French Broad Chocolate: A Sense of Place
In 2003 Jael Rattigan was standing in her kitchen, making a recipe from Alice Medrich’s cookbook Bittersweet, when she felt a strange tingling in her hands. “I looked at them and saw they were covered in chocolate,” she remembered. “And I said aloud, ‘Chocolate is the thing. Chocolate will make me happy.’”
Within a few months, she and her now husband Dan Rattigan dropped out of their respective grad programs in Minneapolis, bought an RV, converted it to run on used vegetable oil (“which we spent the summer collecting from the dumpsters behind Chinese restaurants,” Dan said), and drove to Costa Rica to start a new life. A life with chocolate front and center.
The pair opened a café called Bread and Chocolate, which quickly became a gathering place for the community. Eventually they made their way back to the U.S., where they did it again. Drive into downtown Asheville, North Carolina, and you’ll find an impressive building with the words “French Broad Chocolate Lounge” displayed prominently, as well as a small ice cream, coffee, and chocolate bar shop next door called Chocolate + Milk (pronounced “chocolate milk”).
And it’s not just chocolate bars. Think chocolate cake. Chocolate brownies. Chocolate ice cream. Chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate mousse. Chocolate truffles. Drinking chocolates. All of the recipes in their café use their bean-to-bar chocolate, a massive undertaking that has translated into a successful business model in a nascent industry filled with people trying to make it work (and often failing).
Of course, that makes it sound like everything has come easily to Dan and Jael. That’s far from the case. When they first moved to Asheville, they tried to make ingredient-driven, local chocolate confections out of their house and sell them at farmers’ markets and other shops. It didn’t work, and they almost went broke.
Then they had a realization.
“In Costa Rica, we created an experience,” Dan said, “We made a whole environment for people to enjoy our food, and that’s how to make this [business] work. We wanted to create a sacred space for chocolate where we could invite people in and really immerse them in the experience.”
The couple decided to build a café dedicated to dessert as a whole and chocolate specifically. It opened in 2006 and immediately took off: Asheville loved the idea and embraced French Broad, which is named after the river that runs through the city.
At first that was enough. But soon Dan and Jael began to realize that chocolate is far from a raw ingredient. “ We were berries to jam, peanuts to peanut butter, flour to bread. We made everything from the most basic ingredients,” Dan explained. “The idea of using someone else’s chocolate — it never felt right to us.”
So in 2010 they started experimenting with making their own bean-to-bar chocolate, "with a commitment to a certain sourcing practice and with an interest in honoring the source of our ingredients," Dan said. Dan has nailed it, and they’re even planning to expand to a bigger space next door to step up production because there’s so much demand for their bars as well as their desserts. (In fact, it’s hard to find their bars outside Asheville, because they can’t keep up with demand.)
By November 2014 French Broad had officially outgrown its space, so Dan and Jael moved it into an even bigger space downtown and opened Chocolate + Milk next door, which features a killer selection of American-made bean-to-bar chocolate.
The building is certified green, and they use environmentally friendly processes to ship their chocolates across the country. Dan and Jael are also committed to using local ingredients and trading directly with farmers in other countries. They partner with Bicycle Benefits to give customers a discount on their chocolate ice cream (or cake or cookies or bars) when they ride their bikes to the lounge. And they make a crazy assortment of mouthwatering desserts that, in my experience, are impossible to resist. "We pride ourselves on holistic integrity," Jael said. In other words, they've created a special space that embodies the ethos of progressive Asheville, as well as a diversified, people-pleasing product line that appeals to more than one type of customer. That's a radically different business model than most bean-to-bar chocolate makers subscribe to, where everything is about single-origin bars, and I believe that's why French Broad has been so successful.
In September I visited Asheville and had lunch with Dan and Jael at All Souls Pizza, which mills its own flour from organic grains. Over a soppressata and aged sheep’s cheese pizza, we talked about all the stories within chocolate, but mostly sustainability. The couple lives by a different code than many in America, but it’s a code that’s growing: serve your community, live thoughtfully and ethically, and redefine success by the quality of your relationships.
Jael put it best: Recently she explained, "We like to say, 'Yes!'"