Serenade Chocolatier in Brookline Village is bracing for the busiest rush of the year: Valentine’s Day. There will be a line out the door of this small, pretty shop, awash nowadays in pinks and reds, milks and darks, hearts and Cupids.
But things didn’t always run this smoothly for its owner, Nur Kilic. A struggling candymaker in 1988, working in a 300-square-foot shop, Kilic was trying to perfect the Viennese truffle, but its three layers wouldn’t hold together. Today, the Viennese is her signature piece, and it began as a labor of love. What had once bedeviled her would become a lifesaver for both her business and her life.
It was the Viennese that led her to call retired confectioner William Federer, who had been in the business for decades, first in Mattapan, and then in Coolidge Corner, where he was legendary. Could she hire him?
Not now, he told her; he was taking care of his wife, who had Alzheimer’s. Then one day, he walked into the shop, rolled up his sleeves, and gave Kilic two hours of help. He stopped by whenever he could grab time. When his wife died, he came to work.
“From then on, he came in every day until he couldn’t anymore,” says Kilic, her eyes moistening. Federer died six years ago at 91, and it was Kilic and her husband, Jonathan Wiederecht, who made the funeral and burial arrangements, and who, along with their children, still mourn his passing.
“All four of us love him endlessly,” Kilic says. “It’s one of those unique gifts in life I received and I will treasure forever.”
Seated on a stool in the back of the shop, wearing tan cords, rubber clogs, and a burgundy apron, Kilic discusses her years of candy-making, and prepares a visitor a cup of dense, delicious hot chocolate. Nearby, four employees busy themselves dipping chocolates, packing espresso beans, and waiting on customers.
“On Valentine’s Day, it’s all men, and it’s very funny to see how they shop,” says Kilic, who is celebrating her 25th Valentine’s Day in the chocolate business. “They say, ‘I’d like to buy a nice box for my wife, but I don’t know what she likes. So just put together what you like.’ ”
Kilic, 53, has garnered accolades for her artisan pieces, each made by hand, from the Key lime cream to the chocolate-dipped homemade marshmallows with caramel. But it is the Viennese that led her to Federer, and it holds a special place in her heart.
“Uncle Bill” Federer, a Holocaust survivor from Vienna, became a member of their family — Kilic’s surrogate father, and grandfather to the couple’s two children. She gave him the family he didn’t have, he gave her his candy business: the name Serenade, after his favorite piece of music by Franz Schubert; his recipes, equipment, and tools; the giant marble slab; his time.
No money ever changed hands.
Another lasting legacy: Kilic, who is of Turkish descent, hires immigrants. Federer, having arrived in Charlestown knowing no one and speaking no English, had a soft spot for other immigrants.
“Do for others,” he always told Kilic. “A lot of people helped me out when I needed it.”
So during the Bosnian genocide, Kilic’s family, which at the time included an infant and toddler, welcomed a Bosnian family of three into their home — the first Bosnian refugees to be sponsored in Massachusetts. The 5-year-old boy, traumatized by war, had stopped speaking. Kilic got him speech therapy and counseling and free parochial school, and found jobs and English classes for his parents.
Today, that boy is 25. He served in the US Navy and now works at a school in New Hampshire. His parents live in Malden, where the father sells cars. The mother, who knows Kilic works seven days a week, will often stop in at Serenade, don an apron, and say, “I’m here to help.”
In 1999, Kilic was able to buy a 1,000-square-foot commercial space in Brookline Village. Over the years, she has hired Africans, Russians, Chinese, Bosnians, Turks, and other immigrants. On a recent day, an Albanian woman dipped chocolates alongside a Chinese woman.
“I believe I should give back, and that there should be a better distribution of what we have in this country,” Kilic says. Anyway, she adds, it makes life at Serenade more interesting: “I like diversity. This is America, this is what it should be.”
Sen Sen Wang arrived from China in 1990 with an English dictionary, and found her way to Kilic, who hired her. Federer would pick up Wang at her apartment and take her to the store. “He taught me everything,” she says.
For years now, Wang has been running the Serenade kiosk at South Station independently. Which means Serenade supplies her with the candy, and she operates the kiosk as her own business, profits included. She had partnered with Kilic’s mother, Lale, in the spinoff enterprise before Lale retired.
“When I started here, I hardly spoke English, and I was so shy,” says Wang, 52. “But Nur and her husband and parents treated me as family, and now I’ve become an owner.” Her daughter worked at Serenade while in high school, and is now a law student in New York.
In Serenade are photos of the diminutive Federer, whose omnipresent smile and twinkle were contagious. Each summer, he made a trip home to Vienna, and during one of those trips in the late 1980s, he decided to visit Dachau, the German concentration camp where he had been imprisoned decades earlier, now a memorial site.
It was a day trip, and Federer had left his passport in his Vienna motel room. Kilic laughs as she recalls what happened. “In Germany, they told him he needed a passport to cross the border, and they wouldn’t let him off the train,” she recalls. “Finally, he told them, ‘The last time I went to Dachau I didn’t need a passport!’ and then they let him off. I bet he was laughing, too.”
When Kilic started out in the candy-making business, customers knew little about chocolate — just that they loved it. “They’d ask what’s the difference between milk and dark chocolate,” she recalls.
In the past decade, customers have become much more knowledgeable. “Now the people who come to us are really serious chocolate eaters,” says Kilic. They ask where the cocoa beans come from, what’s the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, is the chocolate gluten-free, what are the working conditions on the cocoa plantations?
Since doctors began recommending dark chocolate as rich in antioxidants and good for one’s heart and arteries, sales have increased. “We now sell more than twice as much dark as milk chocolate,” Kilic says.
But any kind of chocolate is good for your mood, Kilic believes: “How can you not be happy eating chocolate?”
And does chocolate make you smarter? Hanging in the shop is a gift from Kilic’s niece: a framed graph of per capita chocolate consumption compared to the number of a country’s Nobel Laureates, compiled by the New England Journal of Medicine. Switzerland leads the way, with Sweden a close second. The United States falls in the middle. China is at the bottom.
“China is just being introduced to chocolate,” says Kilic with a smile. “Let’s give them a chance.”
Four years ago — around President Obama’s first inauguration — salted caramel chocolates took off, and they remain a big seller at Serenade. “It started when the president said it was his favorite, like the Reagan jelly bean,” Kilic says. She isn’t crazy about them herself, but she’d love to send the president a box, if only she could get them directly to him.
Kilic experiments with flavors; one of her newest is yumberry from China. She likes making seasonal pieces, such as blood orange in fall and fresh mint in summer. Among the dozens of truffle types she makes are passion fruit, strawberry balsamic cream, and green tea.
But the Viennese truffle has always been the store’s most popular. Thanks to her Uncle Bill, Nur Kilic did learn how to perfect those three layers of hazelnut and chocolate. It’s as if his aged hand is still over hers, steering her through the process.
“He is always a presence in my life, and always a guide,” she says.
As for those salted caramels? “I think it is a fad that will pass but it may take four more years,” says Kilic. “Hmmm, I wonder what Hillary’s favorite candy is.”