Longtime autism activist/advocate Valerie Herskowitz has taken the chocolates business she started in her home, for her son Blake, into bricks-and-mortar territory, where she never really wanted to tread.

The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy opened its doors June 30, to spread both sweet treats (candies, pastries, coffees, and other beverages) and the know-how to make them more directly available to chocolate fanciers and potential chocolatiers throughout the region.

Herskowitz formally cut the ribbon to open her new shop with her partner/husband Garth Dolderer and Jupiter Mayor Todd Wodraska assisting. Local business officials, plus people affected by autistic disorders, made up the rest of the small, enthusiastic crowd.

As its name makes clear, the Chocolate Spectrum is more than a coffee-and-mocha cafe. In addition to weekly chocolate-making classes, geared toward anyone interested, of any age, the new venture also will offer different tracks of chocolatier training specifically for children and adults with developmental disabilities. That includes those on the autism spectrum.

Valerie Herskowitz instructs her son Blake in chocolate-making techniques. / Courtesy Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy

Valerie Herskowitz instructs her son Blake in chocolate-making techniques. / Courtesy Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy

Business’s roots are at home

Herskowitz has been selling chocolate confections via her website for several years, having started it to help keep her son occupied after high school. He attended William T. Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens and used to bring his special-needs friends over to join him in learning how to make chocolates with his mom.

But Herskowitz is more than an entrepreneur and a guide for her son. She’s been involved in the field of autism for nearly four decades – as a speech pathologist (she twice served as president of the Florida Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists), and teaching classes as an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University.

Starting the Chocolate Spectrum “wasn’t, like, a plan,” she said. “It’s just been a progression.

“We have been doing this for three years. It was only online, but the classes were at my house – we did everything out of my house – and I always said, ‘I’m never doing a bricks-and-mortar store.’ I thought I might do something in an industrial area and just have a commercial kitchen … but that wouldn’t’ve worked,” said Herskowitz.

Not content with teaching only developmentally challenged kids and adults, “I also wanted to get people with special needs out into the community,” she explained.

Award-winning attitude

The plan to open a storefront started to take shape in late last year, after she’d won the Stevie Award for Female Innovator of the Year in 2015 for her work starting the Chocolate Spectrum.

“It really started from my son three years ago, because there wasn’t anything for him to do after high school,” Herskowitz said. “I’m a speech pathologist, but I’m also a pastry chef, and Blake started showing a lot of interest in what we were doing, and one thing kind of led to another. We started selling what we were making, and then people I knew wanted to come and do it with us – my son’s age – and they started coming to my house every week.

“I’m still very friendly with a teacher at Dwyer, and some of the students who were in his class started coming here, too,” she added.

As for the classes, Herskowitz explained: “We have a couple of different tracks. There’s a formal track (a yearlong Chocolate, Pastry, Barista, and Restaurant Services Vocational Training Program) to become one of our employees. There’s also a whole group of them that come just for the classes – not for a job, necessarily, but just to have fun making chocolates every week.”

So far, she has two graduates – Christian, 25; and Michael, 35 – who now work for her. They help produce, box and ship the many varieties of confections offered, ranging from assorted and summer citrus truffle boxes to chocolate bark, chocolate-covered Oreos and pretzels, and autism-themed varieties of all the above.

In helping her open the store, Mayor Wodraska said, “This is just such an amazing story to tell. This is truly a story about a business that wants to give back to the community and do the right thing for the right people. It’s imperative that we in the town and all of you in the community support Valerie in her efforts.”

The Chocolate Spectrum Cafe and Academy, 6725 W. Indiantown Road (Jupiter West Plaza), Suite 38, Jupiter, Fla. 33458; 561-277-9886; thechocolatespectrum.com

Chris Felker writes and edits for various South Florida media, including Okeechobee – the Magazine and The Coastal Star. He has lived in Palm Beach County for over 30 years. Prior to becoming a freelancer, he served as an editor for The Palm Beach Post for 22 years.