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: Getting beyond Darwin

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Bishop Robert Barron and others working hard to evangelize the “Nones” — young adults without religious conviction — tell us that a major obstacle to a None embracing Christianity is the cultural assumption that Science Explains Everything. And if science explains it all, who needs God, revelation, Christ, or the Church? To be even more specific: if Darwin and the Darwinian theory of evolution explain the origins of us (and everything else), why bother with Genesis 1-3 and Colossians 1:15-20 (much less Augustine’s “Thou hast made us for Thee and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”)?

That’s why “Giving Up Darwin,” an essay by David Gelernter in the Spring 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, is both a fascinating article and a potential tool in the New Evangelization.

No one can accuse Dr. Gelernter of being an anti-modern knucklehead. He’s a pioneering computer scientist, a full professor at Yale, and a remarkable human being: a package from the Unabomber blew off his right hand and permanently damaged his right eye but didn’t impede his remarkable intellectual, literary, and artistic productivity.

In his Claremont Review essay, Gelernter gives full credit to what he calls “Darwin’s brilliant and lovely theory” and readily concedes that “there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin successfully explained the small adjustments by which an organism adapts to local circumstances: changes to fur density or wing style or beak shape.” But Darwinian evolution can’t “explain the big picture — [which involves] not the fine-tuning of existing species but the emergence of new ones.” What Darwin cannot explain, in short, is “the origin of species” — the title of the British naturalist’s first, revolutionary book.

The argument is complex, so it’s important to read Gelernter’s entire article carefully, and more than once. But to be desperately brief:

First, Darwinian evolutionary theory can’t explain the so-called “Cambrian explosion,” in which, half a billion years ago, a “striking variety of new organisms — including the first-ever animals — pop up suddenly in the fossil record.” How did this “great outburst” of new life forms happen? The slow-motion processes of Darwinian evolution can’t answer that question. Gelernter concludes that “the ever-expanding fossil record” doesn’t “look good for Darwin, who made clear and concrete predictions that have (so far) been falsified.” (This gaping Cambrian hole in the Darwinian account goes unremarked in the otherwise-magnificent new David H. Koch Hall of Fossils at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.)

But there is more. For “Darwin’s main problem….is molecular biology:” a scientific field that didn’t exist in his era. Given that he knew nothing about the inner-workings of cells through proteins, Darwin “did brilliantly” in explaining species adaptation. But Darwin and his Neo-Darwinian disciples can’t account for the incredible complexity of the basic building-blocks of life: for as we now know, “genes, in storing blueprints for the proteins that form the basis of cellular life, encode an awe-inspiring amount of information….Where on earth did it all (i.e., all that “profound biochemical knowledge”) come from?” From random mutations? Maybe, but very unlikely, for as Gelernter puts it, “You don’t turn up a useful protein by doodling on the back of an envelope, any more than you write a Mozart aria by assembling three sheets of staff paper and scattering notes around.”

Put the Cambrian fossil record together with the high statistical improbability that the information-dense building-blocks of life happened through random mutations and you’re forced to consider what amounts to cultural heresy: that “the explosion of detailed, precise information that was necessary to build the brand-new Cambrian organisms, and the fact that the information was encoded, represented symbolically, in DNA…” falsify the Darwinian explanation of the big picture.

David Gelernter is intrigued by “intelligent design” approaches to these evolutionary conundra but also suggests that, “as a theory,” intelligent design “would seem to have a long way to go.” But to dismiss intelligent design out of hand — to brand it piety masquerading as science — is, well, unscientific. The fossil record and molecular biology now suggest that Darwinian answers to the Big Questions constitute the real fundamentalism: a materialistic fideism that, however shaky in dealing with the facts, is nonetheless deeply entrenched in 21st-century imaginations. Thus, Gelernter asks whether today’s scientists will display Darwin’s own courage in risking cultural disdain by upsetting intellectual apple carts.

The empirical evidence suggests that the notions of a purposeful Creator and a purposeful creation cannot be dismissed as mere pre-modern mythology. That may help a few Nones out of the materialist bogs in which they’re stuck.