Parting is such sweet sorrow
CENTRAL POINT — Coming up on two decades of creating gourmet chocolates sought by customers from around the globe, chocolatier Jeff Shepherd is antsy to see what other culinary and artistic adventures might await.
First things first, he’ll need to find the right person to love, nurture and grow his beloved chocolate shop.
Shepherd posted Lillie Belle Farms for sale this week — $750,000 for the business entity (acquisition of the building could be discussed) — in hopes he’ll connect with a like-minded soul to manage its next evolution.
Shepherd has been wooing chocolate lovers since 2001, when he began creating gourmet chocolates from a Jacksonville farmhouse. Evolving to sell truffles from the trunk of his car at farmer’s markets and then into — and out of — a handful of storefront locations around Southern Oregon, he landed at his 211 Front St. digs in 2008 with a hefty menu of 60 chocolate items, including the likes of Lavender Fleur du Sel to Cayenne caramels.
Moving into the signature lavender-colored shop at the urging of nearby Rogue Creamery owners, Lillie Belle helped create a destination artisan corridor of cheese, chocolate and wine. Collaborations have formed and grown including one-of-a-kind Smokey Blue Truffles, made with the creamery’s world-famous Smokey Blue Cheese.
Smack dab in the middle of his busy Valentines-Easter season, Shepherd marvels at 20 years-worth of 12-hour days and the memories he’s amassed of high-profile chocolate shows, his clients and the experiences garnered thanks to his knack for creating one-of-a-kind sweets.
Naming his business after his wife Belle and daughter Lillie, Shepherd tried making chocolates on a whim but quickly amassing a large and loyal following, almost immediately traveling and racking up awards at a slew of chocolate shows.
“I’ve had so many great experiences doing this, just phenomenal stuff. I used to do the New York chocolate shows and the year I won — I was chosen as one of North America’s Top 10 chocolatiers — and it was unbelievable to be there amongst a bunch of my won pastry chef and chocolate idols,” he said.
“I hand delivered a bag of chocolates backstage at a Bob Dylan concert in Tokyo. I was personally invited by the manger. He said, ‘Don’t forget to bring chocolate!’ I handed the stage manager a bag of chocolates I had carried 4,000 miles. He told me, ‘I can neither confirm or deny that Bob Dylan eats your chocolate.’ Then he smiled and said, ‘Are there dark stars in here?’”
A fun early memory, Shepherd says, came in 2005 when he was new to the industry and wooed Martha Stewart, after a chocolate show in New York, with his lavender fleur de sel caramels.
Shepherd said an order for 500 pounds of lavender caramels for Stewart came from the sale of a small four-piece box.
“I got this random phone call, and some girl was like, ‘Hey, is this Jeff at Lillie Belle? We bought a little four-count box of lavender caramels. Do you maybe make those in bigger boxes?’” Shepherd recalled.
“She said, ‘What about, I don’t know, like a pound?’ I told her yes and she said, ‘Good. Because my boss wants like 500 of those.’”
The ongoing pandemic, Shepherd said, has been a challenge but also highlighted his ability to turn lemons into lemonade, or, as it were, cocoa into sought-after goodies.
“Nobody else came up with a COVID bunny! We had to close in March, two weeks before Easter, which is our busiest time. We had laid everybody off and me and the kitchen manager were fooling around, shutting kitchen down,” Shepherd said.
“I grabbed a bunny and painted a mask on it and put it on Instagram. Suddenly everybody wanted one. Now we make them every day ... well, every day when it’s not about to be Easter!”
Rogue Creamery president David Gremmels, who leases the purple building to Shepherd, said he was torn between hoping Shepherd finds someone to which he can entrust Lillie Belle, and wishing for his friend to stay on for a tad bit longer.
“Jeff is a great friend, a great human being and a great chocolate maker and definitely very influential in artisan foods,” Gremmels said. “His shop is a destination in our artisan corridor of cheese, chocolate and wine. My hope is that he’ll just stay forever, but I know that being an owner-operator comes with very long days.
“I know that his dream would be to find a like-minded owner or business partner to work with and create dream succession plan for not only his passions and pursuits and what he envisions for the future of Lillie Belle ... but also someone that will add greatly to the community we live in and work in and love.”
Shepherd said he had no timeline on the sale of Lillie Belle but was, rather, putting out the option to see if the right person might come along.
“There’s no timeline on this. I’m in absolutely no rush. It has to be the right person for the right motives. Posting Lillie Belle was more of an exercise in possibilities,” he said.
“My daughter was just a baby, probably 3 or 4, when I formed the business. Now she’s 23 years old. I’m ready to find out what’s next. Ready to have a little more time to just live life.”
Shepherd said he was open to any range of possibilities from temporary partnership to finding someone with a passion to make the business their own.
“Maybe it will be someone who we could work together for a year or two. It all just depends. I’m hoping to eventually find someone who wants to grab the helm and go,” he said.
“It’s February and we’re deep into Easter right now. We’ve already made 2,000 eggs and 1,000 bunnies. I guess I’ve been just having ... a 20-year epiphany. Twenty years, it turns out, is just a really good, long amount of time to spend carrying out an idea.”
Lillie Belle Farms can be found online at lilliebellefarms.com, and on Facebook at facebook.com/LillieBelleFarms.
Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org