Deadwood, South Dakota doesn't typically spring to mind as a mecca for chocolate. But it should. Outside this little town of 1200, the third U.S. destination after Nevada and Atlantic City to legalize gambling, there's an old 1930's Sinclair gas station where seriously delicious truffles are hand-dipped daily.
For impatient sorts who just can't wait for the little store's 10 a.m. opening, there's a vending machine out front (it's next to the 700-pound chainsaw statue of Chubby Chipmunk) that dispenses nine types of the average 1.5-ounce truffles.
"We have to refill it most every morning," says Mary "Chip" Tautkus, the evil genius behind Chubby Chipmunk Hand-Dipped Chocolates, which were chosen for the swag bags for this year's Country Music Awards (November 1) and for the Latin Grammys two weeks later.
All totaled, Chip and her staff make more than 50 types of hand-dipped truffles, everything from Moose Toffee, that placed first in Seattle's Chocolate Show this year, to the Double Dark Dan, a 72 percent ganache named after Dan Dority, casino owner Al Swearengen's enforcer on the HBO drama, Deadwood.
"We were sure sorry to see that series end," Tautkus says, "It was pretty amazing."
Also pretty ironic considering that's exactly what people say about her small batch truffles and chocolates which, purely by word of mouth, have ignited worldwide fame, sought after by such fans as Rachael Ray and W. Earl Brown, the actor who played Dority in the HBO series that pulled down so many Emmy awards.
"You probably shouldn't print this," Tautkus says, "But there was a policeman the other day who was so excited about getting his truffle out of the Chub-O-Matic (her nickname for the sandwich dispenser turned truffle vending machine) that when this beat up car blared down the street without a muffler, sparks flying everywhere, he didn't even turn around."
Another fan, a motorcyclist heading home after the big Sturgis rally (Deadwood is a short 14 miles from Sturgis) loaded up a cooler and a seven-pound tin of truffles on the back of his cycle, stopping every couple hours to refill the ice for a 1200-mile journey back to Canada.
Yet another duo, a pair of local poker-playing sisters, make regular midnight runs to the Chub-O-Matic in their pajamas and fuzzy slippers after a successful night at the Deadwood casinos.
"I come just to be inspired by greatness," claimed one customer, intently unwrapping the brown box holding her Turtle Truffle, a milk chocolate ganache with caramel and pecan.
"It really is true that if you follow your passion, dreams come true," says the former nurse who started making chocolates when she was a kid. "We just keep growing. People come in and tell me that what we have is magical. They insist on sending boxes to all their friends."
Just this week, she had to hire three new employees, one a teacher who left behind her special ed class to help accommodate Chubby's 50 percent yearly growth since the business opened in 2005.
"A marketing guy insisted I get rid of the name. He said, 'People will never come into a chocolate store with the word chubby in it'," Chip laughs. "Needless to say, he has since called to apologize, admitting he couldn't have been more wrong."
Tautkus says the wheels in her brain never stop churning, always coming up with new flavors and new concoctions including five-pound bowling ball truffles and such seasonal specialties as Easter's jelly bean, St. Patrick's green cheddar beer and Thanksgiving's upcoming pumpkin cheescake. The "Hot Mama," a dark truffle with jalapeno, habanero, cayenne and chipotle and the "Cerveza con Limon," a white chocolate infused with dark beer and lime, were conceived through other "light bulb" moments.
Perhaps her biggest coup was becoming one of a handful of worldwide chocolatiers to land a contract with Maranon Chocolate that sells Fortunato No. 4, a rich, rare, mellow couverture made from cacao beans of the Nacional cacao tree.
Declared extinct in the early 20th century after succumbing to disease that even cross-breeding couldn't cure, the Ecuadorian tree (Ecuador was once the world's largest cacao producer) was rediscovered growing on an isolated farm in Peru's 6000-foot wall Maranon Canyon in 2007.
"It's about as decadent as you can get," Tautkis says.