Conch baseball coach Ralph Henriquez knows all about the sweet spot — on a baseball bat.
He and his wife DeeDee Henriquez, who was our elected county tax collector for 20 years, were less familiar with a certain sweet spot on Duval Street — Kilwins, purveyor of fine chocolates, premium ice cream, fudge, caramel apples and other confectionery treats.
“We knew nothing about Kilwins, to be honest, but we love everything we’ve learned,” DeeDee said, expertly dipping an Oreo in a vat of liquid chocolate and arranging her creations neatly on a parchment-covered baking sheet.
The familiar Key West family was looking for a new business opportunity, and the more they learned about Kilwins, the more they liked the company’s commitment to customers, quality — and its franchisees.
The Henriquezes bought the local Kilwins franchise at 505 Duval St. on Aug. 30 and are now satisfying every sort of sweet tooth with premium chocolates, truffles, ice cream, fudge, caramel apples, and chocolate-dipped strawberries, pretzels, Oreos, you name it.
“And we just got approval from the city to add outdoor cafe seating so people can sit and enjoy their ice cream, fudge and caramel apples,” Ralph said.
“Kilwins ice cream is a proprietary brand and will never be sold in grocery stores, or anywhere but a Kilwins shop,” he said, while DeeDee scooped their special-edition, seasonal ice cream flavors — pumpkin pie and apple pie — into a perfectly crisp waffle cone.
The Michigan-based company has been around for 75 years, and will have more than 200 locations by the end of the year, mostly in tourist destinations, said Ralph Henriquez, who will be back on the diamond come baseball season.
For now, though, the family has traded their red Conch colors for Kilwins’ teal behind their new candy counters.
“Kilwins started in a town called Petoskey, Michigan — the same town where Ernest Hemingway started his writing career. He worked for the newspaper there. The connection was amazing and it seemed meant to be,” Ralph said.
“Everything just seemed to fit,” DeeDee agreed, adding that the pair spent 12 intense days in Michigan at “Kilwins University,” learning recipes, processes, expectations and everything else about the operation.
The Key West Kilwins has been in its Duval Street location for 14 years.
“We’re the third franchise owners here,” Ralph said. “And we’re already talking with them about doing a second location somewhere else on Duval Street, and/or up the Keys, but we have to learn the ropes here first.
“We’re having a great time, and are excited to help bring more locals downtown. This store has been here for 14 years … and it has always done well with tourists and foot traffic, but we’re hoping with our longtime community ties up and down the Keys, we can bring more locals in as well.”
They’re already planning to sponsor youth athletic teams, host fundraisers and donate baskets and other items for groups to raffle.
“Kilwins will absolutely be truly involved and invested in the local community,” DeeDee said.
As quickly as the Henriquezes learned the ropes, they realized immediately that many of their customers know Kilwins’ products just as well.
“People come in and know right where to go, exactly what flavors they want, and what sizes they come in. They have their favorites and do the selling for us, convincing others what to try,” DeeDee said, laughing and handing this reporter a scoop of pumpkin-pie ice cream in a waffle cone.
As if on cue, a couple paused on the sidewalk outside, trading tastes of their own ice cream cones, a Kilwins shopping bag swinging from his left hand.
“This is delicious; try it,” she said.
“I told you,” he replied. “Everything in there is great.”