Sweet Returns

Leanne Cordisco has walked a slightly improbable but always interesting path from caretaker to business consultant to purveyor of sweet confections and a home-away-from-home at the well-regarded Chocolaterian Café.

Nestled into the triangle of Schenk’s Corners, at the confluence of Atwood Avenue and Winnebago Street, the Chocolaterian Café has transformed the former Schenk-Huegel uniform store into a warm and bustling neighborhood meeting spot.

Walk into its high-ceilinged space from the Winnebago side, and you immediately pass a row of windows that afford a direct look into the candy- and dessert- making operations that are at the core of Chocolaterian’s appeal. This is also where the now famous Christine’s Gourmet Toffee brand—once featured in the celebrity swag bags at the 2011 Emmy Awards—gets made. On any given day, a person can grab a table to sip coffee and nibble on treats, all while watching the candy makers and dessert chefs ply their delicious trade, pouring molten chocolate into giant pans, decorating tarts, baking cookies, and so much more.

At the heart of it you’ll often find the sandy-haired, smiling visage of co-owner Leanne Cordisco, always busy with the operation’s day-to-day business but never so much that she won’t stop to greet familiar faces and newcomers alike, recommend the Ugly Cookies, or even sit and chat with friends for a moment—until something in the kitchen demands her attention once again.

Leanne and business partner Kimberly Vrubley opened the Chocolaterian Café in 2012, then a second, smaller space in the newly renovated Central Library just 11 months after that, a move Leanne ruefully admits was “maybe not stupid, but certainly a stretch” at the time, but a stretch that has since proved a beneficial one.

The sheer amount of drive and hustle displayed by that move, too, is par for the course for Leanne, a seemingly perpetual whirl of energy wrapped in the form of a warm-hearted, enthusiastic human being.

Family First

The path to dessert and café maven was not a straightforward one for Leanne though, either literally or figuratively. The self-described “Philadelphia girl” grew up on the East Coast and only moved to Madison as an adult. Though she wasn’t out yet in high school, she and her boyfriend at the time both knew the other was gay by the time they went to the prom together: “About halfway through the night he was like, ‘Can I wear your heels?’ and I was like, ‘Can I wear your shoes?’”

She would go on to work in the medical device industry while still living in Pennsylvania, but she ended up spending much of her time acting as caretaker for various ailing family members instead. It mattered to her that these loved ones received the care they deserved, but the work took a major toll. Over the course of about a year and a half, five members of what she calls her “core family” died. “My father died unexpectedly of a stroke on a beach in Aruba at the age of 50, just dropped dead,” she explains. “Very shortly after that my favorite person who ever walked the planet died—I was holding her hand when she passed. She was in a nursing home in Cleveland, and they called me up and said ‘you need to get out here,’ so literally I was just on the next plane to get out there and spent the day with her. And then my grandmother died. I was taking care of her; she had cancer and came to live with me for a while. And then her other sister, my other great aunt Jean, she had a stroke and couldn’t be alone anymore, she was 82, so she came to live with me, and so I took care of her through hospice, and she died in my house.”

Shortly after that, Leanne’s maternal grandmother also passed away. “At that point I was like, I’m out. I need to get the fuck out of here, and this was right around 2000, and I thought, what am I gonna do? I’m working in the medical device industry, I’m around death every day, and my family is droppin’ like flies. I just needed a change.”

A little 40-seat pizza place in Nederland, Colorado, caught her eye, and she planned to head west to start life over with a brand new venture—but not before swinging through Madison to catch up with a few friends. It turned out to be a fortuitous side trip.

One of those friends made “that fabled offer you can’t refuse,” and instead of going to open a pizza place in Colorado, Leanne stayed in Madison and became a technical trainer for GE. “It was kind of like Leanne 2.0,” she muses. “I’ve had kinda three different versions of my life, you know? Chocolaterian is Leanne 3.0.”

She credits the influence of several close friends and family members with helping her see and jump at opportunities and changes in her life. One in particular, a woman by the name of Nina who passed 20 years ago, left a particularly indelible mark. It was Nina’s adaptable and loving approach to life that made the biggest impression. “She never bitched about anything,” Leanne explains, speaking with something very much like reverence. “The worst thing I heard her say, even when she was dying, was ‘you know, today wasn’t a very good day.’ She was this awesome, incredible person and every day was a gift to her.”

Being present for the end of so many loved ones’ lives wasn’t remotely easy, but the lessons learned through those experiences and more have shaped the person she is now. It also threw some things into sharp focus. “You have to have the courage to accept what the universe throws at you,” Leanne says. “And a lot of people go through their lives in denial thinking their life is this way when really it’s this other way. Life is what you make of it right now.”

