Kilwin's family business owners Chad and Laurel Salecker own and operate sweet shops in Williamsburg and the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. And every day, they're serving up the sweetest things: dessert and hard-working family commitment.
Chad and I became business owners because we wanted to do our life together. Our son Sebastian is 8, our daughter Ruby is 6, and our dog Barnabas is 4. Our sweets shops, Kilwin's, in historic Williamsburg and the Virginia Beach oceanfront are an extension of this commitment to family. We sell over 300 products, all homemade and almost all created in our front kitchen, where customers can watch the process.
Customers who are trying to take in the sights and smells of our shops usually say, “how do you not weigh 200 pounds?” We don’t weigh 200 pounds because our lives aren’t all chocolate- they're also full of poetry, home-cooked food, outdoor adventures, and friends. We're not tired of it because dessert has a place. When life is in balance, that place is pure joy.
Chad and I met because we had the same classes in our freshman year of college... and the same dishwashing job. We became study partners and decided that working together was something we really wanted, so we got married.
After graduating from Saint Johns College in Annapolis, MD, with liberal arts degrees, we fell into an “in-between” job scooping ice cream for some business owners in our church community. We had a sense of purpose without any specifics, and this in-between job gave flesh to our notions and dreams about meaningful service and community. We loved being in an environment where the primary goal was to take care of people and bring enjoyment.
We fielded questions and pressure from family and friends to choose a “real” career. Retail and foodservice aren't glamorous, but we believe they're a significant means of service. Our short-term gig turned into a seven-year apprenticeship. By the time we opened Kilwin's in Williamsburg, we had two children of our own.
It's no small feat to start a staff from scratch with kids in diapers. Our friend Kyle Williams and a few others jumped on board and made what could have been a crushing experience into a really fun adventure. They kept Chad and me sane as we got on our feet. Kyle is now the manager of the Williamsburg shop.
One of the reasons we love working together is the understanding it builds. Chad and I have traded roles several times, swapping being homemaker, shopkeeper, or sharing both. When I see Chad’s face at the end of a long day alone with our children, especially back when they were in diapers, I understand exactly what kind of tired he is.
When I come home late after twelve hours on my feet, I don’t have to explain why I need to sleep in the next day. He usually has food waiting and a plan for how to keep the kids at bay until I catch up on sleep. There is no "grass is greener" because you do “x” and I do “y,” we’ve both tilled both fields.
I’m always surprised by how much fun we have when we are in our store together serving customers. It doesn’t feel like work when you are with people you respect and enjoy.
Chad’s favorite part of the job is making our products beautiful. He makes gorgeous fudge, and it never gets old for him to watch customers appreciate what he made.
My favorite part of the job is our employees. School is so different from work, and I love seeing our employees develop a different facet of who they are in our work environment. One of our employees came back and told us that they had started with crippling social anxiety, but they now have the ability to interact comfortably with all kinds of people. He said he could actually go to parties. This is hilarious because I wouldn't put that on my list of things I want my staff equipped to do in life, but it mattered to him, so I was happy for him.
The most challenging part of working together is definitely finding balance with our children in busy seasons. When our children were little, our roles could feel really isolating. We could swap jobs, but we could rarely relax together.
That's largely just the nature of parenting small children. Our shops are open late, sometimes until midnight, which is hard with children who wake up at 5 am. Often we would wear our kids to work, not for a full shift but long enough to connect and feel we had “been together” as a family.
Chad has a capacity for physical work that still floors me. I cannot work as hard as he can physically. His endurance and ability to keep an entire store stocked singlehandedly if needed is no small feat. But when he tries doing everything by himself, it's neither wise nor sustainable. So I usually come in with a strategy to start sharing more freedom and responsibility with our staff. Sometimes I share too much responsibility, but usually, Chad and I together strike a nice balance.
Chad is tremendously empathetic and service-oriented. He's always thinking about how he can serve our staff and make their job as easy as possible. I have a different focus. I want our staff to be set up for success, but I’m the mother bird who has no problem pushing chicks who are ready out of the nest. Chad’s drive to serve our staff and my drive to empower them work well when aimed at the shared goal of bringing joy to customers.
Our children love helping us in the store, but we limit their work to non-open hours to properly supervise them. They love helping us set up for the day. A customer once asked why a child’s handprint was in ice on the dipping case. I was mortified, but it was from Ruby leveraging her short body to stock the dipping case that morning. She couldn’t balance without stabilizing herself, and her handprint remained to tell the tale.
We have a long-running joke that I fire Sebastian every time he comes to work with me, which he always wants to do. We have found our shared intensity is at its best when focused on creating an art or lego project, the Marvel Universe, or him teaching me about Minecraft.
When he’s working for his dad, it’s a different story. Sebastian’s chocolate-dipped cherries are some of the best I’ve seen. Chad knows just the right amount of setup our son needs and, with his nurture, Sebastian makes beautiful chocolates.
One of the primary adjustments we've had to make as a family because of our business is how we celebrate holidays. There is a race called The Turkey Trot outside our Williamsburg shop on Thanksgiving Day. For a few hours in the morning, we make hundreds of hot chocolates, and then we close at noon.
The days surrounding Thanksgiving are also full of Christmas preparations. Many of our staff are with their families, so travel is out of the question for us. For several years family came in a caravan to us with food. It was a sweet gesture on their part. I would take picnicking on the Colonial Parkway with turkey sandwiches any day over an epic feast.
I would tell families thinking about starting a business to go for it. Don’t be afraid of “work to learn” opportunities, and learn to never burn bridges. Working for others when you have entrepreneurial drive can feel like torture, but the discipline involved in working for others can prepare you for your next season.
For us, it gave our future investors, employees, and partners time to get to know us and time for us to mature into the kind of people they would want to partner with. In a culture where every next step seems to automatically mean going back to school, I think our story just highlights that there are other possibilities for professional growth.
Kilwin's is open for business in Colonial Williamsburg (Prince George St) and Virginia Beach (24th St and Atlantic Ave). Stop in for a treat or gift and support a local, delicious family business. You can find Kilwin's on FB and Instagram @kilwinswilliamsburg and @kilwinsvirginiabeach.