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Gilbert Johnson, co-owner, The Chocolate Bar Houston 2002 - Comeback Kids!

That's right, folks, chocolate's making a comeback. Did it ever go away? you may ask. Well, for most of us, no. But health-conscious types now have a new reason to indulge: Chocolate is good for you. A recent Penn State review says cocoa beans are loaded with flavonoids, which have strong antioxidant effects and can lower cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health. (Remember the scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper when the physician recommends a hot fudge sundae as holistic medicine? Not so crazy, huh?)

Whatever their reasons for going back to the dark stuff, local chocolate cravers should be grateful that Gilbert Johnson didn't like Florida. If he had, he might still be there today, and Houston would never have known the fantasyland that is The Chocolate Bar.

Johnson's love affair with chocolate began two decades ago in Kansas City, Missouri. Driven by his passion, he moved to Florida with a business partner to open his own store. After a brief detour through Austin (which, lucky for us, Johnson also disliked), he settled in Houston in the fall of '98 to retire and be an artist. But he was unfulfilled. He longed to return to business -- and to making chocolate.

"For me to be totally happy, I have to have my chocolate world," says Johnson. And does he ever. Since The Chocolate Bar opened two years ago, it has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Houston demanded 2,000 pounds of milk chocolate last Christmas for the chocolate-covered popcorn alone.

Johnson agrees that chocolate is great for your heart, but he's not talking medicine. He sums up the success of his business with one word: comfort. "After 9/11, our business just went out the ceiling, because everybody was like, 'Oh, I just need a piece of chocolate.' "

"It's about fun and happiness," Johnson adds. "It brings back unbelievably happy thoughts." As customers poke around the shop, marveling at the chocolate ballet slippers (which one clever visitor said were "too too"), the chocolate golf sets, the solid chocolate baby bottles, the violins, the dental kits (!), the dipped potato chips and the outrageous homemade ice cream concoctions, "You can see 'em having these flashbacks," Johnson says. "And regression therapy. I call chocolate a very soothing regression therapy."

It's enough to make you feel like a kid in a candy store. But as Johnson puts it -- and when you visit, you'll know exactly what he means -- "This is not candy. This is chocolate."

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