From corporate exec to marshmallow maestro

Owner Gail Warner at Bridge Street Chocolates in Phoenixville with her new line of chocolate-covered marshmallows. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )

Stacked on trays in the cramped rear of Gail Warner's shop, enticing pillows of sugar gleam with a fresh chocolate coating.

Warner proudly pulls out a tray of marshmallows. It's a warm Thursday in July, and she has just finished hand-dipping a batch of 50. She predicts that they will be gone by the weekend.

Already known by locals for her chocolate, Warner, who owns Bridge Street Chocolates in Phoenixville, is drawing customers from across Chester County and farther with the new marshmallows.

The corporate executive-turned-candymaker's shop may be part of an upswing for Phoenixville, a borough historically far less affluent than most in Chester County but that today touts its "rebirth."

"It was probably less than 10 years ago [that] you didn't want to drive down that street at night," Warner said.

Now, Bridge Street is Phoenixville's dining center, with restaurants such as the Great American Pub and Hotel. Bridge Street Chocolates sits right across from the site of Phoenix Village, a planned development of luxury apartments and shops.

Warner concocted espresso marshmallows in May for the 2015 Taste of Phoenixville festival. She wanted a new take on a traditional dessert - and a sweet that wouldn't melt in summer weather.

"But then they told me to coat it in chocolate!" Warner, 52, said with a laugh.

She listened. And her chocolate-dipped variations on the campfire treat have brought unexpected business.

"It's my addiction," said Chris Pesta, 51, a teacher at Chester County Intermediate Unit, as she ordered bourbon marshmallows.

Pesta, of Phoenixville, used to drive three hours round-trip to Spring Lake, N.J., for chocolate. Now she comes to Bridge Street twice a week.

On that afternoon, Pesta and her sister came in just after a bride and her mother came to pick up a special order for the wedding. Not long after, a group of Phoenix Village Art Center summer campers filed in. Warner offered truffles on the house.

It has been 41/2 years since she quit her job as a unit president of the unclaimed property services division at Keane Organization in King of Prussia.

At the time, she was nearing 48 - the age at which her father died of a heart attack - and wondered whether she would be satisfied with her life were she to die.

Warner decided to take a gamble on what had been a lifelong dream. She left her job and took a crash course at the Chocolate Academy in Chicago - then taught herself the rest.

Her marshmallow technique was developed by watching YouTube videos and tweaking the recipe until it was perfect, she said.

"I'm not a trained chef. I'm just a Jersey girl who loves chocolate, and I figured it all out," said Warner, who grew up in Titusville, Mercer County.

The shop's other offerings are equally ambrosial: dark chocolate sea salt drops, chocolate-covered blueberries, and a variety of truffles.

Still, the marshmallows beckon.

"People are coming in and they're spending $25 on marshmallows," Warner said.

That'll get you a pound of the sticky stuff, about 10 marshmallows. Warner makes them from gelatin, water, flavoring, organic cane sugar, and corn syrup in small six-quart batches and does everything by hand. The price is "what they're worth, because that's how much time it takes," she said.

Silky and spongy, melt-in-your-mouth, the marshmallows make their store-bought kin seem tough and dry by comparison. They come in vanilla, bourbon-cinnamon, coconut butter rum, espresso, and peanut butter, all coated in decadent chocolate. Warner makes some batches with brown rice syrup instead of corn syrup.

A warm woman who sports a "Shop Small" button on her well-used brown apron, she largely attributes her success to local support. She's now president of the Phoenixville Area Business Association, and says Phoenixville has become a draw for people all over.

"What do you do when you have King of Prussia Mall . . . minutes down the road?" said Barbara Cohen, a supervisor in neighboring Schuylkill Township who stopped by the store on that recent afternoon. "You give them a reason to come to Phoenixville, and Gail is a perfect example of that kind of business."

Though the shop takes orders only by phone or in person - Warner says she'll start online next month - it is beginning to attract customers from farther-away spots such as Kennett Square and Downingtown.

The Red Inn, a hotel in Cape Cod, Mass. - where Warner was married four years ago - has ordered 10,000 custom chocolate tiles for its centennial. One customer from Bala Cynwyd took Bridge Street's vegan chocolates all the way to India.

"They're all baby steps, but it's unbelievable. You wouldn't think this tiny little shop in Phoenixville would have the reach out to Cape Cod and Bucks County," Warner said.

Some called Warner crazy for leaving her higher-paying job, but she said it has been worth it.

"Most people said, 'I wish I could do what you're doing,' and I said to them, 'You can,' " she said. "You just have to step out of the fear and just do it."