A treat 20 years in the making brings success to a Barboursville dessertier.
Michelle Hill is an unusually busy person. She sells quilts, stamps, and coins from her Main Street storefronts in downtown Barboursville. She has also made a name for herself throughout West Virginia with her longtime obsession: chocolate covered cherries.
In her youth, Hill made the treats with her mother’s recipe. But in 1980 she began a long process of personal refinement. While her father worked his job as a chemical engineer, she was engineering her own creations in the kitchen. She began by experimenting with different brands and combinations of chocolates, cherries, butters, and creams. To get feedback on her results, she distributed each batch to a small group of friends and family that she still refers to as her “guinea pigs.”
“You’ve got to realize that during this period of time, all of us gained 15 pounds or better,” Hill says. “They would actually call me and say, ‘Hey, you got any?’”
All the while, she was also learning the importance of the process itself.
“I was like a mad scientist,” she says with a laugh. “Even the heat in the kitchen makes a difference. If it’s too warm and things are melting instead of being mixed properly, it tastes different.”
It wasn’t until 1999 that she perfected the recipe. “All of a sudden, out of the blue, everyone at once said, ‘Whatever you did, stop. This is it.’”
With this final recipe, Hill founded Tibbenham Chocolate Covered Cherries, naming the company for her mother’s family. The internet was still young then. Even long-standing sites like eBay and Amazon were still in their infancy. But a friend saw potential in the technology, and he urged Hill to start a website. She managed to purchase the domain name chocolatecoveredcherries.com for $99, and her friend helped her design the website and the gift box, which is still used today.
In her first year of production, she was thrilled to sell 20 boxes. In the following year, she sold 40. The trend continued year after year. “Everything was doubling,” she says. “So here we are in 2018, and I cannot keep up with the orders.”
In the two decades since Tibbenham was founded, it is clear that Hill has created something of value. In 2003, a notable chef—she won’t say which one—offered her $150,000 for the recipe, but she declined. She also received a significant offer on the website’s domain name, but she declined that money as well because the site would have been used “for naughty reasons.”
Over the next few years, Hill hopes to franchise the business in other cities with the help of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center. She’s a proud West Virginian and excited about the opportunity to contribute on a wider scale to the state that she loves.
642 Main Street, Barboursville, 304.302,5400, chocolatecoveredcherries.com