For those with a sweet tooth or a hankering for a hot beverage on a crisp evening, French Broad Chocolate Lounge is a popular destination. The café-cum-sweet shop, named for the river that cuts through Asheville, is run by husband-and-wife owners Dan and Jael Rattigan. It serves chocolate bars, truffles, cakes and drinking chocolates to a line of customers that sometimes stretches out the door and nearly around the block.
[image-with-info caption="bottom-left" source="Adams Wood and Rod Murphy" alignment="right" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/P1010669.jpg"]The lounge is where “choco-philes” can sit, relax and “be with their chocolate.”[/image-with-info]
Watch the people in line and you’ll see smiles and laughter instead of impatience. You’ll also see regulars offering tips to the newcomers as they wait: “You have to try the carrot cake” and “The liquid truffles are to die for!”
Since opening their chocolate lounge in 2008, the Rattigans have built a business through both raving fans and collaborative relationships with suppliers and local businesses. In a town that values locally-brewed beer and locally-sourced food, a craft chocolate maker fits right in.
“In the beginning, we thought we were building a sweet little chocolate shop in a small town,” Jael Rattigan says of the company, which has grown to 57 employees. “We had no idea the kind of phenomenon we were creating and the monster it would become.”
[image-with-info source="Adams Wood and Rod Murphy" alignment="full-width" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/MG_2992a.jpg"]“Being a popular business is a responsibility we don’t take lightly. We want to make Asheville proud.”[/image-with-info]
There’s plenty to be proud of. In October, one of the company’s specialty dark chocolates took first place for “Best Origin Chocolate Bar” at the Northwest Chocolate Festival. The win—for a 68 percent cacao made with beans they import from a farmer friend in Nicaragua—bested craft chocolates from 21 countries. It also solidified French Broad Chocolates’ standing as one of the craft chocolate movement’s rising stars.
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Closer to home, the Rattigans expect to serve up their delicious treats in a freshly renovated, 4,200-square-foot downtown location in time for the 2014 holiday shopping season. They also recently completed updating a manufacturing plant nearby that makes the chocolate bars, nibs, mixes and drinks the company sells at the lounge. Free self-guided tours of the factory are available on a daily basis and customers can pay for guided tours on Saturdays. The company sells more of its delicacies at the factory, on its website and through other online retailers and local grocers.
Business has grown to the point where the company imports 15 tons of cacao beans a year directly from farmers in Costa Rica, Peru and Nicaragua. The factory produces up to 800 chocolate bars a day as well as other confections. All told, sales have increased from $350,000 in 2008, when the Rattigans first opened the lounge, to $2.4 million in 2013, making French Broad Chocolates one of the faster-growing businesses in town.
The secret to their success may have started with the deliciousness of their treats. But along the way, the Rattigans have planted deep roots in the community. They supply the chocolate nibs that creameries use in ice creams and local breweries use in their chocolate stouts. They are active members of the Asheville Downtown Association, Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and other civic organizations.
They’re also staunch advocates of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, or ASAP, which supports sustainable agriculture in the region, and the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, which supports local independent businesses. They even sell a line of Asheville-grown chocolate truffles with local ingredients such as honey, lavender and strawberries.
“They are such passionate advocates for both downtown and the great collaborative artisan offerings that are such a big part of our community’s culture,” says Marla Tambellini, deputy director and vice president of marketing for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Love, Then Chocolate
For Dan, 34, and Jael, 40, love came first—then chocolate. The couple met at her brother’s wedding in 2003 in Minneapolis, fell in love, bought an old bus, and drove it to Costa Rica, where they opened a restaurant.
[featured-member-plugin alignment="left" username="Jael_Rattigan"]
They used the business to experiment with local ingredients such as vanilla, black pepper, and especially cacao, chocolate’s essential ingredient. The Rattigans ran the restaurant for close to two years before heading back to the States; they wanted a place to raise their growing family, and after hearing good things about Asheville, moved there in 2006.
In Asheville, the couple honed their culinary skills and love of chocolate by making truffles and caramels. They used ingredients they learned about in Costa Rica and combined them with fruit and herbs sourced locally in North Carolina. They made it a priority to buy locally as well as from farmers in cacao-growing countries near the Equator such as Nicaragua.
