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Chocolatier opens retail space

It took working two jobs for the past eight years, but lifelong Ashland resident Deena Branson has finally achieved her dream of opening a retail space for her handmade chocolates.

She opened Branson's Chocolates to shoppers earlier this month at 1662 Siskiyou Boulevard.

The 1,600-square-foot space has enough room to make and sell chocolates, truffles, turtles, fudge, chocolate sauce, peanut butter cups, English toffee and other treats that Branson makes herself.

Previously she had an 800-square-foot production space in a Hersey Street business park, but no room to sell directly to customers.

Branson ran that business while also juggling work as a server in downtown Ashland restaurants. She's also pulled double-duty working at banks and a dental business while building her own company.

She moved into the Siskiyou Boulevard building late last fall, but was too busy filling wholesale orders for big customers like Harry & David and prepping for a January chocolate festival in Portland to launch the retail side of the business.

With the Christmas and Valentine's ordering rushes out of the way, Branson now has more time to sell directly to customers while still working to fill a steady stream of wholesale orders.

"I've had one customer already come in three times," she said of her newly opened retail space.

Branson has worked in the chocolate industry since she was 19 years old. Her first experience came at the Ashland Fudge Co., which was located where Mix Sweet Shop is now.

When the fudge company closed, Branson acquired chocolate and candy making equipment — much of which she still uses today.

She sources many of her ingredients from Oregon, including hazelnuts, mint and rum.

Making a wide variety of treats requires extensive technical skill and experience.

Branson judges whether English toffee has cooked long enough by smell and sight — not temperature. She pours it out on a metal table that is cooled with piped water. If done right, the toffee will cool and lift naturally off the surface.

Making a mistake while crafting chocolate can lead to a gray or white haze on the chocolate known as bloom. Mild blooming is only an aesthetic problem, but major blooming can cause texture problems, Branson said.

Chocolate making requires much more knowledge of chemistry than Branson every imagined when she first started.

"I never took chemistry in high school and there are times I regret it," she said.

The work is also labor-intensive, especially when Branson is folding and re-folding batches of fudge that can weigh 10 to 20 pounds. Folding works air into the fudge but can take 20 minutes to an hour, she said.

Customers who visit the retail counter can see straight into the production area.

"All of my production is done out here in the open. Customers like to watch," Branson said.

She is in charge of production, but gets help with other aspects of the business from several relatives.

Her husband will likely be minding the store when Branson heads to the Ashland Springs Hotel downtown for the 10th Annual Oregon Chocolate Festival March 7-9.

For more information about the festival, visit http://www.ashlandspringshotel.com/oregon-chocolate-festival/.

For more information about Branson's Chocolates, call 541-488-7493 or visit www.bransonschocolates.com.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.