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Just Desserts

After the move to Madison, the story of how Popular Snacks and Christine’s Toffee came into being is somewhat improbable. Part of her job as a trainer meant traveling the world to give talks and workshops—everywhere from Paris, Helsinki, and London to various cities in Australia. As an ardent “travel junkie,” it was right up her alley.

But it was while on a vacation with her partner in Italy that Leanne had another idea. Some would call it the ultimate dream: “We’re driving from vineyard to vineyard and olive orchard to olive orchard, and I said to my partner, there’s gotta be a way for me to be able to go to all the beautiful places in the world and have it be my day job.”

Leanne is a strong proponent of the power of travel to change one’s life and perspective. She recounts the story of an Iranian cab driver who once told her he could tell when he’d met someone who had traveled a lot based on how they treated strangers and being in new places. “He said every time you go to a new place in the world you see the world through a new set of eyes. And I just love that because it’s so true.”

The vineyards and the wine had a creative effect on her too. It was during that trip that she initially had the idea for a new wine accessory that has since come to market, a sort of wine bottle–shaped dry bag for carrying precious cargo onto airplanes without fear of spilling.

As fate would have it, about a month after that Italian vacation Leanne ran into Dennis Collins, a professor at Edgewood College, who recommended that she seek an angel investor, and oh by the way, did she want to come with him to a meeting with Sam Jacobsen later?

Sam Jacobsen, it should be noted, was the founder and owner of PDQ stores, a self-made millionaire with a yen for investing in interesting new business endeavors.

“So I put together a pitch for my idea,” Leanne recounts, “and I went there with Sam, a bunch of 19-year-old college students, and me—corporate veteran. And we talked for about an hour, just about my life and entrepreneurship, but I never had the chance to pitch my idea. At the end of it I was really thankful to have met him because he was such an interesting guy. Smart as smart can be.”

Happily, just days later Jacobsen’s secretary called to invite Leanne back for another meeting. This time she got in her pitch—but Sam wasn’t interested in the wine business. Instead, he made a counter offer: Sam had been looking for years for someone to start a candy company with, and he thought maybe Leanne was that person. Was she interested?

“I’d never made candy before in my life,” Leanne laughs. Obviously, she said yes, and Christine’s Gourmet Toffees (named for Jacobsen’s mother, who made him candy when he was a boy) was born.

“Leap, and hope the net will appear,” she adds. “The net might be one inch off the ground and you might not hit it anyway but, why not? The universe just dropped this gift wrapped package with a big bow into my lap and said ‘I dare you to open that box.’”

Home Away From Home

During all of this change in careers and physical locations, Leanne was always out as a lesbian, though it sometimes proved difficult to maintain that status when it came to the business itself. Jacobsen passed away in 2010, and shortly thereafter Leanne found a new business partner in Kimberly Vrubley, who was the wife of a former coworker at GE.

They built Chocolaterian around the idea of the “third space,” where anyone who wanted to spend a little time and a little money on a special treat could come and “sit down, hang out, use it like a coffee shop or like a date spot on the weekends, and just have it built around chocolate and desserts rather than coffee,” Leanne notes. “Very European.”

All that said, the location of the café in the middle of one of the most densely populated lesbian neighborhoods in Madison isn’t lost on her, nor is it something she wants to shy away from embracing. “This is kind of the epicenter of lesbian Madison in one of the gayest neighborhoods in the city. So this place is one of the gayest in the country, really.”

“I saw that as something that was going to have to be talked about delicately because my business partner is not gay,” Leanne says thoughtfully. “One of her concerns is that she didn’t just want to be a gay place. And I said you can’t be open in this neighborhood without being super welcoming. And I’m gay! And I’m out. It’s gonna happen. So we talked about it. And it still sometimes wears on her because so many people think she’s gay now, and any time anybody makes—I guess, I shouldn’t put words in her mouth, but if someone’s always making some kind of wrong or inaccurate judgement about you, it’s wearing.”

That focus on being welcoming to all people is, ultimately, at the core of everything they do at Chocolaterian. Leanne had always wanted to create a place where friends could come and go as they pleased, and that was nurturing and welcoming, but it never worked out that that place could be her actual house. The café has since become that place, with the bonus of having specific hours of operation and closing times.

“That’s one of the things I like best about the vibe of Chocolaterian,” she adds. “It’s welcoming, it’s warm and cozy. Everybody is safe here.”

Looking back, Leanne has to admit that it makes a strange and perfect sense that she’s come to this place of using food as a means of expressing love. Growing up in an Italian family, that was tradition after all. “I’m a cook. I’m a foodie. All the important events of my life I can tell you what people had to eat or what I cooked,” Leanne says. “My second memory as a human being on this planet is making meatballs. My first memory is me spending Christmas with that favorite relative, Nina. I grew up in this Italian family, and food is love. That’s how you express love for somebody, and so when I cook for someone it’s just an expression of how much I give a damn.”