LOGAN SQUARE — Three years ago, Edgewater resident Heather Johnston was a successful pediatrician at the University of Chicago, where she worked in a hospital clinic, was an assistant professor on track for faculty status and helped direct the medical school program.
But Johnston in 2010 virtually abandoned the medical profession to start a fine chocolate company — Logan Square-based Veruca Chocolates — despite having no background in how to run a small business and a minute amount of experience creating chocolates.
Her business has since gained national recognition for its Gelt for Grown-ups chocolates, but some wondered what she was thinking.
"A fantastic pediatrician. She was gifted," was how her friend and U. of C. hospitalist, Barrett Fromme, described Johnston. "And I think there were certainly some people who thought it was kind of crazy what she did."
Johnston, too, acknowledged her career change was unconventional, to say the least — and wasn't easy.
"Leaving a long-term profession for something where the odds are seriously against me, it's been a hard, stressful road," Johnston said. "But I felt confident that whether it worked out or not, it felt like the right path to take."
So why did she do it?
She can't pinpoint a single reason, but her move came years after she survived a three-year battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma while she was in college.
It also occurred as she grew tired of the daily grind of being a doctor, which deprived her of quality time with her husband and two children.
And, as Johnston said, it happened as she was searching for ways to simply be happy.
"I'm not the kind of person who can force myself into a position where I'm not fulfilled," she said.
'I know I'm lucky that I'm here'
To understand Johnston, it helps to look at her parents.
Her father, Louis, was the longtime medical director and director of medical education at the former Grant Hospital in Lincoln Park. Her mother, Anne, was a nurse who now invests in stocks. She also paints on the side.
Johnston grew up in Northbrook, where "there were high academic expectations in my house," and graduated from Glenbrook North High School. She went to the University of Illinois to study fine arts, but a month into her sophomore year, just after she had moved into an off-campus apartment with her best friend, Johnston was diagnosed with cancer.
She returned to Northbrook for three months and underwent chemotherapy treatments from 1990 to 1992 at Rush University Medical Center, losing 15 pounds and her dark black hair.
Johnston said her diagnosis was "serious," and she thinks doctors told her parents the cancer might be terminal, but she never thought her "treatment wasn't going to work."
Three months after she left the U. of I., she enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lived in an apartment Downtown. She graduated in January 1994, only six months after she would have received a four-year degree at Urbana-Champaign.
"I know I'm lucky that I'm here, and you have to make the most of it," said Johnston, who went to Northwestern University and the U. of C. for medical school and residency, respectively.
Johnston, who has been cancer-free for more than a decade, spent most of the next 15 years in Hyde Park, at first mainly in clinics but eventually more as an instructor. She even gained 15 minutes of fame for delivering a baby in a car outside the hospital.
She also began taking chocolatier courses at Chicago's French Pastry School, pairing her arts background with what she called a "lifetime addiction of chocolate."
"She was just good at making chocolate. People started making requests," said her husband, Matt Brown, a Francis W. Parker School graduate and Ph.D. who owns a small business designing educational software. "She developed a hobby, which turned into a passion, which turned into a profession."
Johnston said she eventually developed "a rolling, growing feeling" that she wasn't in the right line of work.
In September 2010, she finally decided to dedicate her life to chocolate. One year later, she officially founded Veruca Chocolates, and a year after that, she opened her kitchen at 2409 N. Western Ave.
"I think my first reaction was, 'OK, I can see that'," U. of C.'s Fromme said. "My next reaction was, 'You went to a lot of school to be a doctor, but not a lot for making chocolate.'"
'Her gelt are awesome'
Veruca Chocolates sells bonbons, caramels and other handmade goodies, but it's best known for its Gelt for Grown-ups.
Johnston, who is atheist but whose husband is Jewish, came up with the idea two years ago when talking with Jewish friends who never could find high-quality gelt, chocolate coins given to children during Hanukkah.
Using premium E. Guittard chocolate and an authentic Judean coin design, with no foil, Johnston has developed a product already featured in several food magazines and the New York Times.
"It's hard to find cool stuff out there for Hanukkah," said Edgebrook resident Nicole Greene, who helped Johnston expand her business. "Her gelt are awesome."
Johnston said last year she produced about 1,500 packages of Gelt for Grown-ups, which sell for $18. She had to go into overdrive after last year's Times article, when she got help from her mother, mother-in-law, two aunts and other family and friends to box and ship the chocolates.
This year, Hanukkah begins the evening of Nov. 27, and Johnston said she is ready. Her company has made 7,000 gelt boxes, which are available online or at Chicago locations, including the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership Downtown and the Goddess and Grocer.
"Most gelt is just too gross for adults to continue consuming. It’s just too waxy, and the foil, it gets under your nails," Johnston said. "You don’t want to eat it, but you feel compelled to eat it because it’s on your table."
Most of the gelt will be shipped outside of the city, said Johnston, who noted her long-term goal for Veruca Chocolates is for it "to become a known, solid presence in Chicago."
Still, she's been amazed by how quickly her business has grown.
Johnston said Veruca is on the verge of becoming profitable, but, more importantly, she is able to take home her children, 9 and 7, from Francis Parker every day.
Johnston occasionally works a few hours a week in the urgent care clinic at Lurie Children's Hospital, but her life is all about kids and chocolates now.
"She still works hard, but she has this sort of flexibility now to allow her to be a mom," Brown said. "And the fact that she's still inspired on a daily basis is what I'm most proud of her for."