Family-owned Stargazer Fine Chocolates is in the business of joy

Aaron Lambert

As a father and his young daughter walk through the door of Stargazer Fine Chocolates, the little girl excitedly scanning the shop and pointing to the chocolate hippos and colorful truffles, John D’Onofrio looks over with a smile and says, “That’s my joy.”

John’s daughter, Karen, is responsible for hand-crafting the many delectable treats that fill the shelves of Stargazer Fine Chocolates, but as John says, they’re really in the business of bringing joy to the community.

“What I really think we do is spread neighborhood and joy,” John said.

Stargazer has only been open for one year, but in that time, they’ve made quite a footprint in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood, mostly through chocolate-filled, word-of-mouth accolades. And the chocolate really does speak for itself. What’s sweeter, however, is the unlikely tale of how Stargazer came to be.

From theology to…chocolate?

The D’Onofrio family are longtime parishioners of Christ the King Parish, which is where Stargazer’s story begins. After majoring in International Studies at the University of Denver, Karen spent two years in the Congo doing missionary work with the Kenoshan Daughters of Charity. Serving the people of Africa was a life-changing experience for Karen, but upon her return, she decided she wanted to spend time in her own community. However, she also returned with a new zeal for the faith and began pursuing a master’s degree in Theology through the Augustine Institute.

“Most AI grads do [something in] religious education, but I wasn’t as interested in that,” Karen said. “I saw it more as a life degree — knowing more about my faith would just help me in life.”

Karen graduated from the AI in 2015 and was met by another crossroads in her life. What was next? As it happened, her life would take an unexpected turn, one that neither her nor her dad nor any of her family would have ever guessed but has been a blessing from the start.

It started with a chocolatier the D’Onofrio family had gone to for years. John had become friendly with him over the years, and upon his retirement, they considered taking over his shop. While that didn’t end up happening, Karen, fresh out of the AI with a theology degree and no idea of what to do next, did what any reasonable theology graduate would do: She took on an apprenticeship with the family chocolatier and learned how to make chocolate. While John and his wife, Norene, initially questioned why Karen had spent all that time studying theology only to go and start making chocolate, they saw how happy it made her.

Karen D’Onforio (left), along with her father John (right) and the rest of her family, opened Stargazer Fine Chocolates in 2017. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

“Every time I went to the chocolate shop and saw her working in the back, she had a smile on her face,” John recalled. “That was what was most important for me.”

After diving into all things chocolate and learning everything there was to know, Karen became a master chocolatier. Next came the fun part: making chocolate.

“I set up shop in our dining room and got to work,” Karen said with a laugh. The first iteration of what would become Stargazer began by giving out the chocolates to friends and family. Eventually, they decided to “go for it” as a full-fledged business, Karen said.

After temporarily moving shop to a commissary kitchen in Montbello, Father Daniel Leonard, who was pastor of Christ the King at the time, offered the parish’s kitchen as Karen’s new working space. John, who has a background as a lawyer, jumped through the arduous hurdles of getting Christ the King’s kitchen the proper licenses to be able to sell out of.

While Stargazer worked out of Christ the King Parish, John affectionately remembers being called Willy Wonka by the children there because of all the chocolate he constantly had with him. From the beginning, a key part of Stargazer has been giving back to the community, and it started at the parish.

“We started making our chocolate there, “ John said. “We would have sales in the church hall after certain Masses. We gave all of our profits from those sales to the school there.”

A family affair

After growing steadily and getting a handle on production, it was time for Stargazer to find a more permanent home. Located at 700 Colorado Blvd., next to Snooze and across from Trader Joe’s, Stargazer offers tasty treats for all to enjoy, and has added a selection of hot beverages like coffee and, of course, hot cocoa, to its menu. They can even create custom chocolate bars with corporate logos and other personalized elements, which they have done for St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in the past.

Stargazer has operated as a family affair since the beginning. John handles the business and marketing side of things, Karen’s brother, Tim, is the assistant chocolatier for the shop, and Karen’s mom Norene takes care of everything else.

“Without [my mom], we would fall apart,” Karen said. “She packages almost everything, she finds the boxes we need…anything we need, she’ll take care of.”

The name Stargazer comes from the stargazer lily, which most Catholics know is an allusion to St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers. They even have an image of St. Joseph hanging on the wall of their shop.

“We also really like the name Stargazer because it’s dreamy and romantic and [it’s] chocolate,” Karen said. “It fit with the whole feeling of what we were going for.”

A custom chocolate with the St. John Vianney Seminary crest. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

You won’t find free Wi-Fi or a drive-thru window at Stargazer. What you will find is a cozy, welcoming atmosphere that invites face-to-face conversation, fellowship, and of course, the chance to indulge in delicious chocolate.

Karen insists that her theology background and understanding of the faith comes in handy when she’s making the chocolates. In fact, from a spiritual perspective, there’s a lot more to chocolate than people realize, she said.

“I try to make my chocolates beautiful and offering that beauty to the world is also something that is rooted in my faith — to make something that looks beautiful and tastes beautiful and can bring you joy,” she said. “I think chocolate is really something that has a theological value to it because it grows on the cacao tree and it’s very different. Humans have to engage our intellect that God gave us to figure out how to make chocolate from the cacao bean.”

These nods to Catholicism, however subtle, are intentional on the part of Stargazer, even though Karen jokes about having a “theologically-competent staff.” The faith of the D’Onofrio family isn’t just the foundation of how they treat other people; it is the heart of how they run their business. John recalled inviting an older woman waiting for a table at Snooze to come into the shop to have a seat. When the woman remarked that she wasn’t going to buy anything, John said he didn’t ask her to. He simply asked her to come sit down.

“It’s that simple,” he said. “You don’t have to look real far to be a good Christian or a good Catholic. Opportunities abound.”

Simplicity is what it’s all about for Karen, John and the rest of the D’Onofrio family, who want Stargazer to be known as a business that simply brings joy to the community.

“It’s such a happy business,” Karen said. “It’s joyful.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier edition of this article misstated which Denver neighborhood Stargazer Fine Chocolates is located in. It is part of the Hilltop neighborhood, not Hale. We apologize for the error.

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr