It’s with a rueful little laugh that Lisa Corbin talks about her leap into entrepreneurship: “I bought an ice-cream shop at the beginning of the recession in the middle of winter.”
She’s referring to the Chocolate Bar Café, her Grosse Pointe Woods store, which opened in December 2007. Although the timing might have been bad, her start-up has all the elements of a success story.
Corbin has created more than an ice-cream shop by adding an espresso bar with Illy coffee, Wi-Fi, and a 9 a.m. opening time for the dark-roast and laptop set.
But it’s still the vintage soda fountain with ice-cream cones, malts, milkshakes, sodas, and banana splits, all made with hand-dipped Alinosi’s ice cream in such flavors as maple walnut and spumoni, that sets it apart. There’s also bisque tortoni — made with vanilla ice cream, rum, and crushed macaroons, a takeoff on the Italian dessert, biscuit tortoni — that’s among the 30 available flavors this time of year.
This month, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and truffles, heart-shaped molded chocolates, and chocolate boxes are the stars in the pink-and-turquoise painted shop with accents of milk-chocolate brown — the original Alinosi colors. Alinosi’s, established in 1921, still operates its production plant on East McNichols in Detroit. The Chocolate Bar Café is its only retail outlet.
Formerly known as Sara’s Sweets, and before that, Great Cakes, it’s also known for its fancifully decorated birthday and wedding cakes.
The cakes were what brought Corbin to the location. Corbin, who is self-taught, aside from a few classes at local stores, regarded cake decorating as a hobby. She’s a mother of four, so there were plenty of occasions for practicing her expertise with flour and frosting.
She first came to the location six years ago and worked for then-proprietor Vicky Moore. (Now Moore works for her.)
She wanted to buy the store at that point, but her children were too young. Now, all but 12-year-old Mallory help out. The older three, Max, 18, Mackenzie, 17, and Maddison, 14, do their part at the shop. “Now I have drivers,” she says. Corbin also gets help from her extended family, including her brothers-in-law and their wives. “I wouldn’t be able to do any of this if it weren’t for ‘the village,’ ” she says.
Recently, a photographer came into the shop and asked Corbin if she could make a roulette-wheel cake. She made two without knowing exactly what they were for. She soon learned the answer. Her husband, Kim, called to tell her he had seen her cake on an MGM Casino billboard. He was driving home along I-94 when he spotted the billboard on which a photo of her roulette-wheel cake was super-sized and in lights — her biggest order so far.
Chocolate Bar Café, 20737 Mack, Grosse Pointe Woods; 313-881-2888, chocolatebar-cafe.com.