“We suggest you take your time and approach it with all your senses.”
This was the little message on a piece of paper in a section titled “Notes on Taste” inside the 100 percent cacao bar I received from Downtown Asheville’s French Broad Chocolate co-owner Jael Rattigan, who runs the company with her husband Dan. On a recent afternoon, I had the chance to sit and talk with her at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in downtown Asheville.
It’s rare that you get to meet the owner of a chocolate factory, who at the end of the interview hands you a 100 percent cacao bar and a malted milk bar as a gift.
French Broad has a feel-good local magic with some very fine people making these delights, and I got to spend a couple of days talking with many of them.
The French Broad Chocolate Lounge, where they have been offering table service since fall 2017, had a tail of customers snaking through Pack Square when I visited (it also happens to be one of America’s greenest restaurants). A couple of miles away, their factory in the South Slope neighborhood produces 18 tons of chocolate per year. But rapid demand requires a new 12,000-square-foot facility, which will be able to produce around 70 tons per year, “with the potential for more in the future when we add more equipment,” Jael pointed out. “We can’t keep up. The demand is so high.” They will be moving into the larger factory on Riverside Drive this spring.
The current South Slope factory will eventually also make ice cream and have a small café.
“To have the French Broad River, deeply symbolic of our connection to the sources of our food in the line of sight from our new factory,” co-owner Dan Rattigan notes, “and to be among the creative community of RAMP Studios, this bodes well for realizing our great opportunity.”
Most towns don’t have chocolate factories like Asheville, but my city is a different kind of place.
I had first toured the French Broad Chocolate Factory many years ago, when you could walk into the production room on your own. It was a once-orange-brick building of the sort you could maybe find on a side street in Belgium.
Between my second and third tours I met Jael personally. Even in that short time, the brick of the current factory was painted baby blue to match the color of the bars sold. So I have been able to watch these small changes take place right in front of me.
Nowadays, the head chocolate maker, the dreadlocked Evan Ackerman, can be seen giving professorial tours of the place to tourist crowds.
The original café, now reborn as the palatial Chocolate Lounge, was a downstairs coffee shop with a European feel. However, as it has grown, French Broad Chocolate still manages to focus on the local culture. Much of the chocolate from the factory is used in the Chocolate Lounge. You might even see the chocolate on doughnuts around the corner at Vortex. It’s used by craft brewers in certain beer beverages as well.
The factory has a lovely tutorial about the chocolate-making process where you learn words like conche and winnow. On the day I visited for my second tour (before doing my third, the official one with Evan as guide), I walked past the confectioners and entered a door with some beautiful machines. I had to photograph them as they spewed downward waterfalls of liquid chocolate.
Head chocolatier Sara Castillo took a moment to speak with me. “I love it here,” she said, beaming. Later, she wrote to me, adding, “Dan and Jael have really cultivated a culture of innovation, and I’m eager to explore all the opportunities this new facility will offer. We’ve got a great team of chocolatiers that are so passionate about what they do, who are looking forward to having a bigger space for that passion to flower, so we can continue to bring quality chocolate to our community.”
According to Jael, “We started this business because we were passionate about chocolate, but now we’re finding ourselves equally passionate about the opportunity to help people reach their potential.”
As I walked on, I saw numerous spatulas hung in a row, some smeared with chocolate. Who gets to lick these, I wondered?
Bricks of chocolate were stacked all around us. In the front of the factory, Evan lectured to the willing crowd. I looked on jealously but was promised a tour with him on a later Saturday.
Many old buildings in Asheville have a long history, and the South Slope facility used to be a cigarette factory. The factory’s general manager, Chloe Davidson, talked to me for a few minutes, discussing the need for increased chocolate production to keep up with the current demand, both online and in-person. “We’re now selling in Japan as well,” she told me.
What other things are in store?
“Besides increasing production,” Davidson went on, “the new space will also allow us to put forth a new chocolate education program that some of us have been dreaming about for years! Not only will we have the flexibility and space to offer more tours more often but we are also building a shiny new kitchen classroom. This will enable us to offer many types of classes, tastings, and pairings to the public. We hope to feature different local Asheville chefs as well as our own very skilled chocolate-makers, confectioners, and pastry wizards to teach classes and spread the good word about all things chocolate.”
Owners Dan and Jael have created an ethos here that is as much about an educational process as it is about incredibly tasty and creative chocolates. In the front of the factory you can sample cacao content all the way up to 100 percent, something you don’t see every day. I took a few nibbles and was impressed by how little bitterness there was. “There’s no sugar,” said Davidson, “so it’s good for managing sugar content if you’re cooking with it.”
Most of their cacao comes from Central America, and there are massive football-shaped pods around that you can touch. In some ways it doesn’t feel like a factory at all, given the homey feel and jovial atmosphere. I’d be grinning too if I got to eat this beautiful treat every afternoon.
Starting the new factory space from scratch has allowed them “to build the walking tour into our production design,” Davidson indicated. “I like to think about the journey of a guest following the journey of a cacao seed as it makes its way through growth, harvest, fermentation, refining, tempering, molding and all the way down to packaging and shipping.”
I also got to briefly meet Chris Scott, operations manager, brought in for the new factory expansion; he formerly worked for a large manufacturing facility for 15 years, where despite the many opportunities he still felt a bit like a cog. He was rushing past me to get to a meeting, though, so he wrote to me later in an email, “At FBC, there is a strong sense of family where every individual has an important role to play in our success. That feeling of family moves well beyond the walls of the Lounge and the Factory as well, from our vendors who supply our main ingredients to the customers who come in to enjoy our confections.”
My one-on-one talk with Jael came a few days later, so it was on to the Chocolate Lounge, up Biltmore Avenue and right into Pack Square. It is something to witness with its compelling interior light and architecture.
For my third and final tour, I showed up on Saturday and listened to Evan Ackerman talk and gesticulate, wearing a big cool hat that bulged off the back of his head and, for all we knew, contained a secret cacao pod.
You learn factoids like dark chocolate needing to be above 50 percent cacao to qualify as pure, but mostly you hear about the “bean to bar” process and sourcing from Central America.
“The seed skin looks like an almond but tastes like dirt,” Ackerman pointed out, speaking about the cacao pod. “Seeds were cultural, even used as money.”
Because the cacao pods are dense, not inviting, and in the bean there is a toxin, the path to chocolate involves pure chemistry. And what a chemistry it is here at French Broad Chocolate.
The new location of the chocolate factory is not opening until spring, but I’m happy that my city has its own Willie Wonka, one whose evolution I have witnessed in the past decade, pleased to know that growth doesn’t always mean sacrificing a wonderful product made by impressive people.
As Davidson had said to me, “It’s a thrill to show folks just how many hands worked on that tiny truffle from start to finish, and then ‘chomp!’ gone in just a couple small bites! We’re pumped, can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve been cooking up.”
You taste something that is quite charmed in the seasonal chocolate bars around town.
It’s in the hot chocolate at the Chocolate Lounge too.
The factory may be moving from this little brick building to embrace expansion, but it’s also worth remembering that that the company will be holding onto the current South Slope space and turning it into a creamery. “We’re not abandoning the South Slope,” Ackerman assured me.
When the new factory is up and running, I’ll tour it again — my fourth tour. For, you know, research.