Carmen Portillo makes and sells an appealing product — chocolate — and has an appealing story — she considers herself an artist whose medium is chocolate.
But it takes more than that to capture the attention of big names like Disney, Amazon Studios and Louis Vuitton. It has taken the Little Rock native, whose 37th birthday is coming up, 13 years in business, a drive to differentiate herself that included the making of a chocolate dress, and an important realization: “I used to take my losses hard. Now I know everything happens for a reason.”
In an interview less than a week before Valentine’s Day, which Portillo has called the “Super Bowl” for chocolatiers, the owner of Cocoa Belle Chocolates of Little Rock discussed the origin of her love of chocolate, the stops and starts of her chocolate-making business and the challenges of being a minority entrepreneur, for whom “sometimes it’s hard to get through the noise, be heard and be seen.”
Portillo and Cocoa Belle, however, are being heard and seen.
She collaborated with Amazon Studios to provide treats for the premiere last month of the film “One Night in Miami,” a fictionalized account of a real get-together of activist Malcolm X, boxing great Muhammad Ali, football legend Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke.
And last week, Portillo revealed that Cocoa Belle would be providing chocolates for Disney as components of VIP packages and for Louis Vuitton to send out as gifts to its U.S.-based employees.
‘A Little Bit of Happiness’
Her love for chocolate and for the skill required to make premium candy can be traced to a bad relationship.
Portillo, a 2002 graduate of Mills High School, attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway but left after her freshman year to be with her British boyfriend in London. It was an unhappy time, and Portillo found herself isolated in a foreign country without family and few friends.
“One of the things that brought me comfort and joy was when I was exposed to gourmet foods that we don’t have access to here in Arkansas,” she said. One of those foods was premium chocolate.
On her first visit to a chocolate shop she saw a chocolatier making artisan chocolates. “I love the culinary arts,” she said. “I never really knew how chocolates were made and handcrafted.”
She was looking for something to bring herself “a little bit of happiness,” she said. “I purchased my first box of gourmet chocolates and they were beautiful. And it was something that brought a lot of peace and, I guess, comfort during a really dark time period in my life.”
Portillo didn’t have much money, but she used her time abroad to travel throughout Europe, Paris in particular, seeking out and visiting chocolate shops.
And she worked and saved her money, returning to Arkansas after more than a year abroad to “start anew.”
Portillo returned to college and decided to take the “sensible route,” enrolling in accounting classes with a goal of working in finance and accounting.
She took a job at an accounting firm but “I realized that’s not what I really wanted to do.” Portillo, 22 and a newlywed, wanted to do something she was passionate about and something creative. In a lightbulb moment, she thought, “What about becoming a chocolatier?”
Since chocolatier is not a common career track in Arkansas — then or now — Portillo went online to research just how to do that. She studied at the Notter School for Confectionary & Chocolate Arts in Orlando, Florida; earned a certificate from Ecole Chocolat Professional Chocolate Arts, based in Vancouver, British Columbia; and in 2007 became the first certified professional chocolatier in Arkansas.
In 2008, Portillo opened a retail storefront in Ottenheimer Market Hall in the River Market District. But then the Great Recession hit, and her husband, who’d supported her while she pursued her career dreams, left a corporate job to attend nursing school to become a nurse.
Portillo shut down her shop, got a day job in the accounting field and continued to provide chocolates for weddings and corporate events.
What Portillo called a “game-changer” came in the form of the online marketplace Etsy. “Etsy was such an instrumental platform in getting my product into the hands of people who were specifically looking for handmade, handcrafted products,” she said. “All you had to do was just upload your products instead of build out a whole website.”
She began selling her chocolates there, earning name recognition in addition to what came her way from her wedding and corporate clients, and customers began asking her to deliver locally.
In 2017, she opened a shop in a strip shopping center in Bryant, but Portillo closed that location in 2019. She now crafts her chocolates in a space in Arkitchen in Little Rock, a cooperative commercial kitchen providing state Health Department-approved facilities to small businesses like caterers, bakers and food truck owners. Portillo sells her products online at cocoabellechocolates.com and at Bella Vita Jewelry & Gifts at 108 W. Sixth St. in downtown Little Rock. That location has outperformed the store in Bryant, Portillo said.
The artisan chocolate industry is seasonal, with fourth quarter (holidays) and first quarter (Valentine’s Day) by far the busiest, although orders tick up for Mother’s Day in May as well. Cocoa Belle also sells to corporate clients and does a brisk business for weddings. Her corporate clients include Aflac, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Simmons Bank, Arkansas Children’s and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
In addition, the business has partnered with Tree of Life Seeds of North Little Rock to offer a line of cannabidoil-infused chocolates, CB-Dulce.
Cocoa Belle Chocolates is a small operation with one other full-time employee and others hired during the busy seasons as needed. Cocoa Belle had gross revenue of $145,000 in 2019. Portillo hadn’t yet completely tabulated 2020 revenue.
A Chocolate Dress
Chocolate is “a topic that people get excited about and so that’s been really helpful” in terms of publicity, Portillo said. “I do get the TV spots and articles and things like that. I always try to figure out a way to differentiate myself in the market here,” she added, citing one of her favorite such strategies: a dress made of chocolate for the 2018 CARTI Festival of Fashion.
Being both a minority and a woman business owner, Portillo said, can be tough. “We have to work two, three times as hard to even get a seat at the table,” she said. “And even then, if you don’t have the right connection or someone vouching for you or whatever, people won’t even listen to you.”
The drive to support Black-owned businesses following last summer’s protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody has generated additional interest in Cocoa Belle Chocolates, Portillo said. “Black-owned businesses have been around since forever, but now I think people are being intentional about it.”
Portillo also drew attention for appearing in a Food Network competition, the “Bake You Rich” show in 2019. She thinks that she landed the show because she learned from a previous experience with a Los Angeles casting director looking for potential talent.
Portillo said she “bombed” during that effort, which led nowhere. But it prepared her for the Food Network tryout. “If you have a loss, don’t let it stop there,” she said. “Learn from that and build on that because success is where preparation meets opportunity. All you need is the opportunity.”
“When I was young in business,” Portillo said, “I used to take my losses really hard. And now I’ve started realizing that everything is for a reason. How can you learn from this? How can you grow from this? How can you move forward and turn it into something else?”