The ladies of Laughing Gull
Chocolatiers create community for their families and others
“Saving the world through chocolate.”
That’s the bold statement proclaimed by Lindsay Tarnoff, one of three city of Rochester entrepreneur-owners of Laughing Gull Chocolates on East Main Street. And while saving the world may seem like an unattainable feat, Tarnoff and co-owners Karla Boyle and Allison Zukoski are creating community, camaraderie, and cultural understanding through cacao.
Tarnoff came to Rochester in 2016 from Rhode Island. She was starting to grow a chocolate business and had recently had her first child. She met Boyle at a breastfeeding group, and the seeds were planted to grow Laughing Gull into not only a successful chocolate business but also one that would suit their need for support as new moms and entrepreneurs.
“Rochester has a long history of entrepreneurship, of good business,” says Tarnoff. “The food businesses here—the small businesses are great—and the love of local and local products is unique.”
The three owners work with each other as businesswomen, as fellow moms, and as friends. The daily tasks range from filling orders, creating new and unique products, and the daily operations of running a business and running their households. Together, they support one another on the journey and offer their personal skills and talents. Tarnoff often acts as the spokesperson of the business and serves as the creative force behind new products and flavors. Boyle brings management experience. Zukoski handles what they call “the boring stuff ” of finance and operations.
“We are all very good at adjusting, and it’s an ever-growing thing,” says Zukoski. “As the kids grow, things change and transform, just like the cacao bean.”
Laughing Gull Chocolates is known for hand-rolled truffles made from high quality ingredients, unique flavor combinations, and its popular salted caramel truffle. The truffle is so popular that the women made the center filling into their best-selling salted caramel sauce.
Customers get excited about the chocolate, but also those local connections that are so important to Tarnoff, Boyle, and Zukoski. They use Pittsford Dairy milks, Happy Earth Tea, Once Again Nut Butter, and First Light Creamery cheese in their truffles, and offer the Chai Guy drink blends at the beverage bar. They also partner with area businesses, including Living Roots Winery, OSB Ciderworks, and Lovin’ Cup for themed dinners, custom truffle flavors, and tasting events around greater Rochester.
While Rochestarians are coming to know and love Laughing Gull’s chocolate, they’re also scooping up tickets to its special events and workshops. February’s chocolate and wine pairing event with Living Roots Winery sold out weeks in advance, as did its truffle making workshops.
That chocolate fans are eager to learn more about their product is no surprise, given recent trends in gifting and leisure time. According to a 2018 Harris Poll, sixty- three percent of adults living in the United States would rather receive an experience gift than a material gift, and thirty-six percent of American adults wanted to attend more live and experiential events. “People are looking to enhance their lives in new ways—they are seeking that immersive experience,” says Tarnoff. “Touching, trying, using your hands and all of your senses, and then you get to go home with something you’ve made.”
Luckily for us, more workshops and special events are planned into the spring and summer seasons. These sessions range from learning about the history and growing regions of cacao—the bean from which chocolate is made—to roasting and grinding beans on site and rolling truffles by hand. Family, business, or school groups can book a private workshop to learn more about, and indulge in, handmade, ethically sourced chocolate.
Tarnoff, Boyle, and Zukoski believe that ethically sourced ingredients are not only important for the health and wellness of the planet and farmers around the world, but they also make the chocolate taste better. Their workshops highlight the best practices they have come to use for cacao sourcing, including fair pay for farmers, ethical standards for the treatment of workers, and environmentally sound harvesting practices.
Workshop participants share the experience of tasting chocolate from different regions around the world, noting the subtle flavor changes and learning about the countries where chocolate grows. Laughing Gull’s owners believe their customers come to see chocolate in a new way. “All of our truffles for the most part are made with what’s called direct trade organic. It’s a stone-ground chocolate, so it’s unique. It’s primarily dark chocolate. It’s going to have a little more texture than most people are used to, and it has a very bold flavor,” says Tarnoff. Laughing Gull’s chocolates are in demand. Its truffle club—a monthly subscription box of current flavors—created a following of loyal regulars. This past February, Tarnoff, Zukoski, and Boyle created 250 chocolate truffle favors for the thirty-fourth annual Chocolate Ball to benefit Epilepsy-Pralid. They also fill regular wholesale and custom orders.
The café’s goal of building global community starts right here at home, as Laughing Gull’s owners hosts Rochester City School District students and community groups for chocolate history lessons and hands-on workshops. The space itself is designed to feel like a living room, hosting kids and community members.
“It just kind of evolved. I had my first child—I didn’t know what it was like to have a baby—and we started in the space and we had one little mat where they would lay and we would sing to them, and then they started to move, and the play space grew,” says Tarnoff.
Tarnoff, Zukoski, and Boyle bring their young children to work with them daily, allowing the kids to play and grow together amid the daily work at the shop. Vendors and customers have come to expect the vibrant energy of the space, and fellow parents and mom friends will stop by for a custom beverage, community connection, and some playtime.
Some of those customers have migrated from Beautiful Birth Choices, a parent resource, birth education, and community space located nearby on Winton Road. Tarnoff and Boyle met at BBC, as it’s affectionately known, when their children where very young. Zukoski was an early customer, often visiting the space with her young child.
“We are so lucky to have found one another. We are passionate about chocolate and about supporting each other and our kids,” says Tarnoff.
Parenting, much like owning a business, is a multifaceted job, with many uncertainties and endless opportunities for growth. There are ups and downs, heartaches, and joys common to both ventures. Being entrepreneurs and multi-tasking parents at the same time? That’s been the sweet spot of success for the ladies of Laughing Gull.
“There are always things that are hard, but we get to choose to work with our kids and advance our careers. And at the end of the day do something we feel good about,” says Boyle. “The camaraderie and the passion to make this all work is a privilege.” Laughinggullchocolates.com
Katie DeTar is the host and producer of the television travel series Fringe Benefits, a freelance writer, and creator of the women’s travel and lifestyle blog wildwomenoftheearth.com.