Cindy Racine has a learned a lot about the shopping habits of lovebirds during a lifetime working in the candy store that her grandparents founded in 1926.
She can tell how long a couple have been together just by the shape of the box of chocolates a customer purchases for Valentine's Day.
"A married guy will ask, 'Are the heart boxes extra?' When we tell them they are, he'll say, 'Yeah, I don't need a heart box,' " Racine mused. "But new guys come in and say, 'I'll take the fanciest box you have.' You can always tell when they're freshly dating or married a while."
Chocolate shops are on the front lines of Valentine's Day gifting and, by default, romance. Whether new on the scene or in the business nearly 100 years — like Regina's Candies, the shops Racine's family owns in St. Paul and West St. Paul — these makers of decadent bonbons get a novel peek into human nature by dealing in the currency of love.
"The first year we did Valentine's Day, we made all this chocolate and put it out in gorgeous displays," said Kathy Bohnen, who owns the three-year-old Parisian-style chocolate salon L'More Chocolat, which recently moved to downtown Minneapolis from Wayzata. "We did the 'build it and they will come' philosophy."
They didn't come. At least not right away.
"What we learned is that men are a very big part of the Valentine's segment, and they don't buy until very late in the season. They lined up out the door the last three days."
This year, at L'More Chocolat's ornate new home in the historic former Ozark Flats, Bohnen is waiting to begin production on her heart-shaped truffles so they'll be fresh for the rush next weekend. That means 12-hour workdays leading up to one of chocolate's biggest holidays.
But Bohnen, who is still relatively new to the industry, is excited to dive in to the whirlwind of molding intricately decorated truffles, and enrobing caramel and ganache in dark, milk and white chocolate continuously flowing from faucets.
She had a previous career in commercial real estate, including a role coordinating the building of the Guthrie Theater. For that, she spent time in Paris with French architect Jean Nouvel, and always ducked into chocolate shops when she had the chance.
Then, she lost a close friend to cancer. "When you hear somebody talk about what they would do if they had more time, there becomes a sense of urgency about it," she said. It clicked for her that she wanted something else — and that something was chocolate.
Over six months, Bohnen traveled to more than 30 chocolate shops across Europe, learning the trade. (On Feb. 13 and 14, she will host a Valentine's Day event giving virtual tours of some of those shops, with chocolate and Champagne kits; sign up at lmorechocolat.com/classes-events.)
For her, chocolate is made of more than cocoa and sugar.
"It's not just food," she said. "I find that it warms the soul." Which is why it's the perfect match for a holiday that is all about heart.
"It's something that evokes this wonderful, happy, positive feeling. It's typically something you share. And because it is something of joy, you share it with people you love."
Racine started working at Regina's Candies when she was 8, standing on a chair to help customers while her grandfather experimented with toffees, caramels, creams and mints. The recipes haven't changed since the beginning. Now, her brother owns the operation, while she and her sister manage the two shops.
She's seen a lot of heart-shaped boxes go out the door. People who came into the stores as kids have grown up and bought them for sweethearts, and then their own kids.
Almost always, the Valentine's Day purchases come at the last minute.
"It's a guy thing," she said. "The five days before Valentine's Day are pretty busy, but those last two are just insane."
She's expecting a line next weekend, and the reason is clear.
"Who's not going to be happy if you come home with a box full of chocolates?" Racine said. "Chocolate is love."
2073 St. Clair Av., St. Paul, 651-698-8603, open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sat., closed Sun.; 1905 S. Robert St., West St. Paul, 651-455-8864, open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sat., closed Sun. Curbside pickup available. reginascandies.com
1229 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-513-1230, lmorechocolat.com. Open noon to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 14 or by appointment. Curbside pickup available.