“See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!” – William Shakespeare
We first met during the Christmas holidays, 2016. I had no idea she would enter my life the way she did. Our meeting was planned, but not by me. From the moment we were introduced, I knew there was no turning back. For at that very moment, I knew, “I was in love with a French Broad.”
She was so small and delicate. She had a certain je ne sais quoi, so prevalent with the French: confident elegance that is neither boastful or overbearing, but sharply present nonetheless. She was the epitome of confidence, style, and sophistication. Everything about her was perfect, even her clothing: simple, earth-tones, with a touch of red.
Her makeup was flawless: nothing overdone, her shades were dark, but not too dark, yet there was an unmistakable brightness, wrapped in mystery.
She traveled from the mid-west United States to Costa Rico and finally settled in Asheville, North Carolina before coming to Clarksburg, West Virginia. I never expected to ever hold such elegance. And, I can thank Sandra, my wife, for introducing us. Her name is French Broad Chocolates. Yes, she is a chocolate company. Not just any run-of-the-mill chocolate company. A small family-run company, based in Asheville, North Carolina which produces the most pleasing chocolates that will ever grace your lips.
Let me introduce you to Dan and Jael Rattigan, owners of French Broad Chocolates, and their son Sam. These two young entrepreneurs had a passion for chocolate, a vision, and worked incredibly hard to turn that vision into reality.
Today, they have three extremely successful chocolate businesses in Asheville. The French Broad Chocolate Lounge, The Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room, and The Chocolate Boutique, two of the three pictured below.
I can truly say, “Once you taste their incredible flavors, the unique blend of cacao and coffee, and their flavor creativity, you will never, and I mean never ever again, buy chocolates at the local drug store, large “box” store, or department store.
At times, I have trouble finding the words to express the pleasure and satisfaction I receive from their chocolates, yet their journey to where they are today and commitment to the earth is equally as important as their chocolates are satisfying.
Their early years together are something that become books and movies. They first fell in love with each other, then fell in love with chocolate. They were both graduate students from the Midwest (Minneapolis) when they decided to travel a different path. They quit graduate school and drove to Costa Rico.
Their vehicle, I feel, reflected what was to become. They piled all their possessions into a 40-foot school bus – a bus Dan had converted to run on used fryer oil, with auxiliary power supplied by a PV panel he mounted on the roof! Yes, they drove to Costa Rico powered by vegetable oil and the sun.
Their destination was Puerto Viejo de Limon, located on the central Caribbean coast, where they opened a small café, Bread & Chocolate. As business improved, they bought an old abandoned cacao farm, which they still own today.
I was curious as to why they chose Asheville, after living in the Caribbean for a few years. To me, it was an odd destination. Jael said, “My husband and I were looking for our next home after Costa Rica. We wanted to find a place that supports small business, and where we could become part of a thriving food culture. Many travelers that came through our restaurant in Costa Rica mentioned Asheville, so we visited, and after 5 days of eating, visiting farmer’s markets, and meeting families, we decided it was home!”
Once in Asheville, they began selling their chocolates from their kitchen, online, and at local farmer’s markets. The business soon became too large for their kitchen, so, in 2008, they opened the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, followed by the Chocolate Factory and the Chocolate Boutique.
Today, they import all their cacao, coffee, sugar, and vanilla from trusted farmers in Costa Rico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Peru. However, they are adamantly committed to supporting the local community. Whenever possible, they buy from local farmers: relying on the local food shed for organic products, including strawberries, pumpkins, and much more. As Dan said, “We want to support ‘the little guys,’ and we find we can obtain most of our organic ingredients right in our backyard.”
Remember earlier when I said Dan and Jael also had a commitment to the earth? It goes beyond organic products. They also implement environmentally friendly shipping practices by using biodegradable coolers (No Styrofoam): the outer cardboard boxes are recyclable, the corn-based foam insulation is compostable, and the ice packs are biodegradable.
The original Chocolate Lounge was a 4-star Certified Green Restaurant, with a 5-panel solar hot water system and many other energy efficiency improvements: LED lighting, low flow plumbing fixtures and a high efficiency hot water system, and use of reclaimed building materials.
Dan and Jael also act as stewards for Mother Earth by partnering with Bicycle Benefits, a commuter discount program. French Broad Chocolates reward bicyclists with discounts when they show their helmet with the organization logo – their way of decreasing pollution, parking congestion, and increasing the overall health of the community. Imagine that.
When I learned French Broad Chocolates was in Asheville, I initially thought, there must be a Paris-French connection, perhaps linked with Dan and Jael’s travels. The truth was not as romantic, but it was very historic, as Jael shared, “The French Broad River runs through Asheville, and is our namesake. It’s the third oldest river in the world! We wanted to identify ourselves as a local business, but thought it would be a fun and intriguing name outside Asheville as well.” And so it was – intriguing to me.
Something else I found intriguing: The “open-arms” support from the local business community. As newcomers, they were not only welcomed by the City, they were also encouraged by other business – even competitors. It was like one large co-op: sharing, resolving difficulties, learning and always loyal to the local producers. And, French Broad Chocolates returned this open-arms business practice by sharing importation of their cacao with other local chocolatiers.
Imagine that: working together for a common cause. Perhaps other cities should take a closer look at this business model.
In Dan and Jael’s own words, “We consider ourselves lifelong students, always looking to learn from our colleagues, our experiences, and our medium. We are committed to constant improvement, to never settle in. We’ll always roll up our sleeves and do the development work – that creativity is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job (ok, true, traipsing through the Tropics is pretty great, too).”
So, there you have it: The story of two young people with a vision… a vision which provided the opportunity for me to fall in love with a French Broad (Chocolate). If I may, I would like to introduce you to Asheville and her sister is Coffee my first French loves. Nothing will ever equal their beauty and ‘deliciousness.’ Thank you, Sandra for introducing us.
For more about Dan and Jael and the quantum number of products available, please go to their website French Broad Chocolates, frenchbroadchocolates.com.
Go ahead. Indulge yourself. Or someone you care about. Trust me. Nothing will ever compare to a French Broad.
Until next time,