Jess Leonard worked in finance for more than a decade, hosting elaborate dinner parties at her fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan’s Financial District as a creative outlet. Her day job was at Citigroup, but she longed to do something entrepreneurial in the food space. “I found so much joy in menu planning and recipe testing,” Leonard told me. She eventually left her job to work in New York City kitchens (including a stint at Eleven Madison Park) and solidify her business plan before moving back to her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, to learn the ins and outs of chocolate making. And in 2018, Miss Maude’s Bar of Chocolates was born.
The chocolate bars from Miss Maude’s are unique—a feat of chocolate engineering, if you will. Imagine a box of artisanal chocolates (with all of their fruity, nutty, sweet and salty fillings) in chocolate bar form. At Miss Maude’s each bar is divided into eight distinct sections, with the flavors etched into the surface so that you don’t have to guess at what’s inside (or flip through a tiny booklet only to be disappointed that the one you want isn’t in your particular box).
Each bar has a theme, with corresponding flavors that bring it to life. Their debut bar, Why Choose?, is inspired by the brand’s tagline: Why choose, dahling? Have it all! The flavors are inspired by Leonard’s travels around the world. They include Spanish Marcona almonds, English Earl Grey tea, French Veuve Clicquot Champagne and Italian hazelnut praline. Their Après-Ski bar is reminiscent of a mountain getaway, featuring flavors like mulled wine, cheese fondue, s’mores and hot toddy.
The initial idea for the chocolate bar design came from Leonard’s travels. “During one of my culinary trips, I was buying multiple chocolate bars because I wanted to try the various flavors and I thought to myself, “Why isn’t there a chocolate bar with more than one flavor?’” Once she had her concept, she hired chocolate makers and culinary professionals to get more insights into the chocolate-making process, source tempering machines and custom molds, and develop the filling recipes. She got her food safety license, gutted an old nail salon and turned it into her chocolate-making studio. “We hand make the fillings, enrobe the chocolate bars, store and ship products, and host fabulous parties out of this magical little space,” she said.
I had the opportunity to connect with Leonard to learn more about her chocolate brand and how the bars are made. I’ll let her take it away from here.
Abigail Abesamis Demarest: What was the development process for Miss Maude’s? Were there other iterations you tried before reaching the final design?
Jess Leonard: Every chocolatier I met told me I was absolutely mad to think I could create a business with an 8-flavor chocolate bar. They said it would be far too much manual labor. While everyone was correct, our process is painstakingly detailed, we have been doing it with joy for six years. We hand-make every filling and we individually place each filling into the bars. If it is placed in the mold the wrong way, you will get the wrong flavor, so attention to detail is paramount. Most chocolatiers dump chocolate in a mold, throw in one filling, package and go. What takes them 30 seconds takes us hours.
We have certainly evolved our packaging since the first iteration. After one run of packaging, we quickly elevated our boxes to a far more luxurious version with a drawer that slides out via a grosgrain ribbon pull.
Demarest: What have been the most rewarding moments of creating Miss Maude’s?
Leonard: Coming up with new bar ideas, recipe testing and brainstorming with my team is the most rewarding. Additionally, I absolutely love doing the branding. The name Miss Maude and her bon vivant joie de vivre came to me easily. Miss Maude was a pleasure to create.
Demarest: What’s the process like for coming up with the different themes for the bars?
Leonard: The different themes have been created very organically. Our first bar, Why Choose? simply came to me. I had Secret Single Behavior (our second bar creation) in my mind as Why Choose? rolled out. As someone who adores skiing and loves Après, the Après-Ski bar also came to me easily. Resort Rendezvous was at the suggestion of my first chocolatier, and Theater Bar was inspired by my head chocolatier who is a movie buff. Whiskey Business was created because I am a lush for bourbon. Our next bar, the Sundae Bar (releasing in 2024), was the idea of a friend while we were traveling together.
As for the packaging, my cousin is a beautiful artist, and excellent at understanding my vision. She draws our Maudes for all of the boxes. With each bar release, we tinker and temper with various recipes; this is the most fun! It takes months to develop the flavor combinations and recipes. We hand-pick each ingredient and test it out to ensure that it will keep for our shelf life, and most importantly that it is delicious and unique. We also carefully consider the placement of each filling in the layout of the bar before we design and order our custom molds. For example, we like to put salty next to sweet fillings, and crunchy next to soft.
Demarest: About how long does it take to make a chocolate bar from start to finish?
Leonard: Each batch of bars takes a minimum of five days to complete. First, the eight fillings must be made. The creamy ganache fillings are handmade in small batches. They are then poured into a frame and allowed to ‘cure’ for 2-3 days. Curing chocolate is a process that allows the fillings to release some of their water. Doing this both intensifies the flavor of the fillings and increases the shelf life. These sheets of filling are then painstakingly cut into the size that fits our custom molds. We then move to our tempering machines. The molds are filled with chocolate to create a shell. We then add the fillings to each section, being careful they go in the correct spot (as the molds have labels on each piece) and do not break the chocolate shell. These are then allowed to rest before being topped with more chocolate. We then allow these to chill for a minimum of an hour before they are unmolded, trimmed of any extra chocolate, bagged, sealed, boxed and dated.
Demarest: How has the business changed since it first started in 2018? What’s next for Miss Maude’s?
Leonard: When I started Miss Maude’s, I was focused on perfecting my craft and offering a luxury product that was not currently in the market. Additionally, I spent a lot of time fulfilling custom projects for local clients versus bringing Miss Maude’s core selection to the masses. We now are spending more time on growing our wholesale business. We are very focused on finding the right retail partners who understand the quality of our product and why it is so special. We hope to be found in larger grocery chain stores while continuing to sell to unique small businesses. Additionally, we are always working on our next bars and seasonal products.