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Chocolate & Vines

Danielle Lewis goes all in with move to Rochester
Written by
Arlene Hisiger

Chocolate & Vines

“I was a happy research ‘nerd’,” Danielle Lewis said, describing her former self.
Content to plow through her daily pile of paralegal paperwork; she happily indulged her love of words and all things legal. All that changed when the Manhattan legal practice she worked for was sold and the new owners moved the company to New Jersey.

When the long commute to New Jersey, the press of people, and New York City’s culture of rudeness coalesced to conspire against her sense of well-being, her partner, Michael Goldberg, suggested they move to Rochester, New York.

Why Rochester? You might say “they heard it through the grapevine.” Neither had set foot in Rochester yet both were keenly aware of the Finger Lakes region’s stellar wine reputation.

While still living in Brooklyn, the two had developed a tradition – largely influenced by Lewis’ days as an exchange student in France and Italy – of frequenting local eateries for some après dinner wine, perfectly paired with chocolate, cheese or delectable dessert. Why not put their combined twenty-one years of food service experience to good use and continue their tradition in Rochester by opening a dessert and wine bar?

Never one for half-measures, within days of her partner’s suggestion Lewis had researched Rochester, contacted a realtor and lined up appointments.

“I’ve always trusted my gut. You can feel when you’re not supposed to be somewhere. When ideas start popping, juices start flowing, you know ‘I’m supposed to be here’ – it’s a good sign,” Lewis stated with conviction.

One look at the charming Neighborhood of the Arts Victorian house on University Avenue, with its wrap- around porch and stunning stained glass windows, was all it took to unleash the full force of her Vesuvius-like creative energy. Here, (in a nod to her Oregon roots) she easily envisioned augmenting European-style marriage of quality appetizers, gourmet chocolates and exceptional wine with outstanding microbrews and first-class coffee.

But to do so she had to first rescue the house from thirty years worth of student housing, grime and neglect. “I’m not a modern girl, I like renovating and restoring, building on all the work and care put into the construction,” Lewis said. Luckily, she comes from a long line of contractors with well-established electrical and home restoration experience.

Her can-do mindset and hands-on experience were invaluable when dealing with outside contractors. If she has any advice for women entrepreneurs, particularly those undertaking renovations, it would be to insist on quality work. “You must be assertive and stay on top of things, pay attention to details as things are getting done,” she said.

Eighteen months worth of restoration that included replacing a crumbling foundation, painstakingly hand-stenciling bronze-colored fleur-de-lis patterns (to mimic antique wallpaper) on the walls of three rooms, and “doing up the electrical” for the twinkling chandeliers generously sprinkled throughout the restaurant, was a huge yet exciting undertaking.

The mostly female clientele, which Lewis estimates at 75 percent, are drawn to Chocolate & Vines’ leaf-green and purple-trimmed “painted lady” exterior, not to mention the gourmet chocolates within! Yet, men also find something to love, typically the cheese, beer and billiards room. On family nights, kids delight in the “best hot chocolate in town.”

“Rochester takes me right back to the small town feel of where I grew up,” Lewis said, “but with an East Coast pace. And the customer base has been really great, very encouraging to us and excited about the concept.”

Three months shy of their third anniversary, Chocolate & Vines has become the destination of choice for a smorgasbord of social gatherings, from bridal and baby showers (and even one puppy shower!) or non-profit benefits, including Habitat for Humanity, to a burgeoning number of business networking events, bachelorette and birthday parties, client appreciation and young professional gatherings.

Whether serving customers at the restaurant or at in-house or off-site catered events, customer satisfaction is of paramount importance. Turned off by the take-it-or leave-it approach evinced by other catering companies, Lewis is determined to bring back a more customer-centric approach “I don’t know when catering stopped being catering?!” she rhetorically asked.

Visions of gallery openings and a possible future satellite site fill Lewis’ head, yet she doesn’t see herself leaving her current space any time soon. “It’s my ‘baby’,” she said “I want to give it to my kids.”





Contact Arlene at 585-442-6108 or arlene@wordtailor.net
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