By JENNIFER AMATO
Hearts will be happy just prior to Valentine’s Day this year — either because love is in the air, or because sweet treats will abound at the annual Chocolate & Wine event.
Newspaper Media Group (NMG) will present the tasty event at Branches in West Long Branch for the third year, bringing sugary, spicy and savory delights to those in attendance.
On the heels of a very successful event last year when the all-day affair welcomed more than 1,000 people to the catering hall, this year’s event on Jan. 28 will welcome people eager to enjoy samples from more than 30 vendors from around the area.
Offered selections will include bundt cakes, donuts, waffles and ice cream, gourmet dips and spices, olive oil, jam, cured meats and just plain chocolate, in addition to jewelry, wine accessories, skincare products and clothing.
Branches will feature its own special themed drinks throughout the afternoon as well.
“People are looking for something a little different,” NMG Advertising Manager Lauren Simons said of the appeal of the chocolate-themed event. “Everybody loves sweets. It’s also family-friendly. … Chocolate appeals to everybody.”
New this year will be raffles for baskets donated by vendors Coney Waffle, Fords Jewelers and Holly Jolly Jams, among others.
Newspaper Media Group Production Supervisor Toni Smith will also create a special award to honor the best vendors chosen by attendees.
One business vying for that award will be Coney Waffle, a New York-meets-the-Jersey Shore ice cream, waffle and sweet shop located in Belmar.
The family of Joe D’Esposito owned a waffle and ice cream shop in Coney Island, Brooklyn, in the 1940s, so he and his wife Lorene decided to open their own stand during the Belmar Seafood Festival in 2013.
“It was extremely successful,” Lorene D’Esposito said. “People are drawn to the artistic way we present all our items. And it’s delicious.”
Continuing their business venture at local and county fairs, the couple then found a “perfect location” in Belmar for their storefront, where they now make everything fresh out of their Ocean Avenue location.
“We specialized in over-the-top shakes, cups and cones,” Lorene D’Esposito said. “Nobody else in New Jersey makes the artistic, edible treats that we make.”
She called it an “amusement-type experience” that has even the most smartphone-addicted youth putting down their phones to enjoy the sweet treats.
“As a family, I’ve witnessed, time and time again, them eating the confection together,” she said.
For Chocolate & Wine, the company will showcase its patented waffle shape, which looks similar to a hot dog bun filled with treats so that you “can continue to walk down the boardwalk,” Lorene D’Esposito said. The cannoli waffle, brownie waffle, waffles and ice cream, samples of homemade treats and grab-and-go specialty items will be offered.
The husband and wife, who are getting ready to open a second location in Pier Village in Long Branch next month, are looking forward to their first Chocolate & Wine event.
“We are really excited to be part of it and really excited to reach a market that is interested in chocolate,” Lorene D’Esposito said. “We hope they at least try our products or a sample and come to the store and see what else we have to offer. They may think they have heard of us, and they will be pleasantly surprised.”
The D’Espositos also understand how newspapers are a viable way to put their product out to the local community.
“The best thing about the papers is that many people still rely on newspapers. People like to touch and feel. … It gives us a great outlet for the people who we can’t reach with social media,” she said.
Adding to that viability, staff members from Newspaper Media Group will volunteer throughout the day at the event.
“I think the community uses our papers specifically to find out what type of events they can go to. We promote community events. And, we’re catering to the community that we know. We really want our readers to come out to the event,” Simons said. “The NMG staff looks forward to this every year because it is fun, and we like to do this for our readers.”
Chocolate & Wine will be held from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Branches, 123 Monmouth Road, West Long Branch.
Tickets cost $12 if purchased in advance at chocolateandwinenj.com, or $15 cash only at the door. Children 18 and under are $5.
“We invite you to stay as long as you’d like, so keep in mind that although the lines were long last year, we are working not to have that again. Please be patient as everyone gets to enjoy the experience. Take your time, you won’t be rushed,” Simons said, addressing concerns of overcrowding from the last event, while also mentioning that there will be no cap on ticket sales.
Contact Jennifer Amato at firstname.lastname@example.org.