Valentine’s Day, one of the prime chocolate-giving occasions, is in a week, so today I bring news of Cocoa Belle, a local chocolate shop that late last month opened a storefront in Bryant. And though Cocoa Belle isn’t a restaurant, one could easily make a meal of its fine handmade truffles and chocolate bark.
Carmen Portillo, Cocoa Belle’s owner, operator and chief chocolatier, joins chocolate-makers Ashton Woodward (Cocoa Rouge) and Nathaniel Izard (Izard Chocolate) in offering premium chocolate in central Arkansas.
Portillo’s Bryant shop isn’t her first chocolate-retailing attempt. In 2008, Portillo, a Little Rock native, opened a spot in the River Market. But her timing wasn’t great — the Great Recession — and she closed the store to concentrate on providing her treats for weddings and corporate events.
This time around, she’s armed with a $100,000 loan from the Arkansas Capital Corp., $15,000 in savings and a Delta Entrepreneurship Network fellowship. Portillo was one of four Arkansas entrepreneurs chosen in September as winners of the fellowship, which provides development support for the winners’ business plans and detailed feedback on their product pitches. It also provides them with the chance to pitch their businesses at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week in March.
Portillo, who previously had crafted her chocolates with her own hands in her own kitchen, had determined that she wanted to scale up and enter wholesale e-commerce, and to do that, she needed a commercial kitchen and money to equip it for chocolate-making. The 1,000-SF shop, at 3614 Market Place Ave. in Bryant not only houses her kitchen — filled with $75,000 in equipment; a chocolate tempering machine alone cost $30,000 — but room to display and sell her products.
Portillo started her chocolatier career making truffles, but she doesn’t use preservatives in her truffles. Retailers wanted to carry her products, but they needed to be shelf-stable, so Portillo started making chocolate bark to sell wholesale to retailers. “If I was going to expand and have other people carry my things, I needed to start a product line that would be shelf-stable but yet have no preservatives and still have great quality.”
Portillo has her eye on getting her products into specialty stores in central Arkansas, like the Green Corner Store at 1423 Main St. in Little Rock, which will carry her chocolate bark. She’s in talks with other specialty retailers in the area, and hopes to move into northwest Arkansas once she has developed the distribution and fulfillment sides of the business.
Portillo has high praise for Arkansas Capital Corp. “They really have been great,” she said. “I feel like I’m a walking billboard for them.”
At Entrepreneur Week in New Orleans, she’ll be pitching her bark, which currently comes in three flavors — Ambrosia, Mississippi Mud Pie and Pecan Pie — in front of buyers and investors. Portillo, a Southern girl, envisions a whole Southern-dessert-flavor-themed chocolate bark line, which, in five years, she’d like to see in specialty stores and boutique hotels throughout the South.
If you can’t make it to Bryant but want to try Portillo’s chocolate, Cocoa Belle plans a pop-up shop at Bella Vita Jewelry at 523 S. Louisiana on 2nd Friday Art Night Feb. 10.
The busiest times for chocolatiers is autumn through Valentine’s Day, though Portillo says Mother’s Day is also big and she is considering developing Easter-themed products. And she stays busy through summer providing wedding favors.
However, “Valentine’s Day is Super Bowl for us. It’s all hands on deck. It’s nuts.”