NORTH PARK — As career changes go, switching from television news to candy-making is a pretty big leap.
But after meeting Laura Case, owner of Beijo (pronounced beige-o) de Chocolat, 3334 W. Foster Ave., the role of confectioner seems the perfect fit for the bubbly blonde.
"I'd spent like 20 years in news ... it's pretty depressing," said Case, who worked as a producer for both the Fox and CBS affiliates in Chicago.
"It started kind of grinding on me. I wanted to do something that made me happy, but was still creative. I was just kicking my brain, 'What would people love that would be fun for me?'"
The weekend before Valentine's Day found Case in Beijo's cramped kitchen, decorating heart-shaped cookies during lulls between customers. Whenever the shop's door gave a telltale jingle, she popped out front to fill orders and man the register.
"This week is crazy because it's Fat Tuesday and Valentine's," she said.
Case had lined up a nearby bakery to supply paczkis and doughnuts for Mardi Gras, but she was on her own, with just the help of a lone intern, to mold "hundreds and hundreds" of candies, along with scores of the chocolate boxes she devised to contain the edible Valentines.
Yet if she was harried or stressed, Case didn't let on to customers, as she expertly wrapped two dozen chocolate-dipped pretzel rods in decorative packaging for Julie Coy, a staffer at Swedish Covenant Hospital just down the street.
"We're used to Fannie Mae," said Coy, who planned a surprise treat for her co-workers.
Nate Hamilton sought advice in choosing a chocolate assortment for his wife, and Case asked just the right questions — Does she like coconut? How about peanut butter? — to guide his decisions.
"We got married and moved here six months ago," Hamilton said. "We've been exploring the area and this always looked like a super cute place."
"I found out my passion was chocolate," she said. "It's temperamental, it's got attitude. I just love the fact that from conception to end, so many variables go into making a beautiful chocolate."
Beijo's signature confection is the Brigadeiro, a traditional Brazilian dessert, which explains the shop's Portuguese name — it translates as "kiss" in English. Case's twist on the Brigadeiro is to take the creamy, just-short-of-fudge-like candy and encase it in a coating of Belgian chocolate. The combination has earned her a string of medals from the International Chocolate Salon.
After plying her friends and family members with her creations, Case opened Beijo in May 2009.
"It was the absolute worst time in the country's history to start a business," said the Albany Park resident. "Some people thought I was absolutely nuts, especially doing chocolate."
But Case chose her location wisely — her storefront is situated across the street from the bustling North Park University and in the midst of a neighborhood teeming with young families. She also understood the marketplace better than her naysayers.
"Studies showed people weren't buying big luxuries but they were still buying little ones," Case said.
"You're treating yourself, you just feel like you're pampering yourself. I can't tell you how many people come in and say, 'I just need one chocolate' and then they go home and cherish it."
Beijo also serves coffee, tea and an extensive menu of hot chocolate drinks to bolster business.
"We're a great alternative for people who aren't into the 'corporate place' down the street," Case said.
A huge selling point is the owner herself, who originally hails from the suburbs of Detroit.
David Wetzel, of northern Pennsylvania, said he stops into Beijo with his daughter, Lilly, for a "special date" whenever they come to town to visit his mother, who lives around the corner from the confectionery.
"I like the atmosphere, it's a nice place to hang out," he said. "She always remembers me."
Beijo's customers find Case equally unforgettable.
One couple, who has patronized the shop religiously every weekend since Case introduced crepes on Saturdays, can't seem to survive without her, even when on vacation.
"The phone rings on the Saturday they were gone," she recalled. "They were calling me from their cruise ship. People are just so nice to us, that made our day."
Beijo will be serving crepes on Valentine's Day and is extending its normal hours until 7:30 p.m. for all you sweets-loving sweethearts.