Though a frigid wind whistled and clouds hung overhead, the unseasonably dreary weather didn’t stop thousands of visitors from enjoying the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., on April 9.

Among them were attendees of Retail Confectioners International’s Spring Regional Conference, which kicked off with a trip to the sprawling estate, built by George and Edith Vanderbilt. Finished in 1895, the 179,000-sq.-ft. mansion and grounds were opened to the public in 1930 to generate income and promote tourism in the area.

The estate is now managed by the fourth and fifth generations of Vanderbilt descendants, and 2,000 employees keep the home — America’s largest — its gardens, winery, restaurants, hotel and shops up and running.

Many of the estate’s employees were hard at work during RCI’s visit, serving and leading groups of visitors. As a special exhibit, costumes from the 1997 film “Titanic” were on display in each elegant room to illustrate fashion of the Gilded Age and mark the Vanderbilts’ potential link to the doomed vessel. The couple had booked their passage on the Titanic but changed plans at the last minute.

The conference’s opening day also included a visit to the French Broad Chocolates factory in central Asheville. Named for the French Broad River, Dan and Jael founded the company a decade ago after moving to the city.

The Rattigans, who’ve had a winding journey to and through chocolate, opened the French Broad Chocolate lounge in 2008 and its bean-to-bar factory in 2012. After sampling pieces of 80% dark chocolate from Costa Rica and 73% dark chocolate from Guatemala, Dan Rattigan showed RCI members French Broad’s process for roasting, winnowing, milling and grinding cocoa beans.

However, French Broad is again bursting at the seams. The company will open a new, 12,000-sq.-ft. plant this summer. During the tour, Dan said French Broad will switch to using ball refiners in order to create more consistent particle size.

An energetic presentation from Donna Cutting of Red Carpet Learning Systems led off sessions that began April 10. While strong customer service is necessary for any business, Cutting said taking it to the next level with a “wow factor” — and getting all employees on board — is the key to prompting customers to tell everyone they know about a stellar interaction with a business.

“It’s making the person in front of you feel significant, important and special,” she said. “The difference between satisfied and delighted is a little extra something in the experience.”

Cutting also outlined five tenets for achieving red-carpet service: Expect, Engage, Empower, Encourage and Embracing continuous improvement. She stressed the importance of setting clear expectations and goals for employees; offering the training, tools and vocabulary needed to create a memorable experience; thanking and praising employees for providing good service and privately correcting when it doesn’t happen; and evaluating what went well and what could be better.

To wrap up her presentation — and provide the “wow factor” — Cutting reenacted lines and scenes from classic movies with help from Tess Vande Walle of Vande Walle’s Candies.

A boisterous, members-only Candy Clinic followed Cutting’s presentation. With John Asher of Asher’s Chocolates as master of ceremonies, participants showed off their best new pieces and their best Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Easter pieces as a way to share ideas that proved successful over the last year.

Among the presenters was Bill Hartley, co-owner of Joy Lyn’s Candies in Paradise, Calif. Each year, the community hosts Gold Nugget Days to celebrate the discovery of a 54-lb. gold nugget in 1859. As a “high sheriff” involved with the event, Hartley created milk, dark and white chocolate sheriff’s badges — all dusted with luster dust — to support the event.

Proving that RCI is a family affair, Bill’s grandson, 9-year-old Will Hartley, also presented “Willie Nillies,” peanut butter pretzels covered in milk chocolate. After the presentations, RCI members sampled the confections and asked questions about the pieces.

The afternoon brought an opportunity to experience Asheville’s robust food scene firsthand. Asheville Food Tours took groups of RCI members to five different places, sharing Asheville history and trivia along the way. Stops included:

Twisted Laurel for a Vietnamese pork crepinette, paired with Goose Island Madame Rose Belgian-style ale.

Blue Dream Curry House for panang Thai-style curry, paired with an Oskar Blues IPA.

The Chocolate Fetish, RCI’s Spring Regional Conference host, for a quick tour and truffle samples.

Strada for a grilled Florentine raviolo with tomato sherry cream sauce and balsamic vinegar, paired with La Fiera Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine.

AC Hotel by Marriott for rooftop views of Asheville, chocolate disks from The Chocolate Fetish and blackberry syrup and gose beer “Gosemosas.”

The conference’s final day featured a full schedule of educational sessions. Rose Potts of Blommer Chocolate Co. offered guidance on choosing the correct chocolate, coating or powder for different manufacturing applications. She also brought six chocolate samples — including pieces from Blommer’s Founders Reserve line — to illustrate varying levels of sweetness, creaminess and flavor notes.

Sheila Neisler of Catalyst, a marketing company, followed Potts’ session with “Cause Marketing: Doing it Right!” Neisler emphasized pursuing a partnership with a non-profit “for the right reason,” also noting companies can make a bigger impact with smaller, regional organizations.

“(If) you’re not passionate about the cause, people are smart enough to realize you’re a fraud,” she said.

To round out the morning, Elizabeth Foley of The Chocolate Fetish and Paddy Riels of Asheville Food Tours discussed how participating in local food tours — or even starting them — can drive business and help develop strong ratings on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google Reviews. Positive reviews will get locals in the door and draw tourists looking for a food-related experience unique to wherever they’re visiting.

“People more and more are seeking out experiences, especially when they’re traveling,” Foley said.

Before a roundtable discussion and farewell reception, Sabrina Rockoff, managing partner of the McGuire, Wood and Bissette law firm, provided an overview of common human resources mistakes that can open companies up to civil or criminal litigation. She also offered suggestions for turning risky business practices into best practices.

With opportunities to eat, learn and continue to love the retail confectionery industry, this regional conference had something for everyone. 


