Each quarter we will feature a story about our Parchment alumni here.
By Dave PersonIt was another late October day at work for Ashley Rafferty and she was up to her eyeballs in ... eyeballs.
Chocolate eyeballs, that is.
All part of preparations for the holidays - Halloween in this case - at Cherri's Chocol'art, which Rafferty, 30, manages in partnership with her mother, Cherri Emery.
At the same time Rafferty was making Halloween treats, she was sculpting chocolate pumpkins and a turkey suitable for use as a mouth-watering table decoration, or as an edible pinata filled with Chocol'art caramels.
Chocol'art, at 245 S. Kalamazoo Mall, was established about a decade ago by Emery, a longtime Kalamazoo area art-gallery proprietor, inspired by a recipe for salted caramels that was always a hit with her family. The caramels remain the most popular item in the store.
"It's an old family recipe; we just did it at holidays," Rafferty says. "Then she (her mother) got interested in chocolate."
Rafferty, a 2006 graduate of Parchment High School, was an aspiring actress, performing at the Civic, Whole Art and Barn theaters as well as well as in local movie productions in what had become a full-time career until a half dozen years ago when she got married and started a family.
That's when she joined her mother in the chocolate shop.
"I thought I was going to do the business side, but then I fell in love with the chocolate," she says.
Now a single mother of two children - Oscar, 5, who is beginning his education this year at Parchment Northwood Elementary, and Winnie, 2 - Rafferty is a recent graduate of the Kalamazoo Valley Community College culinary school and is enjoying the "sweet" life of a professional chef.
"I do all the truffles, all the caramels and I manage the (two) interns and (two) employees," she says.
She and her mother also sell their wares at the farmers market on Bank Street and her uncle does the same at the one in Texas Corners, she says.
Her sister, Jennifer, also helps out at the shop.
"It's all family here," she says, "family and really good friends."
Seasonal employees bolster the staff during the holidays, she says.
"There's probably like five people in the kitchen, and then two people out here (in front) wrapping and selling," she says.
"We ship them all over the world," Rafferty says, highlighting one customer in Arizona who orders 100 pounds of spicy habanero caramels for the holidays.
Their chocolates are sold locally at Food Dance in downtown Kalamazoo and Beer & Skittles in Richland as well as at other locations.
Customers also flock to the store from downtown businesses, and from the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, Rafferty says.
In addition to making the caramels, confections and truffles, Rafferty enjoys the challenge of sculpting with chocolate. Her creations can be seen in the shop.
"Chocolate is not easy to work with; it's temperamental," she says.But she has had success, including winning the award for most creative entry in the 2016 Kalamazoo Girl Scouts' Heart of Michigan Cookie Bake-Off Benefit, in which Girl Scout cookies are used by participating chefs to create unique desserts.
Also, during the holiday season, 1,000 Chocol'art Winnie Wink Bars are sold by local merchants, with three of them having hidden golden tickets worth valuable prizes. Some of the profits from that fund-raiser go to Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, Rafferty says.
Her current career was not on Rafferty's radar a dozen years ago.
"I never thought I would be a chef when I graduated from high school," she says. "I would burn water; I was a terrible cook."
But something had rubbed off on her while hanging out at her mother's art galleries as a child.
"I think that's where the creativity came in," she says.
While in school, Rafferty says, she was able to take advantage of the Education for the Arts program and attend Portage Central High School part time during her junior and senior years to study theater.
After graduation, she attended WMU where she also planned to study theater. "I was going to be an actress," she says.
In fact, the reason she left WMU was to pursue acting full time.
Rafferty's memories from her time in the Parchment schools include experiences outside of the classroom.
She remembers in fifth grade being distraught at the death of her older brother and being comforted by counselor Ann Kneas.
"She helped me through the grieving process; she was always a positive influence," Rafferty says.
One of her favorite classes was photography, taught by Jim Rasmussen.
"I still do that as a hobby," she says.
Rafferty took part in cross country and track at Parchment, with Doug Mullen as her coach; as a result, running also has become part of her life.
"I still run a lot; I run with my kids," she says.
She trained for the Borgess Run for the Health of It half-marathon, but ended up running the 10k. "I want to do a marathon, or at least a half-marathon," she says.
Rafferty says her connections with Parchment schools are continuing through her son. Coincidentally, she notes, her seventh-grade math teacher was Ray Koole, and now a generation later Oscar has his wife, Joan, for a teacher.
Rafferty says the success of Chocol'art has her and her mother planning to expand, with a larger kitchen, either at their present location or elsewhere downtown.
"We will be offering (chocolate-making) classes," she says of the expanded shop. "Classes, and parties - that s going to be fun."
When her mother retires in the next few years, Rafferty plans to take over ownership, and then, someday, who knows, maybe there will be a third generation owner.
"Oscar says he wants to take it over when I'm old," she says with a smile.