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The business of chocolate

Rogue Valley chocolatiers brace for Valentine's Day Stories by GREG STILES

— Jeff Shepherd discovered the magic of mass-marketing last May without spending a dime on advertising.

A brief appearance on CBS's Sunday Morning show generated 17,000 hits on the fledgling Lillie Belle Farms company's Web site, triggering the sale of 120 one-pound boxes in one day. That may not sound like a lot, but considering the boxes cost &

36;44 a pop, it produced quite a rush for the 42-year-old entrepreneur.

On a good day, Shepherd can craft 2,000 pieces, or several hundred fewer than he sold that day.

Luckily, he says, I had been working every day and had them in stock.

Now, with Valentine's Day right around the corner, Shepherd and other small-scale Rogue Valley specialty chocolate makers are bracing for a spate of orders, mixing up truffles and heart-shaped candy.

— I'm a very busy man right now, admits Shepherd, whose enterprise moved out of his Daisy Creek Road residence into Jacksonville last year.

We got a decent bump for Valentine's last year, but we were still off the radar, Shepherd says. This year, we're definitely on people's radars. I thought we'd get some time off in January, but no, we're still busy.

Shepherd launched Lillie Belle Farms in his kitchen just over two years ago, tripled sales last year and projects revenue of more than &

36;150,000 this year. The mix of chocolate and fruit has been a hit at Made in Oregon stores and Market of Choice locations throughout the state.

We're shipping right now, Shepherd says. And the Internet will start cranking in about a week to two weeks, because most people wait until the last moment.

Over in Talent, where Endangered Species Chocolate manufactures its wares, founder Jon Stocking anticipates a 35 to 40 percent bump in sales during the Valentine's Day season.

Traditionally, in the grand scheme of things, if you took Valentine's Day out of the equation, January and February were not good months to sell chocolate, Stocking, 49, says. Right after Christmas we had a huge push ...

The moment we got back from Christmas, we started novelty items, organic chocolate hearts and other Valentine-related things.

But he didn't grow to &

36;6 million in sales in 2004 by settling for soft spots on the selling schedule.

In the past, after our fourth-quarter push, we had a huge letdown, Stocking says. But we've gotten smarter about our promotions for our distributors and retailers. We're trying to take out the peaks and valleys in sales.

He says Valentine's Day, Christmas, Easter and Mother's Day remain defining events for chocolate makers, many of whom historically shut down during June and July. Endangered Species, however, anticipates sales to hit &

36;7.5 million this year after signing licensing and trademark deals to expand into 11 western European countries.

Cutting-edge organic maker Dagoba Chocolate, which moved to Central Point from Colorado two years ago, doesn't expect as much of a Valentine's Day boost as Endangered Species and Lillie Belle Farms.

Founder Frederick Schilling says there definitely is a bump during the season, but his factory doesn't cater to the holiday.

We're not into the novelty business and gift packs, Schilling, 34, says. But we do more bars on Valentine's. If we were specialty chocolate-focused and produced truffles there would be a spike for us, but we're pretty consistent throughout the year. We're sticking to our guns and doing what we do best ' retail bars, food service chocolate and hot chocolate.

Schilling's father Jon, who handles the company's finances, declines to share unit sales or revenue figures, but the company has grown rapidly since the middle of last year and employees 15.

We were running two shifts for a period of time in the fourth quarter and three shifts for a period of time, says Jon Schilling. We're starting to export on a trial test basis ' mostly to Canada and the Far East, including Australia and New Zealand.

Lillie Belle Farms owner Jeff Shepherd, right, and his one employee, Curran Chambers, make lavender sea salt caramels in the growing company?s Jacksonville kitchen. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli