It's late on a Friday afternoon, and the happy-hour crowd is just beginning to arrive at the Headquarters at Seaport District. The old police compound downtown is still basking in that just-opened glow, and inside Dallmann Fine Chocolate Boutique, owner Isabella Knack is talking about her too-beautiful-to-eat sweet concoctions.
"This is my favorite," she says, grabbing a piece of sea-salt-caramel chocolate - fleur de sel - from a meticulously designed shelf of perfectly aligned chocolates in the trademark Dallmann powder-blue packaging. "It's our best-seller, too."
It's been eight years since Knack abandoned her life in hotel and restaurant management for that of a chocolatier - to honor her family's legacy as Austrian sweet peddlers. Her first shop opened in 2011 in the Flower Hill Promenade in Del Mar. And two months ago, Knack opened her second location, in a small shop at the converted police headquarters downtown.
Knack's recipe for success is simple: Start with top-shelf chocolate, add lots of love and dedication, and everything will be just fine.
It helps that she grew up surrounded by people who've mastered the fine art of dessert-making. Her grandfather, Guenther Dallmann, opened a pastry shop in 1954 in the Austrian city of St. Gilgen. Knack's parents, Franz and Sylvia, have continued that tradition with Cafe Konditorei Dallmann.
In the United States, it's Knack who's taken that tradition and expanded it in a new direction. The Dallmann brand in Austria is known for its cakes and pastries.
"Chocolates were not a big deal," Knack says. "It was a small part of the business."
But a few years ago, during one of those father-daughter baking sessions in the kitchen back in Austria, Knack learned how to make chocolates.
"He was teaching me how to make these great chocolates with recipes that were passed on to him," she says. "It was a crash course in chocolate-making. I really didn't know what I was doing. There was chocolate everywhere. But there was a moment when I realized what a joy it was."
And so her plans changed.
"You see, I ran away from the family business," says Knack, who moved to the U.S. to attend college before eventually landing a job in a hotel. That is, until that fateful moment in the kitchen she realized she might be on to something.
"I played around the kitchen for a while and then decided to open a store," says Knack, who mastered the art of chocolate-making from a chef in Los Angeles. "It was crazy. Everything was new to me. But I think if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have done it."
Today, with a second store under her belt, she admits: "Something clicked, and I realized I can keep the family tradition alive.
"I enjoy how messy it is to make chocolate," she said. "The taste. The smell. The different exotic flavors. I love it all."
Dallmann Fine Chocolates, just like its predecessors in Austria, is also a family affair. Knack's husband, Jayson, is now helping with the business, comprised of two stores in San Diego and a 1,600-square-foot kitchen in El Cajon . The packaging and design for the products are all done by Knack's brother, a graphic designer.
A big part of her business is also about educating chocolate lovers. She teaches chocolate-making classes at her El Cajon kitchen, and wine- and beer-chocolate pairing events are held often.
"It's really a dream come true," Knack says.
A dream made of chocolates.
Dallmann Fine Chocolate Boutiques
Flower Hill Promenade: 2670 Via de la Valle, Suite A270, Del Mar. (858) 720-1933 or
Headquarters at Seaport District: 789 W. Harbor Drive, Suite 122, San Diego. (619) 238-0045
Read more at utsandiego.com