Mary Leonard is finding sweet success in her explorations in chocolate.
From an early age, Mary knew she wanted to create food for a living. While her journey to owning her own business included a few twists and turns, she is finally where she wants to be as the owner of Chocolat Céleste, a gourmet chocolate shop in St. Paul.
“Everyone that knew me knew from an early age that I would be the one to open a restaurant or bakery or create a food product,” Mary said.
Her foray into food began during her time at the University of Minnesota. Mary earned a Bachelor’s degree in Elective Studies (B.E.S) from the College of Liberal Arts in 1976, studying Spanish/Portuguese linguistics and business. She then moved to the College of Home Economics to receive her B.S. in food service management in 1978.
Dreaming of a job in a test kitchen with one of the major food companies in the Twin Cities, Mary realized those positions necessitated a Master’s degree, so she began planning a different route. Mary began her career while she was working towards her B.S., taking a job at the Hennepin County Medical Center.
While there, she was supervising staff working with the new state-of-the-art Cook/Chill food delivery system. She remained in the position until she graduated, when she then went on to work as a restaurant manager for two years before returning to a hospital setting at Abbott-Northwestern.
Her next career step took her to ServiceMaster, where she took on the role of recipe testing for their company-wide automation of food production kitchens and diet offices.
Her role was also unique because she served as a liaison between chefs and nutritionists, serving as the go-between for the two groups as they worked to re-write recipes and create diets for patients. Serving as an analyst with the IT department, she made sure data inputted into the computer software was correct, and chefs and dietitians knew how to use the software in daily operations.
Mary and her crew tested more than 3,000 recipes, developing production sheets and rollout plans to take the food products nationwide.
“They (ServiceMaster) had over 150 units nationwide, so I was put in charge of rollouts across the country,” said Mary. “I saw a lot of the country along the way.”
It was then that Mary’s career took an interesting turn. In her mid-30’s, she moved from food service to information technology (IT), working for the state of Minnesota as a special project manager for the Commissioner of Administration.
“I didn’t know a lot about IT, but they said I was one of the best managers they knew so they brought me on board,” she explained.
She continued to work in IT for several years, receiving a buyout after her company took on new ownership. After riding the dot-com craze of the 90’s, she decided it was the right time to go back to her first passion: creating and developing a food product.
“Most food entities need a team to keep running,” Mary said. “ But since I didn’t have a lot of family to help me it took being financially stable with the ability to hire people to work alongside me that I made the jump.”
She started out slowly, modestly noting that her first customer was Marshall Fields in 2001. And since then, there has been no slowing down for her.
“I’ve gone through many generations of chocolates,” noted Mary. “It started out as a very traditional looking round truffle and has grown to more artistic looking chocolates that are both truffles and bonbons.”
Creating chocolates can be a challenge in managing the details, but Mary points to her food science and business degrees from the U guiding her along the way. From learning to run a business to how to formulate the perfect recipe, she has utilized all of her learned knowledge everyday.
“My relationship with the U has been lifelong,” she notes. “Even though I previously worked in food, I didn’t see the full application of my food science knowledge until I started working in chocolate. Formulas have to be just right, including ingredient amounts, temperatures and processing. It’s not just melting chocolate.”
And with food science experience in her kitchen, Mary is able to help groom the next generation of food scientists by hiring interns from FSCN as kitchen assistants.
Over the years, Mary has employed over a dozen FSCN students. Having students in the kitchen is rewarding not only for the students, but also for Mary.
“A lot of my interns come to me having never cooked anything before, especially with the predominance of convenience foods,” she said. “Here they get an opportunity to work in a kitchen for the first time, and it is great experience.”
Mary enjoys not only teaching students how to work in chocolate, but also how they grow as individuals.
“I was once a shy intern at 3M,” noted Mary. “But I want my interns to be different, come out more confident in themselves and be the best employees they can be, now and in the future.”
She said that unlike internships at larger companies where interns may not see the results of their work, at Chocolat Céleste, they are able see the difference between good and bad work almost immediately.
“From making to selling a product, interns really get the full impression of their efforts, and that helps change how they view their work,” she explained.
In addition to hiring interns, Mary has also developed a specific line of chocolates for the U, hosted classes and lectures and also invites alumni groups to experience chocolate making first-hand with special workshops.
“It’s a great association, and I can’t wait to see how it will continue to grow,” she added.
652 Transfer Road, Suite 16A
St. Paul, MN 55114
Open M-F 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.