Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Chocolate is the main ingredient in Karen Pacella’s recipe for a sweet post-retirement gig in Battle Creek.
In November 2022 the California transplant opened Ciao Bella Chocolat in a space that formerly housed Umami Ramen and later, Soul Good LLC. Like a lot of business ventures, Ciao Bella’s product lineup came about in a moment of serendipity, Pacella says.
While working for Employbridge
as a Market Vice President in their Ontario, California office, she began a coffee roasting business. This side job began 25 years ago.
Karen Pacella sorts through raw cacao beans prior to roasting.
“I started roasting my coffee to sell. Someone in one of my Facebook groups asked if anybody had tried roasting raw cacao beans to make chocolate. I bought five pounds of unroasted cacao beans and went down the rabbit hole and the next thing I knew was that I was making chocolate,” Pacella says. “That was in 2020. I love it, I just love it.”
And it shows in the metal racks and displays of her products that include biscotti, bonbons, chocolate bars, truffles, caramels, and other creations that are either partially or totally covered in her signature chocolate. She is surprised at what she’s been able to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time.
The original plan was to operate Ciao Bella until mid-2024 as a ghost kitchen
, a concept that gained momentum locally during the pandemic which enabled customers to pick up their food orders and leave. But, she had so many people coming through the doors after she began making and selling that she decided to officially open the doors to the public in August.
Ciao Bella Chocolat is located on Calhoun Street, just north of downtown Battle Creek.
Pacella says she received a lot of help and support from Peecoon Allen, founder and owner of Umami Ramen
. Allen and her husband, Lance, purchased the vacant 978-square-foot building and restaurant equipment inside it in 2017. The 75-year-old building had been home to several restaurants through the years.
When Umami outgrew that space, the Allens relocated to a building at 215 West Michigan Avenue and began renting out the Calhoun Street property as an incubator for other start-up restauranteurs — first to Deja Wilson, owner of the former Soul Good and later to Pacella. Allen says Justin Andert, a Business Coach with Northern Initiatives
, who was Pacella’s coach, and John Hart, Small Business Director with the City of Battle Creek, played key roles in getting the former and current businesses into her building.
“They approached me about who they thought would be great candidates, the first was Soul Good and then Karen and that’s how she came in,” Allen says. “We have the space and they have the clients. We get calls all the time and I want someone who wants to be in there and has a solid idea. It could cost them a lot of money by not having a plan in place. Without that focus on where you need to take that business, it could set you up to fail.”
Hart says he convinced Pacella and her daughter to consider Allen’s building as an option and walked them through it. The SBD assisted them with securing ventilation for the roaster and signage, in addition to other necessities that helped with the process of securing occupancy.
A mural on the outside of the building occupied by Ciao Bella Chocolat.
“Now they have a really good spot there and have transitioned it from a ghost kitchen concept. Karen has done such a good job of being a good producer and retailer,” he says. “Calhoun Street is very supportive of small business and that surprises people, but that’s the beauty of a strong little neighborhood business district that’s connected to the downtown area.”
Allen says that the neighborhood was a good place to start her restaurant. She says she and her husband intentionally established a rental charge of $10 per square foot, below the market rate, because Allen says she knows what it takes to start a food business.
Pacella pitched the chocolate end of the business and her daughter, Tawney Wolters, along with her husband, Chris, who co-owns Fluffy Butt Farms
in Bedford Township, pitched the idea of roasted coffee that they were making and selling from their farm.
The farm’s coffee sales were soon outpacing sales of vegetables at a farmstand the couple operates.
Karen Pacella, owner of Ciao Bella Chocolat, prepares an espresso. 15-16 Raw cacao beans from Uganda.
“I knew that Karen’s drive was well thought-out, even though I know those are fluid. Her enthusiasm and why she wanted to open this business seemed like it fit with what she could build,” Allen says.
Pacella signed a one-year contract with a prediction from Allen that she would outgrow the space in no time.
“Karen still has the option to sign another contract and will have first right of refusal if it ever goes on sale,” Allen says of the building, adding that it’s perfect for a small business because of its manageable size.
