It’s around 1 in the afternoon and a gentleman from Botetourt County has just stepped into Baylee’s Best Chocolates, located in southwest Roanoke County’s West Village retail center. Scents of cocoa fill the Valentine’s-Day-festooned showroom.
“A half-dozen of the chocolate malts?” owner Bayla Sussman says, as the man points down to a display case to the right of her register. Even though he had only been to her store once before during the busy holidays, she remember’s him and his preferences. This customized experience seems to be at the heart of Sussman’s shop.
Bayla’s professional life began not in the kitchen but upon the stage. A native of Skokie, Illinois, she acted across the country with stints in Chicago, New York, Nebraska and Boston for over 22 years. Among the productions that she was part of were “Mame,” “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” numerous versions of “South Pacific” and Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” She also studied improv under the legendary Viola Spolin, did voiceover work while living in Connecticut and worked in children’s theatre.
“Oh, did I do kid shows,” she says as she muses about acting in “Sleepy Hollow” and wrangling with the script when she was playing the Blue Fairy in “Pinocchio.”
An unfortunate asphyxiation accident during a production of “Hansel and Gretel” was what set her down a different path from acting. Beset with severe respiratory problems and double vision, she says “there was little [she] could do” while recuperating at home. She could, however, cook and bake. Sussman became legendary from Chicago to Ontario for her brownies and this soon led to chocolate.
In 1996, she moved to Roanoke with her then-husband for his job and worked as a tax preparer at the H & R Block across the street from her current storefront. For much of her acting career she had helped other actors prepare their taxes under the auspices of the Actor’s Equity Association. In her off-hours, Sussman continued to explore the sweet world of chocolate and confectioneries, producing them for friends and family.
By 2003 Sussman had become friends with Gwenda Kellett of home furnishings store Plantagenet Rose, and in March of that year she brought chocolates to a reception at Kellett’s store. “People ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ and several store owners expressed [an interest] to carry them,” Sussman recalls. By September, she had a business license and started to produce her homemade chocolates, selling them throughout the valley under the name “Baylee’s Best Chocolates.”
As her clients list grew, however, so did the workload. In 2008 Sussman was about to shut down the business since a business inspector told her that she could no longer work out of her house. That’s when Kellett suggested buying a storefront. Kellett helped her find her current space at West Village and by February 2009 the business held its grand opening.
While the store has had its ups and downs Sussman stays upbeat as she brings her chocolates to the public. Valentine’s Day is always her store’s biggest day of the year and she expects to be inundated with sales this year.
When asked how the introduction of ChocolatePaper – a potential competitor – to West Village last spring had affected her business, Sussman claims that it has actually helped by bringing more overall customers to the shopping center. “They’ll walk between the two stores, try things out and buy what they like,” she says, adding how her chocolates are different, since they are made on-site in her store.
The biggest sellers tend to be whatever is newest in the display cases. Flavors are rotated throughout the year and customers will buy plenty when they bring back flavors for the summer.There is, however, one exception: “People will wipe us out on the buttercream.”
She has three employees assisting her throughout the week and many former employees come to help out during the holidays. A retired choreographer friend from her acting days recently graduated from the French Pastry School in Chicago and flew down this past week to aid in production for the Valentine’s Day rush.
Asked why she has stuck with keeping the cocoa flowing through recent struggles, Sussman points to her nature as a “driven person” and a responsibility to her employees. There’s also a sensual edge to the product she’s bringing to the public: “the pleasure you give people is always incentive to keep doing it.”
– By Aaron Layman