The reception table at the Carlisle Naples on Thursday afternoon was missing one very important thing.
"We need some Norman Love chocolates," one woman said as she sat in the audience, waiting for the Southwest Florida chocolatier to arrive.
Minutes later, a smiling Love in a chef coat walked through the door with the signature lime green and chocolate brown box in his hands. In a speech to residents and guests at the senior living community on Thursday, Love shared stories from his career with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, how he began his Fort Myers-based chocolate business and why his family gives back to the community.
"My name is Norman Love and I started a little chocolate company about 17 years ago," he told the audience at the Carlisle Naples.
Love, 57, got his first job in the culinary business working with a Florida ice cream company when he was in high school. As he got older, he sought out the finest pastry chefs to continue pursuing his career, but the ingredients and types of desserts Love saw being made were not what he had in mind.
"I wanted to create a very European style dessert with the finest and freshest ingredients and create this incredibly beautiful artistic expression because I always believed Americans love to eat with their eyes," he said.
In 1989 Love joined The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which he said only had eight hotels at the time. After 13 years with the business, Love helped open 38 hotels throughout the world and often traveled for months at a time.
"I had an opportunity for an accelerated growth in culinary skills, traveling the world, exposing myself to amazing professionals, incredible ingredients and cooking methods and cultures worldwide," Love said.
"It was a huge accelerated growth for me, but on the personal side, it was extremely difficult because I didn't know my family and really was a stranger in my own home."
Love eventually left The Ritz-Carlton, with the intention of starting a production business, not a chocolate company. He purchased a refrigerator and a stainless steel table and began making chocolates in an office of an industrial Park off of Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers.
One February, USA Today listed Norman Love's creations as one of the 10 best chocolates to buy for Valentine's Day.
"To this day I still don't know how they received my chocolates," Love said. "They named my company, that wasn't really a company, in an industrial park in the middle of nowhere, that we were in the top 10 companies to buy chocolates. All of a sudden, the phone started ringing."
Sixteen years after Love and his family started Norman Love Confections, the company has 102 employees, five retail operations and two factories. Love said his business produces nearly seven million pieces of chocolate by hand a year as well as barks, bars, turtles, toffees, fresh pastries, cookies, cakes, European-style desserts and other packaged products.
Since his company began, Love also made a line of chocolates for Godiva Chocolatier and partnered with Princess Cruises to create desserts, chocolates and retail products for their ships.
Love said his company is interested in growing and he hopes to open more retail stores in Florida. He also said the company recently started selling pastries at the Whole Foods Market in Naples. But with all that he does, Love and his family still gives to more than 250 charities in Lee and Collier counties.
"What I do is come to work to try and do the best job we can do with the freshest ingredients, so my customers are always happy," Love said.
Many audience members at Love's speech at the Carlisle Naples were excited to see the man who creates the sweets they frequently enjoy.
"I've bought her a lot of Norman Love chocolates, always the big box," said Roy Anderson, 83, a Carlisle Naples resident who attended the event with his wife Jane, 89. "It was nice to hear his presentation, since we've eaten so many of his chocolates."
Carlisle Naples resident Joan McCabe, 86, said her daughter frequently sends her chocolate dipped strawberries from Norman Love, but she didn't immediately realize the strawberries were from the company of the man who was standing in front of her Thursday afternoon.
"When he described the lime green and brown boxes I thought, 'Oh that's what Lisa sends,' " she said. "It's a small world."