German Village Gazette

Village notebook

Winans owners staunch supporters of historic preservation

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German Village volunteers pose for a photo in their hair nets at the Winans Fine Chocolates and Coffees factory.
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I had the honor last week of getting an up-close-and-personal tour of an absolutely breathtaking piece of local historic preservation.

What I didn't know until the tour was under way was that I was in the company of a breathtakingly dedicated historic preservationist.

The invitation to tour came from Laurie Winans Reiser.

You may know her and her husband, Joe, from their Third Street coffee and chocolate shop called Winans Fine Chocolates and Coffees.

Laurie and Joe have been fantastic supporters of the German Village Society ever since they opened the shop (their eighth -- there are now nine) just in time for Haus und Garten Tour 2011.

Laurie called me with an idea: Could she host the Visitors Center volunteer staff at the company's Piqua factory?

Well, heck yes. As long as I can tag along.

We agreed.

She showed us the 3,000-square-foot chocolate factory -- staffed by just six long-time candymakers -- which has been in her family for four generations.

She wanted us to see that Winans' claim to "handmade chocolates" is not a marketing line, but a labor happily undertaken every day by Winans staff.

And that's just the candy.

Winans has a separate historic carriage house facility in Piqua where they roast their own coffee and create gift baskets that are shipped all over the world -- including to the likes of Winans fan Joe Cocker (I will show my age by noting that he wrote "Up Where We Belong, which was in the '80s movie "Officer and a Gentleman").

Brenda, the coffee roaster and tour leader at the carriage house, told her employment story to our happy band of travelers.

Brenda said she was managing retail stores for Winans when she had an idea.

Winans should roast its own coffee beans to add to the gourmet experience of the chocolates.

Today, Brenda hand-roasts 1,000 pounds of beans a week with the help of Joe Reiser and during holidays when home from college, fifth-generation coffee roaster and chocolatier, 19-year-old Wilson Reiser!

The advantage of this field trip for the volunteers is they can now talk much more deeply about our Village chocolatier when visitors ask their recommendations.

But when we were done touring the Winans facilities, Laurie thought we'd like to see one other Piqua landmark.

It was the breathtakingly restored Fort Piqua Plaza.

Erected in 1891 as a grand hotel in the center of town, it once hosted the likes of Harry Houdini, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft.

But by the time it hosted its last guests in 1989 -- as a flophouse -- it was raining in two floors worth of crumbling space and all of the grand furnishings and appointments were gone.

Fast forward to 2001, when a group of preservation activists -- including our friend, Laurie -- formed the Hotel/Library Legacy Alliance.

The group dedicated themselves to finding the money and the talent to properly bring the historic structure back to grandeur.

During our tour last week, Laurie asked Piqua historian and library director Jim Oda to give us the tour.

The pair proudly showed us the restored staircase and fireplace, the beautiful original woodwork and the sister mirrors that managed to be saved from the hotel's wreckage.

Jim and Laurie spoke with such pride of the five-year effort to raise $20 million and convince the library board to become the project's main tenant.

Winans Fine Chocolates and Coffees is also a tenant, taking Laurie back to the site of her great-grandfather's Piqua bakery and, for her, completing a circle of history in her hometown.

The Fort Piqua Plaza project was recognized with a national award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2009.

I recognized in Laurie that day a mentor in preservation that German Village can proudly call a partner.

German Village Society Director Shiloh Todorov submitted the Village notebook column to the ThisWeek German Village Gazette.

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