Chasing chocolate-filled dreams

The Chocolate Fetish, RCI’s Spring Regional Conference host, serves Asheville, N.C., through charity, world-class chocolate.

No trip to Asheville, N.C., would be complete without a visit to The Chocolate Fetish, host of Retail Confectioners International’s (RCI) Spring Regional Conference.

Owned and operated by Sue and Bill Foley, and their daughter, Elizabeth Foley, the business has evolved from a one-person hobby shop with a single display case to becoming one of the finest chocolatiers in the United States, having been named a Six Star Grand Master Chocolatier by the International Chocolate Salon and TasteTV.

After Bill retired a decade-and-a-half ago from a career in international marketing that brought the Foleys to seven states and three countries, it was Sue’s turn to pursue her passion.

“Sue gave up her career and followed me around,” Bill said. “When I retired early, she wanted to fulfill her dream of having a small business related to food.”

With their travels taking the Foleys to Belgium, Sue studied and developed an appreciation for the intricacies of chocolate.

“It’s something I enjoy,” she said. “It’s something that every place you go you can see some and it’s different, and it’s fun to explore. From a production standpoint, chocolate isn’t an ‘A+B=C.’ There are lots of nuances and lots of things when you’re working with chocolate that vary.”

The Chocolate Fetish seemed like the perfect place to put Sue’s passion on display. The Foleys, having lived in Asheville in the early ‘90s, knew the business had an established clientele and were already familiar with its products. And there was no passing up that unforgettable name.

“In spite of the fact that it was a very small business, it had a good reputation,” Sue said. “It was a good foundation to buy.”

The Foleys purchased The Chocolate Fetish on Sue’s birthday in 2002 — arguably the best birthday present. The couple immediately set out to make the shop their own. In addition to holding regular hours, the first thing the Foleys did was scrape and clean the shop’s windows.

“Having come from living in Belgium where every business owner is on the street first thing in the morning cleaning the windows and cleaning the sidewalk, that was really important to us,” Sue said.

The Foleys also made a point to subscribe to trade publications and join industry associations such as RCI, Bill said.

“It proved to be invaluable because the people shared so much information with us,” he said.

Elizabeth, who  began working at The Chocolate Fetish full time in 2007, now is its general manager. After studying fine art and ceramics at the University of Oregon, she brought her passion for art to the family business. Elizabeth received training under world-renowned chocolatiers, helping her to create intricate chocolate displays and other chocolate art pieces.

“Being able to be a part of developing more of our chocolate art offerings has given me the ability to express my creativity and my love for art in chocolate,” she said.

Developing flavors and chocolate blends for The Chocolate Fetish’s award-winning truffles is an art in and of itself. Inspiration can come from a meal or cocktail, customer requests and Sue and Bill’s foodie son, Patrick.

“The initial ideas for flavors can come from lots of different places,” Elizabeth said. “Then it’s a matter of figuring out if that’s something our customers are wanting, if it’s going to fit into the bigger picture of the shop and what we’re needing.”

She pointed to their Dragon’s Sigh Ecstacy Truffle, based on an idea Patrick posed. It features a dark chocolate wasabi ganache center that’s enrobed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.

Sue said it took a year and 40 to 50 batches to balance the flavors.

“It took me a long time to get over the ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be horrible,’” Sue said. “(But it’s) one of our best sellers. It’s a good example what it takes to develop a truffle for us.”

Also on the exotic end of the spectrum is the Ancient Pleasures truffle, a dark chocolate piece dusted with cocoa powder and cayenne pepper.

Elizabeth said her favorite truffle is the African Queen, a Belgian-style truffle featuring a crispy hazelnut wafer topped with a creamy caramel ganache and enrobed in dark chocolate. It features single-origin chocolate from Tanzania.

The Chocolate Fetish is also known for its hand-decorated chocolate pieces, which include Easter eggs, dinosaur eggs, Santas, snowmen and the store’s signature high-heel shoes.

Elizabeth noted The Chocolate Fetish’s delights are for the eyes as much as they are for the nose and mouth.

“When you come into our store, it’s really a feast for the senses, from the heavenly aroma of chocolate, to the stunning visuals of the chocolate art and European-style shop, and of course, to the taste of the chocolate,” she said.

While The Chocolate Fetish has a strong local base, it also works to extend its unique chocolate experience to the ever-growing tourist population. Groups from Asheville Food Tours visit the shop six days a week, and The Chocolate Fetish hosts its own tours three days a week.

The business doesn’t stop at fulfilling Asheville’s chocolate needs, however. The Chocolate Fetish also donates to Helpmate Domestic Violence Services, which offers shelter, counseling and other services to survivors of domestic violence.

The Chocolate Fetish provides chocolate for fundraisers and supports the organization with anything it might need, including replacing a broken dishwasher and collecting Christmas gifts from employees each year. The business also sells a Helpmate chocolate box and donates 100 percent of the proceeds to Helpmate.

“You funnel money where it does the most good,” Bill said. “We chose this because it reaches a whole socio-economic strata. I really encourage people to focus on one thing. If you scatter it out all over, it doesn’t have an impact. This has an impact.”

The Chocolate Fetish also makes an impact by hiring local artists and musicians — a mutually beneficial arrangement, Elizabeth said.

“The artists and musicians need a reliable source of income to support them while they’re making their art and learning how to get their art in the world, and then we benefit from their creativity and their skills,” she said.

It’s also a rewarding partnership for Sue and Bill, who took on a second career after already having a lifetime of experience.

“When you’re having fun and you’re working with a lot of young people, you don’t grow old,” Bill said. “You enjoy life.”