Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Leslie Bowman
When Donna Miller and her husband Vince Coupal saw a cooking class for Peruvian cuisine advertised in the local Adult Ed flyer, the couple, who at the time had just purchased the Inn at the Anchorage on Main street in Lubec, signed up, eager to learn new culinary techniques.
The cooking class in the fall of 2000 took place at the now defunct Lubec High School and was run by Monica Elliott. She had just moved from Lima, Peru, to Lubec the year before to assist her husband Stanley Elliott, who had suffered a brain aneurism while working at Peacock Canning in Maine. Monica had owned a lucrative clothing design company, Zak’s, in Peru for thirty years. She spoke almost no English.
Through the common language of good food, the couples became close friends.
Monica, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what to do in her newfound surroundings in the easternmost town in the U.S.
“The first years very hard,” she says, switching between English and Spanish often in the same sentence, “Cuando I go to look job, Americans no have job for me. ‘I don’t speak English,’ I say, ‘I no understand you.’ More hard for me. Pero, I look the more positive y I told my husband I need to make something, one business.”
She decided to make mouthwateringly good chocolate. There was only one problem: Monica was an avid cook but didn’t know how to make chocolates. So her husband took her to the local library and translated English texts out loud into Spanish. Slowly she learned the basics of chocolate-making. Buoyed by Miller’s support and rave reviews of her chocolates around town, Monica began selling her product online, partnered with another local person for a brief time, and eventually broke out on her own with the help of a small loan from her friend Vince Coupal.
Monica’s Chocolates is now a point of pride in the Lubec community. Apart from offering ninety varieties of delicious chocolate, the store also has a coffee shop in the back and a room where Monica sells traditional, imported Peruvian clothing and jewelry.
Anywhere from seven to twelve local workers are employed, depending on the time of year. The business has been so successful that last fall it moved to a bigger location on Route 189 near the turnoff to West Quoddy Head Light.
The chocolates at Monica’s are truly topnotch and blend Peruvian and Maine traditions. “Uno de los más famosos, sea urchin, a todo el mundo le gusta.” One of the most popular is the sea urchin — a crunchy cookie-like combo of bittersweet chocolate, caramel, toffee, Peruvian filling, and pecans. Everyone loves it, Monica says. Another example: chocolate with blueberries. “Hay blueberries, pero no en la cantidad de acá.” There are blueberries in Peru, says Monica, but not as many as here. So because of their prevalence she uses them in a variety of chocolates, like the chocolate blueberry clusters with dried blueberries and bittersweet chocolate, “porque a la gente le gusta.” The people like it.
Indeed they do — and there are plenty of anecdotes of folks traveling to Maine and Lubec specifically seeking Monica’s sweets. They are always greeted with warmth and unbridled enthusiasm. “For me my customers number one, number two, number three, number four,” she says, adding that it doesn’t matter if “you buy two dollar or three hundred dollar. This business is more personal with my customers. I talk. I teach. I make. I no make for me, I make for the people.” When you walk into the shop you are the most
important person in Monica’s world.
Monica’s endeavor has provided jobs in a Washington County town that desperately needs them. “When you talk to people and say ‘I’m from Lubec,’ the normal reaction is ‘Oh, that’s where West Quoddy Head Light is,’” says Ruta Jordans, the president of the Association to Promote and Protect the Lubec Environment, the group that operates the Lubec Info Stop for tourist information. “But for a certain segment of the population, it’s where Monica’s Chocolates is. For us chocolate addicts, that’s how we see Lubec.”
“We knew she would be successful,” says Monica’s friend Donna Miller. “I don’t think there’s anything Monica has done that she’s failed at. When obstacles get thrown up, she finds a way around them. I’ve never met anybody so passionate about their work and so willing to do anything to help other people, too.”
Monica, a true entrepreneur at heart, dreams big — of creating a chocolate factory in town and dozens of new jobs along with it. With her dedication and passion, Lubec might just have a distinctly sweeter future.
“When I make something I make it with a lot of love. This is the truth. I love people. I love my job. I make my heart in my chocolate.”
Though she might have meant she puts her heart into making her chocolate, it is clear, too, that Monica creates herself through each scrumptious chocolate she makes.
IF YOU GO
Monica’s Chocolates is located at 100 County Road (Route 189) in Lubec. 866-952-4500. www.monicaschocolates.com