Realizing a Dream Of Owning Your Own Business

“It took me 60 years to realize my dream,” said Bruce Jessel, owner with his wife Neva of three shops in Lake Arrowhead Village. “All my life I worked for someone else.”

Bruce and Neva moved to Lake Arrowhead in 1976. It wasn't until 1997 that he walked into the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and got into a conversation with the owners. “When they asked, ‘Would you like to buy the store?', I thought about it and decided the answer was yes,” Bruce explained...

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Trio of Shops Fulfills the Dreams of Children and Adults

BY MARY-JUSTINE LANYON

Six years later they bought The Wishing Bear from a friend who was sick and could no longer run the store. And then just this past February, Bruce and Neva bought Color Me Mine.

“The timing was perfect,” Bruce said. “I had always wanted to be in the pavilion-it's the best location in the Village.” So Bruce and Neva moved The Wishing Bear to the pavilion, merging it with Color Me Mine. They are very excited about being able to centralize the children's activities in the one location.

The previous owners of Color Me Mine allowed the Jessels to begin renovation in January. “We've done extensive renovating and remodeling,” Neva said. The stores have a bright, airy feeling that is certainly welcoming.

“Every year,” said Bruce, “we get better and better at what we do.” When the Jessels first bought the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, they were only making 12 types of apples.

“Now we make 45 different types,” Bruce exclaimed. One of the latest additions is called the Saturn. “A customer said she wished we had an all chocolate apple,” Bruce said. “So we developed this one that has milk, white and dark choclate. It comes out with rings on it, which is where the name comes from.”

According to Bruce, the store slices about 90 percent of the apples. It all started with one woman who said she'd love to buy an apple, but didn't want to get it all over herself. “Not only does slicing the apple make it easier to eat,” Bruce noted, “it also lets us check to make sure the apple is good.”

The apples are all extra fancy Granny Smiths which are specially bought for them at a produce market.

“Repeat customers are critical to our business,” Bruce continued. “People come in and comment on how our apples are the best. They wonder what makes the difference.” Bruce cooks all the caramel on site and has made the recipe his own.

“There are stores,” he said, “where they buy the caramel already cooked and just heat it up. They'll buy a fudge mix. Not us-we do all our own cooking right on the premises. That includes the cookies and the brownies.”

The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory ships apples all over the country. Bruce told the story of one customer who had sent some apples to his son in Tennessee. When the son called, the father figured he needed money. Wrong-the son asked him to please send more apples!

Freshness is key. Bruce said they make the apples the day they ship them, so they're no more than three days old when they arrive.

Walk by the window of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory on a weekend and you'll see Bruce in the window, cooking up a batch of caramel or making one of the 10 types of fudge the store has. “People are fascinated,” he said. “They love to see me in the window.”

The candy store-and Bruce stresses that's what they are-also carries regular and sugar-free chocolates that come from the corporate Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

THE WISHING BEAR

There are so many cute friends to create at The Wishing Bear, how does one choose? Some people don't: “There's one older couple who comes in every time they visit up here. And every time they buy a new animal with outfits, shoes, the works,” said Neva.

The store has about 41 different animals, including bears, giraffes, frogs, penguins, cats, dogs, unicorns, pigs, tigers, moose, cows, monkeys, sheep, elephants and hippos.

Once a customer chooses an animal, he takes it to the stuffer, which is in the shape of a train. An employee stuffs the animal and then puts in a special star. “Sometimes we let the new owners push the pedal,” said employee Marcy Martinez. “They feel as though they're driving the train,” she said.

The new owner makes a wish on the star before it gets zipped into the animal. “We also put in a little white guardian angel,” said Martinez. “We tell them it will guard them and their animal.”

There's an entire wall of outfits for the animals. Once an animal is completed, the owner can choose anything from a cheerleading outfit to a wedding gown. Neva said people often come back to get new outfits for their little friends.

COLOR ME MINE

The choice of bisques to paint at Color Me Mine varies from the ever-popular mug to figurines. “One customer was looking for a dragonfly,” said Neva. “I was able to find one for him.”

Once a customer chooses the item he wants to paint, he chooses his paint colors, putting the paint on a palette. Before painting, though, he has to sponge off the bisque with some water to clean off any dust.

“We have an idea book,” said Neva, “if people need some help deciding how to paint their items. We even have tracing paper.” There are booklets with painting tips on each table, and Neva said they also have dimension paint, stamps and sponges available so customers can create a variety of effects.

After a customer has finished with his painting, the Color Me Mine employees dip the item in a clear glaze that protects it. “All our paints and glazes are non-toxic,” Neva explained, “so you can really use these plates and mugs.”

After glazing, the items are fired in one of the two kilns. The firing process, including cool-down time, takes about 17 hours. The kilns reach a temperature of 1800 degrees.

Each item to be fired sits up on a ceramic stilt so it does not stick to the shelf. The shelves are separated by kiln posts, which are rectangular pieces of ceramic. The posts come in different sizes. “We measure an inch above the height of the bisque to get the right size post,” Neva said.

Right now the store is firing the kilns at least twice a week. “I imagine we'll be firing every day in the summer,” Neva said.

During the week of May 8 to 12, 110 students from Lake Arrowhead Elementary School will be visiting Color Me Mine. “We obviously couldn't have that many students in here at once,” said Bruce, “so 22 students will come each day.” Some special education students from Rim High School will also be visiting in May.

STAFF IS CRITICAL

“I couldn't make this happen without a good staff,” Bruce emphasized. “This is a first job for most of these kids,” he said. “They stay here for a couple of years and then move on.

“Working here helps the kids grow up,” he continued. “I've seen them mature overnight. They learn the value of earning money.”

The Jessels have 14 employees, eight of whom work at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and six at The Wishing Bear and Color Me Mine. “Good morale is so important,” Bruce and Neva said. “That's why we have occasional painting parties for our employees. It brings them all together and gives them a chance to get to know one another better.”

One of the Jessels' former employees is on the road to becoming a plastic surgeon. Another is studying to become a nurse. Another is now working for an escrow company.

Bruce hears it again and again from these employees: I'll never forget you. “I really like helping people,” he said. “I enjoy giving them this opportunity.”

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

The Jessels also enjoy reaching out into the community. They give out coupons good for free apples to students who donate blood at the drive held at Rim High School. “We must give out 180 coupons at each drive,” Bruce said. “That's the topping,” he said, “when you can help the community.”

The couple will also be helping the USA Bumble Bee group reach out to abused children. “Twelve families whose children have won these pageants are coming in on May 20,” Bruce explained. “We are donating 50 animals, which they will hand stuff and then donate to abused children.”

HOT DOG CART

Visitors to the Village will be able to buy hot dogs and other goodies from the Hot Diggity Dog cart, which will be located near Center Stage, just outside Color Me Mine and The Wishing Bear.

“We'll be opening on May 13 and will be open every day during the summer, weather permitting,” Bruce said. In addition to hot dogs, the cart will have popcorn, cotton candy, nachos and sno cones.

The cart will also be available for parties that are booked at The Wishing Bear and Color Me Mine. “We'll have some tables set up outside for painting,” Bruce said. “It should be lots of fun!”

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