Berried in Chocolate

She had no business experience. The one thing she did have was a passion for her favorite fruit.

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- Posted on Jan 20, 2013

Shari Fitzpatrick poses with a chocolate-covered strawberry.

Here in California I’m known as “The Strawberry Lady.” Not because I’m good at growing the fruit but because I have a gift for dipping them.

You see, I went from being someone with no—and I mean zero—business experience to the creator and CEO of a multi-million-dollar gourmet chocolate-dipped strawberry business. Crazy, right?

I wasn’t the first person to make chocolate-dipped berries. In fact, people were dipping them before I was born, but no one had ever packaged them as a gift before. So I couldn’t be more thankful for my success. Especially since there was a time when I wasn’t sure which way my life was headed.

I was five when I first fell in love. With strawberries, that is. Dad planted a strawberry patch behind our house in Klamath Falls, Oregon. “Shari, honey,” Mom would say, handing me a basket, “pick as many berries as you can for my pie.”

I loved Mom’s pies, but the lure of fresh-off-the-vine strawberries was too much to resist. So I developed a simple system: one for the bucket and two for me.

They were bright and sweet and made me almost delirious with joy (it’s darn near impossible to eat a strawberry and be grumpy. Try it, I dare you). They were God’s perfect creation.

By the time I graduated from high school my passion for strawberries had only deepened. I ate them every chance I got (even in salsa!). Still, a love for strawberries? Where would that get me?

I enrolled at Lane Community College in Eugene, a few hours north of Klamath Falls, hoping it would help me figure things out (okay...it was also to get out of town and heal after breaking up with my high school sweetheart, Clay. We’ll get to him later).

I took everything from acting to orchestra to typing but graduated no closer to finding my purpose. One afternoon I drove to my parents’ and poured my heart out to Mom. “I’m so confused,” I said. “What am I going to do? I like doing a lot of things, but I don’t see how I can make a career out of any of them.”

“God gives us all gifts,” she said. “It’s up to us to recognize what they are and use them to his glory. You’ll figure it out. Be patient.”

“But I want to know now!” Just then a Bible verse I’d once studied in church came to mind: Isaiah 30:21, “Whether you turn right or left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”

I dashed into my childhood bedroom and got on my knees. Lord, I prayed, I want a career. Something fun, something that makes people happy. I know you have a purpose for me. Please just show me the path you want me to walk and I will. Love, Shari.

I found a job as a mortgage broker in Los Angeles. It was great money, but it wasn’t fun (at least not to me). The only time I had fun was after work. That’s when I’d hang out with my sister-in-law, Emily.

She ran a catering business and made holiday gift baskets filled with goodies. I loved to help. And I bet you can guess which treat I liked the most: the chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Hmm, I thought. My clients might like berry baskets. Emily showed me how to mix the chocolate till the taste was just right, then I dipped in only the biggest, juiciest, reddest berries.

“You’ve got a natural talent for this,” she told me. “You’re very creative.” I wasn’t sure about that, but it sure was fun! And the clients went wild over them.

I left the mortgage industry after four years. I wanted to find a job with purpose, one I was passionate about. So next I found work as a stockbroker. Once again the money was good, but I knew it wasn’t something I could do long-term.

The upside? I reconnected with Clay, who lived in Sacramento. Our feelings for each other hadn’t faded. They were even stronger! I transferred to my company’s Sacramento office to be closer to him. And I kept making my chocolate-dipped berry baskets for clients.

One day my office held a grandopening celebration for a new branch. “Think you could bring some of your berry baskets to the party?” my boss asked.

“Absolutely!” I made dozens of baskets and displayed them around the room. In the middle of the party my boss came over to me. “Do you realize that not a single person here is talking about investments?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Shari, they’re all talking about your berries! And stockbrokers live to talk about their investments.”

We both laughed. Then one of my coworkers came over. “These are the most delicious berries I’ve ever had,” she said. “If you can make these, why are you working here?”

Click! It was like a light went on. I remembered the verse from Isaiah. Was this the way I was supposed to walk? Could I really start my own berry-dipping business? It was now or never.

The next day I told my boss I was leaving. He thought I was nuts. “You’re one of our best brokers,” he said. “Take a week off and think it over.” I took his advice and took the week off...and spent the time churning out business ideas.

“I’m quitting my job and opening a berry-dipping business,” I told Clay.

To his credit, he didn’t laugh (I’m sure he wanted to. Who goes from stockbroker to berry dipper?). “Your berries are amazing, honey,” he said, “but do you really want to give up a good job?”

Clay had a point. Still, I made gift baskets filled with dipped berries and took them to businesses all over town.

“These hand-dipped chocolate strawberry baskets make great gifts for clients,” I told them. “Would you be interested in buying some?”

“Yes,” said one car dealer. “Yes,” said a printer. They all said yes.

A path paved with yesses.... God couldn’t have given me a clearer answer. Now it was up to me. Clay was convinced too. I left the brokerage, got a small credit-card cash advance and started dipping strawberries out of my tiny kitchen in my one-bedroom apartment, delivering them around town. My business took off! Within four years I had two retail locations and Clay and I married and started our family.

During my ninth year of business, I was struggling. By then we had three retail locations and a production facility. Clay and I had two sons and I was pregnant with our third. I was overwhelmed! There was this brand-new thing called the internet and I thought it would be a great way to get my berries to more people.

I was approached by a tech-minded businessman with the opportunity of a lifetime. Since berry-dipping is my expertise, not technology, I trusted him. Unfortunately, he steered me wrong. Eventually I lost my company.

Don’t worry. I’m planning to be back in the berry business soon (I still dip nearly every fruit in chocolate!) and I’m speaking all over the country helping others find their passions (and helping them learn from my mistakes).

I’m also relishing my time with Clay and our three sons, my official taste testers. And I’m listening for God’s direction as to where to go next. I know his way is always better (and sweeter!) than anything we can imagine for ourselves.

Try Shari's recipe for dipping chocolate at home!

Watch as Shari offers tips and techniques for making chocolate treats!

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