A Mount Pleasant chocolate dealership that aims to educate customers about every step of the chocolate production process has been shut down by the town for failing to secure a retail permit.
“It’s not something we ever looked into,” Bar & Cocoa’s co-founder Chris Lacey says. “We spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to have a place, and we screwed up.”
According to assistant town administrator Christiane Farrell, officials contacted Lacey after residents of the North Point neighborhood complained the shop’s pre-opening parties this month ran afoul of the subdivision's restrictions on commercial activity. While the area’s zoning is somewhat murky, retailing without governmental go-ahead is expressly forbidden throughout town.
“We had to tell them, ‘you have to cease doing this’,” Farrell says, adding that business owners have to satisfy requirements pertaining to parking and accessibility before the town will consider their permit applications. “They seem to have gotten ahead of themselves.”
In typical circumstances, the permitting process can take up to three months, Farrell says. But Lacey, distraught that neighbors viewed his operation as a nuisance, says he never intended to illegally bypass the system.
“We’re not trying to do anything wrong,” Lacey says. “Once we were notified by code enforcement, we pulled everything down and said we’re very sorry. I just didn’t know.”
Bar & Cocoa originated in Lacey’s Mount Pleasant home three years ago as an online sales site devoted to bean-to-bar chocolate: Its motto is “Making people happy, one piece of chocolate at a time,” in reference to its support of ethical trade and sustainable farming. But Lacey’s home office became so overcrowded with shipping boxes that he and his partner relocated to a business incubator; this year, they moved into North Point because they wanted to create a real-world showcase for their artisan chocolate.
They cleared the plan with an agent who showed them the space at 1450 North Point Lane, Lacey says.
“She told us what she knew, and we were dumb enough to go along,” he says.
Lacey says he never doubted it was OK to open a store at the address, in part because he saw dental practices in the neighborhood. He didn’t imagine Bar & Cocoa could possibly draw more traffic than an office scheduling teeth-cleanings throughout the day.
“If we had two people walk through the door, that would be a great day,” he says. “But they’re trying to protect their neighborhood, and I totally understand that.”
While Bar & Cocoa could petition the town to rezone its North Point location, even Farrell says “they’re going to have a tough time” overcoming neighbors’ concerns. So Lacey has decided to cut his losses and seek a space elsewhere in Mount Pleasant; he hopes to re-open in the next month.
This time, he says, he’s narrowing his search to shopping districts.