Ciao Bella Chocolat features handmade chocolates.
Pacella says it’s too early to talk about expansion plans. She says she wants to add more Italian-inspired products to her current line-up of biscotti, cannoli, and pizzelles.
“It’s hard right now. I have one part-time employee and she works on Wednesday and Saturday mornings,” she says. “I’d like to employ more people and I have thought about doing more and we’ll see how this year goes.”
All roads led to Battle Creek
Not long after her first-ever trip to Battle Creek in October 2020 to see Wolters, Pacella says she knew this was where she would be living. Other than her daughter, she had no other ties to the area having been born in Ohio and moving to California as a child with her family.
“My daughter being here was a big draw,” Pacella says, adding that she has two other daughters who live in California and Texas.
In addition to operating Fluffy Butt Farms, Wolters is a flight attendant with Sky West Airlines and her husband is a pilot. They opened their farm at the height of the pandemic which is when Pacella decided to make her move.
Scenes inside Ciao Bella Chocolat.
“Everybody’s lives changed during the pandemic,” she says.
She retired from her job with Employbridge, bought a house in the area, and began her chocolate-making venture in the basement of that home as a cottage food operation selling her products at local farmer’s markets and events.
“I knew my dollar would go farther if I sold my house in California and moved here,” Pacella says.
Now is a good time to launch a business in Battle Creek because of supportive leadership and the resources available, Allen says.
“We are blessed to have such a supporting role to help other businesses get started,” she says. “Most people cook and most people could start their own food business. It’s an easy launch, but it’s harder to sustain if people don’t support it. Karen has the drive and tenacity. It’s great that she has a second career she was able to choose after her retirement.”
Karen Pacella is the owner of Ciao Bella Chocolat.
However, that “retirement” finds Pacella at her shop before the 8:30 a.m. opening going through the painstaking process of making the chocolate that is used in her confections.
She starts by roasting the cacao beans.
“It smells like brownies in here. It’s fabulous,” Pacella says.
The beans she uses are sourced responsibly from farmers south of the Equator who are paid a fair wage for their beans. Her most recent batch is from Uganda and the one before that was from Ecuador.
Her cacao bean orders have gone from five pounds to pallets holding 460 pounds which Pacella says, “still isn’t a whole lot.”
After the beans are roasted they are cracked open to remove the nibs (the technical term is winnowing) which are ground up for between 24 to 48 hours in a machine. Before she had the winnowing machine, Pacella used to do it by hand, a process that took two weeks to produce one pound of chocolate.
The ground-up beans are then put into a melanger with cocoa butter and mixed to form the base for the chocolate used to make the bars, bonbons, pastries, cocoa powder, and other sweet creations. From the melanger the chocolate undergoes “tempering”, a process of heating and cooling chocolate to stabilize it for making candies and confections,
says the Ghiradelli Chocolate website.
Chocolate covered cashews at Ciao Bella Chocolat.
“This gives chocolate a smooth and glossy finish, keeps it from easily melting on your fingers, and allows it to set up beautifully for dipped and chocolate-covered treats.”
Pacella says the tempering process is where “almost anything can happen, depending on how warm or cold it is and how it holds up and whether the refrigerator is acting up. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Could the process be less time-consuming and costly? Pacella says it definitely could be but that would mean sacrificing her commitment to making high-quality pure chocolate free of additives or preservatives. She takes a lot of pride in being a “bean to bar” chocolate maker.
The Ciao Bella Chocolat customer base has grown organically and includes people from the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo area and a woman from Washington, D.C., who says she stops in to browse and shop when visiting family. Local businesses including Café Rica, Horrocks, and Plumeria Botanical Boutique also stock Pacella’s products.
Teas made from cacao husks are for sale at Ciao Bella Chocolate. 18-19 Karen Pacella is the owner of Ciao Bella Chocolat.
Chocolate, Pacella says, appeals to people because it “makes us feel great and tastes good.”
“I can’t believe I can make something so good. It’s different. Real chocolate is so different. I love the taste and the opportunity to be creative. I never thought I would be in a kitchen morning, noon, and night. The experimenting is fun. I smile when I walk through the door.”