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Difference Maker

Dale Anderson shows young offenders a path to a sweeter life

Confections With Convictions is more than a fancy chocolate shop. It's a fresh start for troubled teens.

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    Dale Anderson started a chocolate shop in 2010 to offer juvenile offenders a chance to learn a marketable skill.
    Courtesy of Brian Zipp
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Dale Anderson describes himself as an “unlikely chocolatier.”

“It still feels like play: Let’s dress up and play chocolatier today,” says Mr. Anderson, owner of Confections With Convictions in Kalamazoo, Mich. “I feel like the Grandma Moses of chocolates.”

On a recent Tuesday, the case holds 81 different types of truffles and caramels, all made by hand in small batches from fair-trade, organic chocolate. About one third use locally sourced ingredients, such as homemade damson plum preserves; Michigan honey and maple syrup; blueberries, peaches, and cherries; apples dried in-house; and lavender from Anderson’s own garden.

From the espresso salted caramel made from locally roasted coffee to the saffron and kewda truffle, Confections With Convictions offers sophisticated flavor combinations and artisanal ingredients more often found in big cities like New York or San Francisco.

But Anderson never set out to make chocolates. He wanted a way to offer kids who had felonies on their record a chance to build a future. The store’s employees never thought they’d become expert chocolatiers either.

“I never really pictured myself doing this or anything close to this,” says Quinton Mitchell, a 21-year-old who started working at Confections With Convictions when he was 18. “I lived a different lifestyle before I worked here.”

Mr. Mitchell, who Anderson says has a deft touch dipping truffles, wants to make chocolate his career, with a goal of eventually opening his own shop.

“It changed me. It changed me a lot – all the way around,” he says as he edits photos of white chocolate and orchid truffles on the store computer. “I probably wouldn’t be walking around here if I didn’t have this job. I would probably be in prison, or dead.”

Anderson, a licensed builder for almost 40 years, had bought his then-wife “a fancy box of chocolates” when the name of the store popped into his head. He had been looking for a way to help the juvenile drug offenders he has counseled since 1996, and his original idea – teaching them to install photovoltaic solar panels – had come to nothing.

But before Anderson could open his shop, he had to learn to make chocolate. He experimented at home and took an online course (which he describes as about as useful as “learning to play basketball online”). He enrolled in a weeklong class at The French Pastry School in Chicago and received more training from L.A. Burdick in Walpole, N.H.

Then he used his skills as a builder to renovate a long-vacant building on Crosstown Parkway in Kalamazoo, which ended up taking almost two years and all of his available capital. “There was a river running through the basement,” Anderson recalls.

Confections With Convictions opened in December 2010. Today, it employs six people. Anderson; his mother, Amy, a perpetually smiling presence behind the counter; and a professor at Western Michigan University all volunteer their time. Anderson hopes the shop will eventually “generate enough income that I can work here.”

His first employee, Livia Worley, still works at the store part time, although she now has another job working for a Kalamazoo nonprofit group and says she stays mostly out of loyalty – and to keep in touch with Anderson and his mom.

“We’ve got the perfect kid for you – she’s got five felonies and three misdemeanors,” Anderson remembers the nonprofit Youth Opportunities Unlimited telling him about the then-teenager.

“When I got to him, I had nothing. I was a dropout with a baby on the way and no place to stay,” says Ms. Worley, now 22.

Today, the mom of a preschooler owns a home with her boyfriend, as well as three investment properties, and is on track to finish her associate degree at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in December. She plans to transfer to Western Michigan University to study accounting and finance. “There was a point in time in my four years here that this was the only spot I did want to come. That tells you what sort of spot this is,” she says. “It was a safe spot to me.”

The futures of Worley, Mitchell, and the other employees remain the primary focus of Confections With Convictions; the chocolate is just an extremely tasty byproduct.

“Dale teaches a skill set beyond making wonderful chocolate,” says Frank Weichlein, former director of the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home. In addition to learning a marketable skill, he says, the youths also learn the importance of showing up on time and being dependable, and how to work as a team. “It’s about, ‘Here’s how you make it in life.’ ”

“It’s such a neat thing for the kids and the community,” Mr. Weichlein says. “They need this opportunity. Not a lot of people are willing to give it to them.”

In Michigan, juvenile records are visible to employers. Job opportunities during the Great Recession and its aftermath were next to nonexistent for juvenile offenders convicted of felonies. “I wanted to find a way to employ some of these kids, give them legal money, and maybe a somewhat healthy adult male role model,” Anderson says.

The decision to make chocolate had its own challenges. Anderson was concerned about the history of child labor, sometimes indentured labor, in Ivory Coast, where the cacao is sourced. That's why he decided only to use fair-trade chocolate. “If I’m helping six kids here in town but I’m enslaving 60 in the Ivory Coast ... it didn’t make sense,” he says.

Every day, the Andersons provide a family-style lunch for their staff, as well as a place where employees say they can leave their problems at the door.

“I love his jokes,” says Quintoria Baker, who has worked at the store for six months. “He keeps me laughing. I don’t hear a lot of jokes outside of work.”

Anderson has learned that what his employees really need is flexibility. Many have children; some don’t have a stable place to live. He doesn’t fire no-shows, but his rule is if you don’t call within 10 minutes of when you’re scheduled to work, you can’t work that day.

“Everybody I’ve had here – with a couple of exceptions of kids who disappeared and did not come back – has been super eager to be here, very loyal, very happy for the opportunity,” he says.

Nor, he says, does he have to teach his employees how to work hard.

“A lot have had to hustle up something for themselves since they were 8 or 10,” he says. “It’s not that they don’t know how. It’s that they have not had an opportunity to do it in a socially acceptable format.”

Ms. Baker came to Kalamazoo a year ago. She had been applying for jobs with no success, and currently is staying at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission. “For him to hire me, I really appreciate it. I want to show him I’m dependable and can get the job done,” she says. Of Anderson and his mom, she says, “I’ve grown to love them within six months. I love the chocolate, period.”

Anderson calls Confections With Convictions “part counseling and part foster parenting.” “I don’t necessarily have grand dreams for the shop, but I’d like to keep reaching and helping kids,” he says.

In four years, five teens have gone on to other careers, and 12 have fulfilled their community service at the store, he says.

It’s not a program with a defined beginning and end, and there’s no time limit for employees to stay. “As long as they need me,” Anderson says, “I’m very happy to launch them into their lives in other places.”

What Anderson and his mom gave Worley, she says, was genuine caring about what she’s been through and where she’s going.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids come and go,” she says. “I try to tell them each the same thing: If you feel like no one cares about you, know the chocolate shop does. Miss Amy and Dale do.”

• To learn more, visit www.confectionswithconvictions.com.

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