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Cacao love

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Rogue Valley chocolatiers have fans near and far
Branson's matcha green tea squares are enrobed in dark chocolate and finished with a green stripe. The complex flavor profile of mellow grassy notes and a natural sweet nuttiness goes well with the chocolate. [Courtesy photo]
Ashland Nuggets, a best-seller for Branson's Chocolates, are shown being enrobed with milk chocolate at the company's Ashland headquarters. [Photo by Jim Flint]
Deena Branson, shown here with a tray of hazelnut sea salt caramels, started her chocolate business online 16 years ago and now sells retail in Ashland and has a large wholesale component. [Photo by Jim Flint]
In search of culinary independence after 20 years as a professional chef, Jeff Shepherd founded Lillie Belle Farms, an artisan chocolate business in Central Point. [Courtesy photo]

Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain, is released anytime you experience something that gives you joy — which explains why, after snapping off a piece of dark chocolate, then pressing it to the roof of your mouth and letting it slowly melt around your tongue, you can’t wait to rinse and repeat.

When it comes to enjoying chocolate, the experts say biting and chewing are a waste of money. It’s the melting that produces the most exquisite pleasure. You’ve got 30 seconds to let that happen, right?

You can buy chocolate at grocery stores and mini-markets. You can find it in department stores and gas stations. But the real treat is a trip to a local chocolatier to check out the selection of freshly made artisan chocolates.

The Ashland franchisee for Rocky Mountain Chocolates offers a wide variety of chocolates and chocolate-forward treats.

Some items are made in-house. Others are shipped in from the company’s factory in Durango, Colorado.

Two local independent choco-latiers of note include Lillie Belle Farms, 211 N. Front St., in Central Point, owned by Jeff Shepherd; and Branson’s Chocolates, 1662 Siskiyou Blvd., in Ashland, owned by Deena Branson.

Both make chocolates in-house and have loyal followings in the Rogue Valley and beyond.

An aha moment

Jeff Shepherd, in search of some culinary independence, founded Lillie Belle in 2002 in Jacksonville.

“I have spent the better part of my life in kitchens,” he said. “I had been a professional chef for two decades before latching upon the idea of making fancy boxed chocolates.”

It was on an extended trip through Europe when the aha moment occurred. It seemed like every city and town had a chocolatier.

“You can find a good baker or butcher in most towns in the U.S.,” he said, “but a local chocolatier? That’s rare. That planted the seed.”

Ever since he started the business, it’s been constantly evolving, Shepherd said.

“The one thing that I have been told year after year is that it all comes down to taste,” he said. “People like the balance we achieve between the chocolate and the flavoring, infusion or addition. The chocolate has to be the star and not be dominated by another ingredient.”

The reward for him is not only pleasing his customers, but the act of making something with his hands that makes people happy.

Shepherd believes his “fierce individualism” sets him apart from other chocolatiers and the chains.

“I treat chocolate like I do a canvas,” he said. “I have been a painter and musician for over 40 years. Chocolate is my medium now, and we like working together.”

So, while it is a business, it’s also the main outlet these days for his artistic and creative expression.

Lillie Belle makes more than 80 products.

Customers have their favorites, but the biggest sellers, hands down, are their lavender sea salt caramels.

The company does both retail and wholesale business.

“We’ve been in our current retail location in Central Point for 15 years, but we sell to hundreds of stores around the country,” he said. “Locally they are found at Market of Choice, Paddington Station, Zuzu’s Flowers and a few wineries.”

The pandemic produced an unexpected bonus for Lillie Belle. When the first COVID wave hit and everything shut down, Shepherd came up with the idea of painting a mask on one of his chocolate Easter bunnies, calling it the COVID bunny.

About a week after it was up on the site, it wound up on the front page of the New York Times. And things got pretty wild.

“We got destroyed,” Shepherd said. “We ended up making something like 20,000 bunnies over the next month. It went super-viral (pun intended) and saved our business.”

After the initial flash, however, and facing a summer of zero tourists, it was brutal.

“We were able to pay the rent and keep a skeleton crew employed,” he said, “as we became a lean, mean chocolate machine.”

If that wasn’t enough, supply chain issues became a challenge as well. “Those issues were real, and they can turn hair gray and make a grown man weep,” he said.

It is no secret that Shepherd tried to sell the business a year ago. But when the word got out, he was inundated with local customers begging him not to sell.

“After many months of thought, we decided to sign a new lease, take it off the market and go for it,” he said.

“It has been a great year since then, and we’ve had support from multiple generations of fans. We’re looking forward to making people’s favorites for many years to come.”

For more information, go to lilliebellefarms.com.

Door closes, another opens

When Deena Branson’s husband came home and said, “Do you know that Ashland Fudge Company has closed?” her first thought was not about her job, but about preserving the recipes and saving the equipment.

“That was the start of the journey,” said Branson, who had worked for Ashland Fudge for 10 years. “I worked for three sets of owners and helped train two sets.”

Branson and her husband were able to acquire the equipment and recipes from the second owners. The bank wouldn’t negotiate for the retail part of the business, so she took the plunge and started her own company.

Sixteen years later, the business is quite different from when it started. In the beginning, milk chocolate outsold dark chocolate 2 to 1, and now it’s the reverse. The creamed fudge was discontinued because of the short shelf life.

“Salted caramels were not a thing when I started,” she said, “but now it’s one of the staples.”

She added new products along the way, but two were because of requests from local businesses. She started making chocolate bars for Ashland Springs Hotel, and toffee for Paddington Station. “Both have become a big part of the business,” Branson said.

Customers love her chocolates and other confections, but they also have expressed appreciation for the options she offers.

“We make sure that our products are gluten-free, that we have vegan and dairy-free options, and that we have some options for diabetics,” she said. “And people appreciate that we support other small local businesses by using locally sourced ingredients.”

Branson’s biggest sellers are toffee and caramels. There are three different toffees — almond, hazelnut and pistachio. And the caramel lineup includes caramel sticks, Ashland Nuggets, whiskey caramels, and five different salted caramels — tequila, lavender, hazelnut, smoked and plain.

“Our whiskey caramel uses whiskey that is distilled in Talent by Pioneer Whisky,” Branson said.

“We make everything in small batches, by hand,” she said. “We do not use wrapping machines. We hand wrap and label every chocolate bar.”

Custom labeling has become a niche in the business, which Branson’s does for several businesses in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Branson started the business with no retail outlet, just a website and working events like the Oregon Chocolate Festival, Oregon Cheese Festival and others. Wholesale customers were added a couple years in, including several wineries.

Branson said her wholesale business was a lifeline during the pandemic. Also helping during the lockdown were the company’s web business and curbside pickup.

Things are looking up in 2022. “We are planning new items and changing things up,” she said. “You will have to stop by from time to time to see what we are up to.”

Gosh. Stop by a chocolate shop and check out what’s new? One can imagine the line of volunteers forming now.

For more information, see bransonschocolate.com.

Click here to read the 2022 edition of Our Valley.