Topsail Island Trading Company
Go to any forum where travelers give suggestions about Topsail Island vacation activities, and you will consistently see recommendations to visit Topsail Island Trading Company, with great emphasis on their famous fudge.
What’s all the fuss about? Is it really as amazing as everyone claims? What’s so great about this fudge? I could just buy some at the supermarket, after all.
RCI+Topsail decided to investigate and see if Topsail Island Trading Company really is the memory making, drool inducing, timeless icon that vacationers claim. We were going to put our finds into a video, but we can’t stop stuffing our face with fudge, so…..
The Beginning of TIT.Co
Originally opened in April 1992, Topsail Island Trading Company (or TIT.Co, if you want to make a funny acronym out of it, like some who love the company call it with a chuckle), is a unique gift shop with a specialty in fudge. Before the name was changed to Topsail Island Trading Company, it was a little gift shop called The Ship’s Wheel. It was located in the same building, in the space currently occupied by a florist. The Ship’s Wheel is where the fudge making first began.
A Walk About
Right off N New River Drive in Surf City, the vibrant teal exterior shouts hello from its position next to the boat storage and the waterfront condos.
The parking lot is spacious, which is really great in the busy summer months. The front door deposits you into a bright and spacious store, filled with colorful beachwear and little trinkets to remember your vacation by. The merchandise is set up exceptionally well. You will be immediately led from display to display, naturally drifting deeper into the shop as your eyes rove across striped sweaters stamped with “Topsail Island,” white floppy sun hats, cat shaped coffee mugs, seashell themed stationary, rustic signs, beard balm (yeah, that’s not a typo – beard growers know!), Freakers, and bright green sea turtle wall decor. There’s so much to see and you have to see it all.
The merchandise ranges from typical Topsail Island memorabilia to end caps delightfully stuffed with all the most random and eclectic items you never knew you needed until you saw it. That’s when you realize you HAVE TO HAVE IT. Or you suddenly realize this is the best place ever to shop for unique gifts.
But then…. Over near the jewelry counter, where you can find gorgeous, locally made items there’s another counter that will stop you in your tracks. It’s next to all the people with their noses in the air (because they are sniffing that sweet chocolate, not because they are snobs). It’s the world famous Topsail Island Trading Company fudge. If it’s not actually world famous, it should be.
160+ Flavors of Fudge
When John and Claire Noto purchased Topsail Island Trading Company in 2007, they knew the fudge had to stay. They still get all their dry ingredients from Calico Cottage, but they have carefully tweaked, changed, and invented recipes over the years, that are all their own.
“We’ve taken the package and honed it into our own unique product,” Claire explained. “If someone has a craving for something, we’ll try to make it in a fudge!”
She’s not kidding. Over 160 flavors of fudge are made in rotation. If you happen to be incredibly creative and something you crave isn’t on the list, just go talk to Tuck Blenk, resident fudge maker. He’s capable of putting together mouth-watering creations that will make you throw aside all manners as you quickly devour every bite (without saving a piece for your spouse, despite your best intentions), then search the box with your tongue for any lingering crumbs (sure, it’s not a classy look, but if you’ve had the fudge, you know what I’m talking about). Tuck’s wife Barb, also works in the jewelry department, which is pretty neat.
Fudge at this shop is more than an impulse buy. It’s a specialty with around 11 tons of fudge sold annually. In just one day this summer, they sold 467 pounds of fudge! This broke the previous record of 441 pounds of fudge set in 2010. Some of the top sellers include Turtle, Tiger, and Salted Caramel. Claire’s favorite flavor is the Salted Caramel Nut Log. The melt-in-your-mouth concoction is made with roasted and salted peanuts, caramel, and Jiff Peanut Butter straight from the jar, creating an orchestra of flavors perfectly synced to showcase the star of the show, sweet and creamy vanilla fudge.
Summer time visitors force fudge making into an all day affair. Someone arrives at 6 in the morning to start the process and someone else comes in the afternoon to finish it up. If you weren’t able to get your fill in the summer, but you don’t live close enough to make the drive, you’re in luck! You can actually order the fudge from their website all year long. Additionally, you can place an order on the phone or in person. They ship all over, all year long. If you are coming in to town and want to make sure your favorite flavor is in stock, give them a call a few days before you arrive and they will be sure to have it waiting for you.
Many fudge orders are placed by corporations for Christmas (sounds like some good companies to work for!). They have also made fudge for wedding favors and other events. Sometimes, you might notice a younger kid behind the counter. No, that’s not Tuck. It’s John and Claire’s son, Quinn. The 7 year old loves to put on an apron and try his hand at the fudge making with Tuck. His little sisters, 6 year old Rosalie and 4 year old Leona, prefer to help at the jewelry counter, though they are quick to help test out the quality of Quinn’s fudge.
A Family Business
The Noto’s children aren’t really employees, but the business really is a family one. Claire grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Like so many who love Topsail Island, her parents bought a beach house here in 1988. They spent summers and autumns here, falling deeper and deeper in love with the sandy beaches and southern charm.
