Imagine being a child and having your father own a chocolate factory. Think about the heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s candy filling the shelves of nearly every store you visit. If you’re older, you might prefer the heart-shaped box embellished with roses; if you're younger, the box with the unicorn on it.
That's the reality for the four Nelson children, whose father, Michael, is co-owner and vice-president of operations of Elmer Candy, the venerable Ponchatoula business that’s been making chocolate since 1855.
Michael's grandfather, Roy, purchased the company from the Elmer family in 1963. Michael and his brother, Rob, and their nieces own the company today.
Rob Nelson is president and CEO. "Most people just know me as Rob’s brother,” Michael said.
The chocolate factory is in Ponchatoula, and Michael, Janice Nelson, and their four children live in the home that chocolate built: a traditional two-story house in Old Metairie, constructed in the 1990s, that the Nelsons purchased in 2003.
“The house has changed a lot. It was Pepto-Bismol pink on the exterior, and the dining room was red with a gold ceiling. So we started with paint,” Janice said.
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An elegant cream color replaced the pink on the outside and continues through to the interior.
“Everything in the house is painted Palace White," a Benjamin Moore color, Janice said. “It’s easy to coordinate with and calming.”
Calm can be elusive in a household with two teenage sons (Ashton, 16, and Mitchell, 13) and two young daughters (Aubrey, 6, and Maren, 3), so having a resilient, kid-and-pet-friendly home is a must.
"We really wanted the house to be a place where the kids can enjoy themselves and that we can enjoy being with them,” Janice said.
The result is a family home that is stylish without being trendy, and personal without being eccentric.
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“There was a solid door on the front when we bought the house, but I felt as though it made things too dark inside, so I had a new glass door made at a place on Metairie Road. Then, when we changed out the cabinets in the dining room and added glass, the cabinet makers used the same pointed arch on them as there is on the front door,” Janice said. “I like having glass doors on the cabinets so I can look at the china my grandmother passed down to me — I like things that have a history to them.”
Pieces with a past abound at the Nelson home, where the dining table was the one the couple bought when they were first married 21 years ago. A Gustavian settee, upholstered in linen, keeps company with two antique chairs in the sitting room.
An antique wood-carved medallion serves as a decor element in the room, and vintage sawn balusters (found in a shop in Covington) hang on the office wall. Old silvery urns hold preserved boxwood wreaths in niches of the cabinets installed by the Nelsons in the family room.
A table made from old wood by Dop’s on Jefferson Highway serves as the breakfast table, where all six family members have room to sit.
The renovated kitchen, family room and breakfast area flow together across the back of the house, where abundant glass brings in light and connects the inside of the house with the verdant rear yard. Boxwood hedges define the rooms of the yard but leave plenty of space for a swing set, ping pong table, and miniature picnic table with umbrella for the girls to enjoy.
At any given moment, Aubrey may be at the table, Maren on a swing, Ashton and Mitchell battling it out over the ping pong table, and their 14-week-old Bernedoodle puppy, Toffee, leaping over the hedge.
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Dinner at the Nelson residence is at 6 p.m., and every night, the whole family dines together. The girls go to bed early and the boys join their parents in the family room after.
“I like to needlepoint,” Janice said, “and Michael will say that he watches TV with us. But in reality, he’s asleep by 8:30.”
Perhaps that is because a chocolate maker‘s work is never done. Once the heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolate are off the shelves, they are replaced with Heavenly Hash and Goldbrick Easter eggs. Then there is Christmas, and the cycle begins again.
“That doesn't mean we are making Valentine candy right now. Our lead time is more than a year to generate the millions of boxes we make,” Michael said. “One thing I think is neat about the innovations we made with the business about two years ago is that the small heart boxes retail for just a dollar, just as they did in in 1978. The only difference? The chocolate is better!”
Over the years, the Nelsons have developed a Valentine's Day tradition that everyone looks forward to.
“Each of us picks a name, and the idea is that we have to make a gift for the person we picked,” explained Janice. “The process worked great, until everyone decided they wanted to be paired up with Michael. That’s because he makes original chocolate treats — things that you cannot buy.”