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Chocolatiers headed 'full tilt' into holiday season

At Branson’s Chocolates in Ashland, the first few days of December brought a promising rush of custom orders, which allowed owner Deena Branson to bring on another part-time employee to help manage the holiday season.

On Tuesday, while production staff pounded a 10-pound block of chocolate for hazelnut and almond bars, Branson pondered what the season will bring — whether customers will still turn out online and curbside, how to keep her family healthy and how to respond to changing e-commerce, and wholesale and retail trends in the Rogue Valley.

At the end of December, Branson’s Chocolates will mark 15 years in business.

When the business closed its doors to the public due to COVID-19 in the spring, she implemented free shipping on certain dollar amounts and free curbside pickups.

“I actually had people pulling up out front and I would walk outside, take their order, come in and get it and then walk it back out to them,” Branson recalled.

Customers wanted to see and smell the chocolate wafting through the close-quartered retail space on Siskiyou Boulevard, but she couldn’t let them in.

Locked doors led to at least a doubling in online sales. Much of the e-commerce came through local customers, while a few out-of-towners bought their chocolate online after missing a summer of Shakespeare and a visit to the shop, Branson said.

Lillie Belle Farms Handmade Chocolates owner Jeff Shepherd agreed Wednesday, “Online sales are spectacular.”

Since April, Shepherd said, online sales at the Central Point chocolate shop have tripled compared to previous annual revenue. He attributed spring success to the media attention and social media popularity Lillie Belle gained for its masked COVID bunnies, which are still coming off the production line.

“I’m probably the only chocolatier in America still using his Easter molds in December,” Shepherd said.

He has also been able to ramp up staffing for the holiday season, after suffering a brutal summer featuring a lack of tourists, regional fire episodes, no Shakespeare and no Britt Festival. He leaned on the Paycheck Protection Program to keep six employees on the payroll until the money ran out.

Even a tripling in online sales hasn’t quite covered losses from the worst summer Shepherd has experienced as a 20-year business owner. Drinking wine and hanging out was often the prelude to browsing for chocolate at Lillie Belle or cheese at the nearby Rogue Creamery.

“We became a lean, mean chocolate machine for a few months, and now we’re back to full tilt boogie,” Shepherd said.

Despite adjustments, most customers have been readily compliant with the various iterations of retail service changes, Shepherd said. Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter lie ahead — all strong sale seasons for wholesale and retail chocolate.

“What we’ve come to find out is chocolate is essential for people’s mental health,” Shepherd said. “Unfortunately, some of my other friends who own restaurants are struggling mightily, and I can’t hire people fast enough.”

When Branson’s in-person retail space reopened along with the rest of Ashland’s remaining business community, e-commerce took a hit. Local shoppers began to spread their money around to other businesses, said Branson, who serves as board president for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

Still, trends are difficult to categorize. Some online-only businesses are struggling while others thrive, Branson said. Some of her business colleagues are faltering without holiday markets on the schedule. A questionable Christmas season means Branson isn’t turning down a single order.

“I’ll take anything and everything I can get,” she said.

On Nov. 28, several customers said they purchased from Branson’s specifically because of Small Business Saturday.

Before the pandemic, wholesale represented three-quarters of her business revenue — it paid the bills. Branson is still waiting for those numbers to rebound.

When the money became available, she enrolled in both the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan to upgrade equipment, which will increase daily productivity and decrease cost of labor per item, she said.

“[We are all doing] as much as we can as fast as we can to try to keep up and try to stay in front of people,” Branson said of the Chamber’s business support efforts. “Because if you forget to stay in front of them, then they’ll forget about you.”

Christmas shopping at Branson’s Chocolates has a new face. Where once three employees would serve a long line of customers, only one person or one family is permitted in the 6.5-by-14-foot shop at a time.

Branson scraped by the Easter season with about 75% of normal revenue and two employees laid off due to regulations at the time. Looking back on variable consumer trends and counting down the weeks to Christmas, what happens next is a lingering question mark.

Branson provides home medical care and assistance for both parents, one with Parkinson’s disease and the other who suffers from mobility impairments. Living with two immunocompromised people, she is supremely cautious about where she is willing to go in public. Branson and her husband skipped every family gathering in 2020.

“We want to keep them safe,” Branson said. “And if they get exposed or I get exposed, I have to close my business. I don’t want to do that.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Allayana Darrow / Ashland TidingsDeena Branson demolds midnight chocolate bars Thursday at her shop on Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland.