Imagine a lobster on a stick: not a real one, but rather a small crustacean-shaped lollipop to take home as a souvenir of a trip to Boston, or — why not — after a real Lobster dinner with your kids.
The lobster-shaped treat is not mass produced in China for some giant corporation, but rather crafted and created by local sculptor Henry Zunino, a self-made entrepreneur in his self-made artisanal laboratory in Everett, Massachusetts, where his company Strawberry Hill Candy started in 2009.
The company’s flagship product, the Lobster (individual claws are also available), is really only one of many projects: 60 different subjects featured in hand-carved metal casts range from other sea creatures (like seahorses) to autumn leaves in their various original colors; from the traditional ruby red heart to the less conventional “monsterish” variations ready to hit the market before Halloween, all the way to Christmas classics like decorated trees and Santa Claus hats.
Yet what Zunino — a Cambridge-born, Matera-bread, young and happy looking thirty-something — seems most proud of are his chocolate landscapes, like the Boston skyline carved out of the front of a cocoa tablet, particularly coveted by high-end souvenir shops and hotels.
“Thanks to the gold-colored dust I spray on them they look exactly like the bronze ones I used to make,” says Zunino while walking through the makeshift, self-assembled machinery in his Everett production facility.
“At only $20, compared to $350, these ones are more accessible; the only problem is that most customers give in and end up eating them,” he adds with a laugh.
In fact the reason for applying his sculpting talent — acquired since an early age by hanging out at crasftmen “bottegas” in his father’s native town of Matera and later implemented and appreciated in the Boston area — is no laughing matter.
It all started with a costly divorce and a challenge from his investment banker ex-wife “You wil never make as much as I do” she told him.
At that point Henry set out to prove her wrong and soon found out artistry alone was not going to do the trick. Although his works (“decorative and useful at once,” he cares to point out) were already displayed all over town (from Northeastern University to Logan Airport) he needed a steady and definitely higher income.
He started out at a candy factory he was already making casts for, following the advice of the owner of the foundry he used for fifteen years to make his creations come to life.
“Your bronze works look like chocolate, I love chocolate, why don’t you make the same stuff out of chocolate?” he had told the young sculptor many years back.
Then in 2009, at the height of the recession, Henry decided to take the leap and open up his own candy business.
“This is America,” he confessed thinking to himself. “How long can a recession possibly last?”
Although events proved his optimism misplaced, he managed to make his “Strawberry Hill” candy factory come to life: the silver lining in the recessive cloud was low prices for equipment and machinery; moreover he managed to save even more by resorting to his biology background and his resourcefulness when it comes to building things.
“Everything you see here was carried here in my little Toyota car, be it the trunk, the back seats or the roof,” he says with a proud smile while showing the homemade assembly line necessary to dish out his many colorful and delicious products, of which, he explains, you have to make a lot, in order to turn in a profit.
“And everything was assembled right here by yours truly,” ha adds with growing satisfaction. Given he has at least two surprise inspections a year since he started, all successfully passed, he evidently has been doing something right.
Now that the recession is over, with up to 12 people working for him at peak periods of the year (holidays of course, and generally winter, when chocolate is in full production) he is expecting it all to pay off.
“We are used to making sacrifices,” he reckons. “A habit that becomes an extra asset in a favorable market.”
But business talk never overshadows his passion/obsession for sculpture: chocolate is the future, he says, especially with all the recent studies showing how good it is for people’s health.
“And it is also good as sculpting material,” he adds right away.
“It is very similar to terracotta, which is exactly what I started with. After the Boston skyline took to the market, requests are pouring in from New York, Washington… I don’t see why one day I cannot open sculpted chocolate souvenir stores in every major American city!”
*All photos by ©Nicola Orichuia, Bostoniano – Boston’s Italian American Voice.