In 2002, Claire’s parents, Grier and Kristin Fleischhauer (say that last name three times fast) purchased The Gift Basket, a gift shop on the southern part of the island, 702 S Anderson Blvd, Topsail Beach. After happy success, they decided to open a second location closer to the bridge. John and Claire were working in restaurants in Northern Virginia at the time. They jumped at the opportunity to have a stake in The Gift Basket.
Claire has fond memories of hopping on her bike, peddling down to the shop, and buying little trinkets, Topsail t-shirts, and of course, fudge. The second Gift Basket location they opened was next door to the current location of Sugar Island. The small space was the perfect induction into retail management for the Notos, who managed the Surf City location of The Gift Basket, while Claire’s parents concentrated on the Topsail Beach location.
In the fall of 2007 Topsail Island Trading Company was up for sale. The excellent location, larger floor space, and well known name was too good to pass up. They closed up the second Gift Basket and moved over to the new shop, incorporating everything under the Topsail Island Trading Company name.
On the South End, Claire’s parents continue to manage The Gift Basket. Some merchandise can be found at both stores and some can be found exclusively at just one or the other. Our favorite item to be found in both, is a custom made Topsail Island Monopoly game Topsail-Olopy. It even features some of our favorite Topsail spots. Grier had the game custom made and we are obsessed. Not only is it the perfect gift for friends, teachers, and new home buyers (real estate agents, you should really snag these up!), it’s the ultimate rainy day game. It seriously needs to be a staple at every beach rental.
“I really enjoy working with family,” Claire shared. “You hear a lot of horror stories about that, but we’ve been really fortunate in being able to work together. I like the flexibility in being able to be available to my kids, which is possible because we’ve been truly blessed in having really great employees that we can count on.”
You probably know at least a few people who work at the company. With an average of 20 employees during the summer months, they hire several local teenagers. Many start with them in high school and work summers all the way through college. They have even been invited to a few weddings of former employees who were part of the company from high school, all the way through college. That sort of employee dedication is likely due to the bosses themselves.
Meet the Notos
If you were to describe John and Claire Noto in one word, it would be: kind. They are a laid back, sweet family of six, with 3 young kids and a daughter in college. While they run the store together, they have found ways to share the duties according to their personal skills.
John works a lot on the floor displays. He loves buying toys (don’t we all?) but also works closely with the staff on the floor, making sure things get done consistently and done well. Claire is responsible for purchasing clothing and jewelry (fun!) and the back office tasks, like paying bills (way less fun).
There must be something special about this area that makes it possible for couples to thrive in running a business together. We’ve seen this dynamic play out beautifully for other local businesses, like Ecological Marine Adventure, Burrito Shak, and Holly Ridge Veterinary Hospital. And yet, working with your spouse always comes with it’s own set of unique challenges.
“I like seeing a different side of John as he interacts with employees and customers. It’s nice being together. It would be a totally different life if he worked somewhere else. I couldn’t do it by myself. I would never be able to do everything, and especially what he does,” Claire said, her blonde ponytail swinging as she shook her head for emphasis.
It’s obvious when you first meet her, that soft-spoken Claire is wouldn’t say something unkind about another person, even if it were true. She’s quick to grin, the kind of smile that shines all the way to her blue eyes. Her kind, sincere demeanor makes you want to be her friend. Maybe it’s her transparency or her way of making others feel at ease, a skill that comes from her deep desire to show love to others.
You might already know John and Claire from their community involvement. John volunteers with leading Cub Scouts and at their church, Renovation Church in Hampstead. Claire is also highly involved in their church, teaching the toddlers on Sunday mornings. She also helps out in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom and enjoys her weekly Bible study. The Bible – and the God of the Bible – are deeply important to the Noto family. Their desire to love others the same way that Jesus loves them, is demonstrated in the way they lead their team and serve in the community.
Their goal is to lead by example, treating their employees with respect, while guiding them with love, patience, and compassion. Instead of being rigid, they try to be gracious and encouraging (a feat on its own, if you have ever employed a teenager!).
When the Notos aren’t working, volunteering, or at church, you will likely find them at the beach or on the field. Quinn plays football and Rosalie practices her spelling as a miniature cheerleader.
What beach? I’m here for the fudge!
That deep love that John and Claire have for people, sets their business apart. They know that Topsail Island Trading Company is more than a place to buy a souvenir.
“We really like seeing people come back year after year and to be a part of their Topsail experience. We tell our employees every year, ‘People save up all year to come here on vacation. Make it special. Make it memorable for them.’ We want to be a part of their great memories.” – Claire Noto
And special, they make it. From signature fudge flavors to a customized Topsail Island Monopoly games, John and Claire Noto strive to accommodate all requests.
“Just knowing that we have generations of people coming back to the store is unique and special. The Topsail Island Trading Company has really become a family tradition to so many.” Claire explained. “Families come back and look forward to tasting the fudge and picking out their own flavors. That experience is part of their vacation. It’s special to be a part of that.”