French Broad Chocolates to open bigger factory, creamery

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times


Chocolate is poured into a mold which transforms the liquid into breakable bars stamped with French Broad Chocolates' logo at the FBC factory.

ASHEVILLE- Jael and Dan Rattigan, owners of French Broad Chocolates, are looking for a paradigm shift.

That's why they're moving their chocolate factory from the South Slope to RAMP — or River Arts Makers Place — Studios, almost tripling their production space.

They also plan to open a new cafe and creamery in what will soon be their former factory space on Buxton Avenue. They're even looking to tweak the service style at French Broad Chocolate Lounge in downtown Asheville, adding table service. 

But the Rattigans say the biggest forthcoming change will be their ability to produce larger batches of more-refined chocolate in less time. In doing so, Jael Rattigan said, "we're basically winning on all counts."  

"We have what people call a good problem to have," she continued. "A situation where people want more chocolate than we can possibly make."

Saying "no" isn't part of the business plan, so the Rattigans have for several years worked to find the right equipment, the right space and squirrel away the funds necessary to get to the next level of chocolate making. 

"And we’re finally on our way and able to see the light at the end of the tunnel," Jael Rattigan said. 

French Broad Chocolates' current factory space and equipment is maxed out, producing "only" 18 tons of chocolate annually for the past two years — approximately the weight of 10 standard sedans.

Fresh bars of chocolate molded with the French Broad Chocolates logo in the company's South Slope production facility July 27, 2016.

Most of that chocolate goes to the couple's bustling downtown French Broad Chocolate Lounge in the form of pastries, truffles, chocolate bars and ice cream.

"But we have the potential to bring this Asheville product to other communities through wholesale," Rattigan said. 

French Broad Chocolates is already doing that to some extent, with 100 small accounts across the country and some international clients including Japan, which has a burgeoning luxury market. 

"We were approached by a distributor several years ago who had success introducing a few of our colleagues in the craft chocolate industry to that market," Dan Rattigan said.

Last year, French Broad Chocolates accepted its first purchase order from the Asian island nation. "It's just the start of the relationship, but they've already gotten us exposure in the Japanese version of Vogue magazine," he said.   

Still, the wholesale market only accounts for 5 percent of the chocolate makers' sales. Clearly there's room for expansion, said Jael Rattigan. 

"We're excited to focus more on the manufacturing side and transition from being a retail business that makes own product to a manufacturing business that has a robust retail component." 

The new equipment and the bigger space at RAMP means French Broad Chocolates stands to increase production two-and-a-half times in the short term, with an annual cap of 50 tons. In the next 5-10 years, the Rattigans expect to increase output more than tenfold, in the realm of 200 tons annually.  

Owen Busse sorts cacao beans at French Broad Chocolates' production facility on the South Slope. Last year, the company processed 17 tons of cacao into approximately the same amount of chocolate.

"We don't plan to scale any more rapidly than we can manage," Dan Rattigan said. 

He said the RAMP's eclectic mix of makers and technology makes a perfect fit for the factory's new home. 

French Broad Chocolates will have as neighbors a warren of artist studios, metal workers and glass blowers. Ginger's Revenge, which makes alcoholic ginger beer, is also nearby.

They'll count UNC Asheville's new STEAM Studio as a neighbor. The university-steered art and tech facility houses equipment for 3-D modeling under the same roof as metal fabrication and a state-of-the-art woodworking facility.

Dan Rattigan expected plenty of cross-pollination to come. "Yesterday, we met the engineering director of UNCA, and we're availing ourselves of some great opportunities to collaborate with other makers, and the science and engineering that's taking a foothold there as well." 

"The vision of that space is so aligned with the vision of our business, riding that line between craft and manufacturing," Jael Rattigan added.

The new factory should open in spring, and will handle all chocolate and confectionary production and packaging, as well as educational tours and tasting.

But even though French Broad Chocolates' factory is leaving the South Slope, the label will keep a presence there.

Jael Rattigan, who is on the South Slope Neighborhood Association, said it's important for her to continue to be a part of the area as it develops. "I couldn’t fathom leaving," she said. 

Thus, French Broad's ice cream production will move to the 21 Buxton Ave. space, which will also become home to a 30-seat ice cream cafe with a focused pastry program, coffee and, of course, beer. There's no name for the cafe yet. 

Chocolate is stacked on a shelf in French Broad Chocolates' South Slope production facility July 27, 2016.

The changes aren't over: The Rattigans plan to experiment with table service at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in downtown Asheville. 

"After 10 years, it's a scary thing to make a change like that, but the goal is to make it a better experience for our guests and employees," Jael Rattigan said. 

The streamlined process, she hopes, should shorten wait times and cut down on employee stress. It's also worth noting that the Lounge's ever-suffering air conditioning could stand a break from the lines snaking out the door in the height of summer. 

"We have had our AC break over and over again in the summer while we try to cool the entire world," Jael Rattigan laughed. 

Most importantly, she envisions the new cafe on the South Slope and a new flow in the lounge may help free up space so even locals can find a table once in a while. 

“We’re putting down deeper roots in Asheville and meanwhile honoring the community that’s supported us," she said. "That’s the dream.”