondering where they could get some of the chocolate and that’s when Barnes stumbled upon the idea of turning her chocolate making into a business.
Barnes and her husband created Sweet Bean Chocolates which was in the first cohort at Cleveland Culinary Launch and Kitchen in MidTown with other businesses like Chill Pop, Mason’s Creamery and Randy’s Pickles. While Barnes focuses on the bon-bon side of the business and acts as the face of the studio, her husband focuses more on the bean to bar side, while still working full-time.
Through that program, Barnes discovered the Cleveland Flea and Cleveland Bazaar, which is where she really started Sweet Bean. Barnes worked there with Sweet Bean until 2019 while she also continued working full-time.
“Then I quit my corporate job and decided to go full time chocolate, which was a huge leap,” she said.
Recently, Sweet Bean moved into a storefront at 819 E. 185th St. in The LaSalle Theatre, a Collinwood landmark that has undergone restorations in recent years to become a new point of interest in the community. Barnes said it’s the perfect location because she and her husband live in the neighborhood.
With the revival of the LaSalle resulting in an event center rather than a movie theater, Barnes said their businesses go hand-in-hand.
“They needed a tenant, we needed a home,” she said. “I started to think about all the possibilities of being there. We signed our lease in September and then got to work spending the next couple of months getting all of our permits in order before we opened our doors February 1, just in time for Valentine’s Day.”
A Cleveland chain reaction
Sweet Bean offers handmade, painted chocolates. While Barnes says she isn’t the only one hand painting chocolates, it’s still a unique item people won’t find in the grocery store.
“I like to look at it as a little piece of affordable luxury,” she said. “I think what sets Sweet Bean apart from anyone else who might be making bon-bons or hand painted chocolates is in the technique of the artists. I’m not a pastry chef. I have not been classically trained as a chocolatier here or as a baker. I’m an artist first and a sweets maker second. So, while I think that anyone can paint a chocolate, I think you also have to have some of that design background to kind of bring it all together and make it really special.”
When she first started, Barnes was renting kitchen space from other businesses while making chocolate for weddings and other small businesses like restaurants and wine bars who would carry her chocolates.
“The impetus for the shop was I had done this out of my home for so long, and then I was renting kitchen space from other people where I couldn’t really control when I could be in the kitchen,” she said. “It just became apparent that I needed my own kitchen.”
Barnes then entered the Cleveland Chain Reaction Contest in December 2019, where Sweet Bean was one of five winners awarded investment money from Cleveland Chain Reaction partners Jumpstart Inc., Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, The Council for Smaller Enterprises and other local investors, to base a business in Collinwood.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced Barnes to rethink her next moves.
“We had to immediately pivot because all of our business was based on things that had been canceled,” she said. “You couldn’t go to an outdoor market, you couldn’t have a wedding or a corporate event, you couldn’t sit at a restaurant or at a bar, and those were all of our customers.”
Sweet Bean quickly pivoted to online sales. Luckily, since they had already been in business for so many years, they already had a website and Barnes’ marketing and IT background was helpful in maintaining the site. Barnes also developed timely products during the pandemic like candy grams.
“Because if you can’t see someone, at least you can send them something, or maybe you can have a shared experience because you’re both eating the same thing on either end of a phone call,” she said.
More than a candy store
So far, Barnes said the neighborhood has been great. She gets a lot of people who see the Sweet Bean sign and come in to check it out.
“Now that I’ve been open for a month, I’m starting to have some of those people who have followed me from the craft markets and are starting to make the trek from places further away,” she said. “Especially in Cleveland, there’s the whole East Side/West Side mentality, I’ve been happy to have people over the past couple weeks tell me, ‘Oh, I drove out here from the West Side just to get chocolate,’ which I think is amazing.”
When people journey into Sweet Bean from places other than the surrounding community, Barnes likes to tell them what else is in the neighborhood, hoping to shine a light on Collinwood and its other small businesses.
Due to the pandemic, Sweet Bean hasn’t had the opportunity to relish in much of the benefits of their location, but Barnes is hoping that as the vaccine efforts ramp up, people who postponed weddings and other large events may be looking to the LaSalle for their venue and possibly bring some more business to Sweet Bean.
Barnes refers to the location as a studio, because the setup allows for customers to see her painting the chocolates and even sit and stay awhile if they so choose.
“Right now, that’s probably not ideal, but in the future, I’d love for people to be able to come in, sit down at our bar and enjoy a flight of chocolates,” she said. “I’d be happy to talk someone through some of our more unique flavors. I’m hoping that maybe in the future we could pair that with a glass of wine or some sort of a cocktail.”
Looking forward, Barnes said she would also like to host workshops where people can come in to paint their own chocolates, possibly a fun activity for bachelorette parties or showers.
“We always liked to say even from the very beginning that we just want to be a part of your day,” she said. “We want to be something special that you experience in your day. If that is just having a bite of our chocolate, if that is sitting down and enjoying it with us, if that is coming and learning how to paint your own. I just like the idea of it being more than a candy store.”
Maria McGinnis is a senior journalism major at Kent State University and an editorial intern at The Land.
Keep our local journalism accessible to all
Reader support is crucial as we continue to shed light on underreported neighborhoods in Cleveland.
Will you become a monthly member to help us continue to produce news by, for, and with the community?