[image-with-info source="Adams Wood and Rod Murphy" alignment="full-width" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/MG_2729a1.jpg"]“We make good stuff, buy good stuff and continue to give back so we can continue growing,” Dan Rattigan says.[/image-with-info]
Initially, they made everything out of their kitchen and sold the treats at area farmers markets, appealing to early customers such as Ashley English, an Asheville blogger and author of local guides and cookbooks. “They give a taste of western North Carolina in each bite,” English says.
But running a financially sustainable business selling chocolates made with top-notch ingredients proved difficult. Making a sale was easy when they could hand out samples and interact with customers. Standing out on a retailer’s shelves was not, especially as premium chocolate sales hit $2.9 billion in 2013, up 10 percent from the previous year. Specialty chocolate now accounts for 15 percent of the U.S. market for chocolates, according to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association.
[pullquote username="Jael_Rattigan" alignment="center"]We needed a direct personal connection with our customers to do the storytelling about what makes our hand-crafted product special.[/pullquote]
The couple lost money and considered quitting. Instead, with help from local restaurateur Mark Rosenstein, they drafted a business plan and used it to borrow $60,000 from a local bank. The money went into leasing retail space in a downtown Asheville neighborhood off the beaten path. They included a lounge area where customers, or “choco-philes,” as Jael Rattigan calls them, could sit, relax, and “be with their chocolate.”
The lounge was an instant hit with locals and tourists. The business eventually took over two additional floors for extra dining space and an expanded kitchen. In 2012, the couple took out a second loan to build the factory, which today makes all the chocolate sold at the lounge. The factory has become a popular destination in its own right, for anyone curious about how chocolate is made.
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The Path from Mom-and-Pop
As word spread about the company’s products, lines at the lounge got longer, causing the local fire marshal to threaten to shut the shop down because of overcrowding. The move to a new, larger space should help ease the lines and keep up with demand. What’s more, the new shop is located in a high-profile area in the heart of downtown Asheville, next to the city’s art museum.
[ugc slug="ive-found-many-small-business-owners-struggle-with-worklife-balance-here-are-some-of-my-tips-for-balancing-work-life-and-home-life-one-set-boundaries-i-try-not-to-keep-typical-entrepren" alignment="right"]“I’ve found many small business owners struggle with work/life balance. Here are some of my tips for balancing work life and home life...”[/ugc]
The expansion plays into plans city leaders have to put Asheville on the map as a foodie destination. A chocolate business is a good fit, according to Tambellini, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau executive. “Dan and Jael are a special part of the culinary scene we are building,” she says.
The Rattigans have found success because their business is built on a high-quality artisanal product that preserves tradition and innovates at the same time, says Rosenstein, the local restaurateur who continues to advise the couple. The next step is deciding how big they want to get. “It all boils down to whether they are up to the challenge of going from a mom-and-pop shop to working at a bigger level,” Rosenstein says.
The couple’s daily routine is far different than in the early days when they made chocolate, kept the books and cleaned up at the end of the day. Today, they spend more time meeting with employees and contractors, and engaging with the local organizations they donate their time and chocolate to, such as the local food bank or area schools. “It’s a less glamorous lifestyle than many people might imagine,” Dan Rattigan says.
[image-with-info caption="bottom-left" source="Adams Wood and Rod Murphy" alignment="left" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/MG_2678a1.jpg"][/image-with-info]
“Now that we’re scaling in a way where we have employees to support, we recognize that we have to be more organized and plan ahead more than comes naturally to us,” Jael Rattigan says.
As the business grows, new opportunities continue to pop up. The company’s been contacted about opening chocolate lounges in other cities. At the same time, the couple worries that as they grow, their customers will think they’ve become fancier and “less funky,” Jael Rattigan says.
Don’t expect that to happen. “We will definitely stay true to who we are,” she says. “Asheville values independent small businesses and we’re lucky to be in a town that supports us.”
French Broad Chocolates expanded their business to a new location. Learn more about using funding to help grow your business on OPEN Forum →