PACIFIC BEACH — To most visitors from out of town, Stephanie Allestad is known far and wide as “the Chocolate Lady” who helps concoct the annual Chocolate on the Beach Festival, coming next weekend with the promise of 5 miles of chocolate from Iron Springs up the beach to Moclips.
To those closer to town, Allestad has an even greater reputation for her heart than her sweet tooth.
She’s also the community liaison with the local volunteer Grays Harbor Fire District 8, and is a tireless volunteer in emergency preparedness and disaster response training for the entire North Beach area.
“If there is a disaster, I’m involved in it somehow,” Allestad jokes.
In addition to her work with Chocolate on the Beach and the fire department, she’s also involved with the Red Cross, and is a member of the county’s Citizen Corps committee, which is coordinated nationally by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
She was there when the Ocean Crest Resort restaurant burned down two years ago, arranging to feed and support all the firefighters who responded from across the North Beach. When fire destroyed the Beach Avenue Bed and Breakfast owned by Mim and Paul Groesse on Jan. 25, Allestad was on the scene to give assistance.
“She showed up that night after I had run out the door with no shoes on, just socks, and my feet were soaking wet. She brought me socks out of her own drawer,” Mim Groesse said of Allestad’s help the morning of the fire.
Allestad and her husband, Jonathan, a contractor, made Pacific Beach their home through a series of circumstances. They bought their Pacific Beach house in 2005, and then moved full time from the Mill Creek-Everett area the next year.
“It was going to be a vacation rental and then we found out that we live in the only neighborhood that doesn’t allow overnight rentals, and so this was going to become our retirement home,” she explained.
As a general contractor, Jonathan knew he could work just about anywhere.
“We were driving back from the beach, and he said, ‘What if we were just to move out there?’ ”
A few months later, it was a done deal.
“I tell you, I’m busier here than I ever was,” Stephanie said.
The devastating December 2007 storm was what caused Allestad to take such a proactive interest in preparedness and in the local fire department, which depends on community volunteers.
“I honestly feel we are now one of the best prepared for a disaster,” she says after the storm proved to be a wake-up call for the community.
Now, she regularly helps share the alerts from Grays Harbor Emergency Management with the local hotel/motel/vacation rental industry so they can keep their guests informed of the latest conditions.
“That way, they can let their travelers and their customers know if it’s going to be a storm weekend or if something is going on, and they can keep people aware,” Allestad said.
That network came about because she also happened to have all the emails of local accommodations because of the festival.
“We actually did a training scenario with our (lodging) accommodations,” she said of a preparedness drill for how to respond in the first six minutes after an earthquake on the coast. The goal is to get to high ground as soon as possible to escape a tsunami.
For Allestad, that means getting to the Pacific Beach Fire Station, which is equipped now for just such a disaster.
“A lot of our citizens out here have go-packs already — their little backpacks filled with their stuff. And they know to head straight for the fire hall,” she said. “That’s been our mantra.”
The Chocolate on the Beach Festival began much like Allestad came to live at the beach. It started as a fundraiser for the Museum of the North Beach.
“I had done a beer-tasting event for them and then a wine-tasting, and we were trying to find an event that was more family friendly to raise money for the (museum’s) Depot project,” she said of the efforts to build a replica of the Northern Pacific Railroad depot to house the museum.
She saw a TV show about a small town that held a chocolate baking contest that raised $5,000, so she suggested the same sort of event be tried to raise funds on the North Beach.
“And so about seven months later, we had the first Chocolate Festival,” Allestad said.
That was 2008, and the festival is now its own fundraising event with a Grays Harbor Tourism grant because it helps bring in tourists during the off-season.
The event at first was scheduled as close to Valentine’s Day as possible, but Allestad said that proved difficult for chocolate vendors to come since they were so busy at home servicing their normal customers. So the idea was to do it the weekend after Presidents Day weekend.
“The whole idea is to bring people in when they normally wouldn’t come” to the beach, she said.
So it was moved to the end of the month, and it now includes dozens of “chocolatiers” and vendors from around the Northwest.
“It’s a great time for them to sell their overstock and their samples from Valentine’s Day,” she said.
The event also is low-key without the competition among vendors that sometimes occurs at larger festivals.
“It’s just, let’s go to the beach and go have fun. It’s going to rain sideways, so you have to be prepared for that,” Allestad said of the attitude she employs. “I wouldn’t know what to do if we had nice weather. Our first year we just embraced it and said, ‘It’s raining chocolate.’ That’s been our slogan ever since.”
Next month, Westport Fire Chief Dennis Benn and Allestad will teach a class on how to deal with a disaster at an event.
Part of being prepared is the ability to adjust to changing conditions, and the festival now is a prime example. Allestad notes the chocolate festival had a tsunami warning during the middle of festivities three years ago, and it also has endured a snow and ice storm.
The event now raises funds separate from the museum effort, with this year’s recipients being: Grays Harbor Volunteer Search & Rescue; Captain Bluebird; Grays Harbor Fire District 8; Paddle to Quinault — 2013; Copalis Community Church Food Bank and the Summer Free Lunch Program.
“Now, we’re able not only to support the business community with this chocolate festival and the way it’s grown, we’re able to support the entire North Beach with the grants for the different organizations,” she said. “I’m really excited about it.”
Since being involved with the festival, Allestad acknowledges she has a much deeper appreciation for chocolate and a much more refined taste. Her favorite has been a Lillie Bell Chocolate (from Central Point, Ore.) “Smokey Blue Cheese Truffle” rolled in hazelnuts.
“I had that and it was like, ‘Wow, I did not know chocolate could taste like this,’ ” she said. “It was salty and sweet. And I didn’t like dark chocolate growing up. As Americans, our chocolate palates are not very good. The rest of the world has had the European, Belgian chocolates and things like that.”
She also talks about loving the taste of a creamy, cayenne caramel.
“My choclatiers know that I love spicy. I like to go for what is different, because for me, a truffle is a truffle is a truffle,” she said. “Show me something different.”
Other than the bloody red steak she treasures after the festival finally ends to wash the chocolate taste away, it’s the community spirit that Allestad savors most about her involvement as a volunteer.
“It’s your friends, it’s your neighbors,” she said of her work with the fire department and in preparedness. “It affects you differently.
I volunteer with the Red Cross as well and go out on fire scenes all over the county. Wherever I go, there’s probably a good 25 percent chance I’m going to know that victim, or I am going to know of them.”
Plus, she adds with a bawdy, spicy-sweet laugh: “I have a real rough job. I get to work with firemen.”