Easter’s here - time for flowers, brightly colored eggs and family gatherings. And even if your house isn’t on Peter Cottontail’s route as he hops down the bunny trail, there’s a good chance that candy – especially chocolate – is somewhere on the day’s menu. SDPB ‘s Jim Kent visits a tiny shop in the Black Hills town of Deadwood where “chipmunks” – not bunnies, or elves – make fresh chocolate candy every single day.
Driving into Deadwood, you might expect to hear the sounds of gambling or, if you’re really imaginative, an echo from the town’s early mining days. But there’s a different feel to the former gold mining capital of the country at the south end of town. Here a group of women known as “chipmunks” spend their days “squirreling” away a treat that – like gold – has been prized and sought after since before the time of Christ: chocolate.
Entering the Chubby Chipmunk Chocolate Shop, the visitor is greeted with the sight of chocolate…everywhere. Two large counters overflow with everything from chocolate guitars and chocolate coins, to the traditional chocolate eggs and bunnies you’d expect to see just a few days before Easter. Customers flock around the main display counter, noses almost touching the glass, as they point to their favorite choices of what Chubby’s is best known for: truffles that are made, as the sign says, “fresh daily”. Walking past huge figures of legendary chipmunks “Simon” and “Alvin”, I enter an intimate area set aside for patrons to enjoy their purchases. Seated at one of two small tables in this “Chocolate Study” is Mary “Chip” Tautkus. The childhood nickname the California native still carries comes from her favorite of Disney’s loveable rodent duo. Her sister was called “Dale.” Chip founded the Chubby Chipmunk Chocolate Shop in 2005. “I’ve be making chocolates on my own...hand-dipping things since I was…I was in the kitchen when I was four. I’ve loved chocolate all my life,” says Tautkus. When “Chip” grew up she became a nurse. But her heart was always in chocolate. She took a year off to open her first store in her home state of California. The plan for that Chubby Chipmunk Shop was to sell baked goods, but hand-dipped chocolate truffles quickly entered the picture.
“And I had thought at the time if Baskin Robbins can have thirty-one flavors, then I can have thirty-one cheesecakes and thirty-one chocolates. So, that sort of started the whole thing,” says Tautkus. After a career in nursing and a move to South Dakota, “Chip” decided to resurrect the Chubby Chipmunk Chocolate Shop in a former gas station at the crossroads between Lead and Deadwood. Her plan was for a small, one-woman operation specializing in hand-dipped truffles; but fate saw a bigger future for the woman who says she puts love into every piece of chocolate she makes. Four months after opening her doors an editor from Rachel Ray Magazine stopped by for directions to the Badlands, ate all of Chip’s sample truffles and decided to do a story on Chubby Chipmunk. “When the story came out, I was actually scared it would be too big. But it wasn’t. It was just the right amount and, so…that brought people in,” says Tautkus So did the free samples “Chip” offers – in person or by mail. Little by little, like any good chipmunk would, “Chip” built her reputation – primarily by word of mouth.
With a chipmunk’s industrious nature, Chip led her sweet of workers – all female - to growing chocolate acclaim across the country. Asked to provide treats for guests at the Country Music Association Awards and The GRAMMYS, Chubby Chipmunk is now also the only place in South Dakota where you can buy Fortunato Number Four chocolate: made from a rare cacao plant found in the Andes Mountains. Chip Tautkus has no plans to franchise – despite offers and her growing fame. Her reason? Because it’s all about the simple act of making fine chocolate, as she and her “chipmunks” will continue to do, just at the edge of Deadwood.