Brian and Christine met as co-workers, became friends and sweethearts, and were wed.
Then they became co-workers anew, founding a Minneapolis business that creates and sells premium chocolates in every corner of America.
Christine Walthour, whose business acumen dovetailed with husband Brian McElrath's creativity in the Hennepin Avenue kitchen to make B.T. McElrath Chocolatier a hit with large grocers, independent natural foods retailers and even browsers of a Martha Stewart catalog, died Jan. 2 from breast cancer. She was 43.
"She was a foil for me as far as product development," said McElrath, a professional chef. "She did sales calls to all our local accounts. She really got out there on the street and built the business."
When it came to culinary feedback from his wife, McElrath added, "I really needed that; and her affirmation, I valued that."
B.T. McElrath's chocolates -- about 40 tons are produced annually -- have delighted many a sweet tooth from Manhattan to Honolulu, from Fargo to Orlando, and were even sold as made-for-Martha candies in the lifestyle diva's catalog.
Closer to its East Hennepin Avenue offices and production facility, the chocolates are sold in predictable outlets such as upper-end grocery stores Kowalski's, Lunds and Byerly's, but also Bachman's garden stores, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a host of Minnesota-themed gifts shops.
Susan Stillman, bakery specialist for Lund Food Holdings, counted Walthour not only as a valued business associate but as a friend for 13 or so years.
"She had such a gentle and kind deliberateness about everything she did," Stillman said. "She was down to earth, savvy and intelligent."
Stillman said the husband- and-wife team "had a wonderfully balanced partnership [that] was a key ingredient to their success in the industry."
Another client, Surdyk's Cheese Shop manager Mary Richter, described Walthour as "one very classy, professional businesswoman."
When working side by side at various charity events, Richter said she saw that Walthour "had this great eye for design. Their table was always gorgeous, and you can see Christine's style in all the B.T. products, packaging and presentations."
Walthour and McElrath met in 1988 while both worked at the Nicollet Island Inn, he as a sous chef and she assisting with serving diners.
Out of friendship grew courtship and marriage in 1993.
After he caught the chocolate bug while training at a culinary academy in San Francisco, McElrath and Walthour took over a former General Mills research lab where Betty Crocker recipes once were tested and launched in 1997 what is now a $1 million-plus annual business.
"We both did everything, at first," McElrath said. "As things progressed, she focused on the business side. She was really the CFO."
Working so closely with a spouse did reveal some "aspects of differences, of course," he acknowledged. "But also working with someone who you have that personal relationship, that worked out well.
"Even though her body is gone, she will still be there in spirit in the evolution of the business."
Along with her husband, Walthour is survived by their 6-year-old son, Guillermo. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at First Universalist Church, 3400 Dupont Av. S., Minneapolis, with a reception to follow.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482
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