WESTLAKE, Ohio — This weekend, families all across Northeast Ohio will gather to give thanks to the mothers in their lives and the irreplaceable roles they fill. For the owner of a Westlake chocolate shop, her mother’s memory has not only influenced the product that she sells but the purpose that it serves.
Located at 27014 Center Ridge Road, ZuZu Chocolates is tucked away in a nondescript shopping complex next to a hair salon, music store and a driving school. Adorned with sleek shelves stacked with product and an Instagram-worthy flower wall, the chocolate shop is quite literally the new kid on the block. Although the business was born in her home kitchen three years ago, Tamara Mlynowski's retail storefront will celebrate its one-month anniversary on Sunday — Mother’s Day.
Perhaps it’s more fitting than you might realize.
“The name is very special. My mom’s name is Zahia, but everyone has called her ZuZu,” Mlynowski said. “We knew nothing about chocolate. We just got it in our minds that it’s about my mom. That’s what she likes and we pushed it.”
Previously an accountant by trade, Mlynowski’s hand-dipped delicacies, which include cake pops, chocolate-covered fruit, cookies and much more, are the result of countless hours watching YouTube, reading recipes and other online research.
She started selling her confectionery creations out of her home before investing in a small trailer. It was a prudent investment, especially as COVID-19 pushed events and gatherings outside. Her business has continued to grow, Mlynowski said.
And her mother has been there to guide her every step of the way.
“The decision to sell chocolate only came because that is my mom’s favorite dessert,” Mlynowski said. “Growing up, she used to hide Kit-Kats from us so no one would get it. She’s my best friend.”
The relationship Mlynowski has with her mother has been one of her life’s covalent bonds, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been tested. Fourteen years ago, Mlynowski’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive, debilitating disease that starts with mild memory loss before eventually impacting the patient’s ability to control thought, language and important motor skills.
There is no cure.
Out of something so horrible, however, has emerged something so beautiful.
“In 2018, my husband and I got married and we hosted my family over for Christmas. My mom had just been put on [home] hospice,” Mlynowski said. “We wanted to have [our family members to] go home with something that she likes which is, of course, chocolate. Everyone loved it and my husband and I had a fun time making stuff in the kitchen. Then, by January, he said, 'Tamara, why don’t you do a little side business and donate to the Alzheimer’s Association and name it after your mom?”
She didn’t have to think twice. Last year, part of the proceeds from ZuZu Chocolates helped to raise nearly $10,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Longest Day” fundraiser.
“ZuZu Chocolates has been the best partner that I could ever ask for; they are involved in everything that we do,” said Lindsay Walker, the executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Cleveland chapter. “Just to know that every item that they sell in this place — they give a proceed because they believe in our mission so much — is amazing and astonishing and astounding all at the same time.”
Although her mother is still alive, Mlynowski said she requires a large continuum of care; ZuZu has lost her ability to take care of herself. Taking care of her mother is mentally, emotionally and physically taxing for everyone.
And perhaps that is the greatest support that the Alzheimer’s Association has provided her, Mlynowski said.
“We met so many people that have been affected by Alzheimer's and we didn’t really realize it,” Mlynowski said. “They have always been there for us and it’s the only thing that our family really relates to.
"To not be able to enjoy the Mother’s Day with my mom that you always envisioned, we push harder and it feels good to help donate. It feels good to donate in my mom’s honor because I know she would be proud if she knew what was happening.”
On June 21, tens of thousands of people in Northeast Ohio and across the world will mark the Summer Solstice — the ‘longest day’ — to fight the darkness of Alzheimer’s through an activity of their choice. It is one of the organization’s most important fundraisers. Mlynowski already knows what she’s going to do that day.