Jael Rattigan literally held her future in her hands.
While hand-rolling truffles made from Scharffenberger chocolate a decade-and-a-half ago, she had a bonafide, see-it-in-the-movies kind of epiphany.
“I had this sensation in my hands — like a sort of tingling sensation,” she said. “I looked down at my hands, and I said, ‘Chocolate is the thing that will make me happy.’ I felt like I was searching, and then I found it.”
Dan Rattigan, then a brand-new boyfriend she met while studying business in Minnesota, watched it unfold. Having Dan there was “instrumental” in turning her realization into reality, Jael said.
“It was out of character for me to do something or say something like that,” she said. “His presence allowed me to take it seriously because he really honored that and was holding me accountable to it.”
Since then, the Rattigans have been on a winding journey advanced by a little serendipity and a lot of hard work. Throughout, however, dedication to quality and thoughtfully-sourced food has been their guiding star. Over the last 10 years, they’ve built French Broad Chocolates, a bean-to-bar operation in Asheville, N.C., home to many free-spirited foodies just like them.
“We, especially at the beginning, had what could be called beginner’s luck,” Jael said. “We seemed to find the clues on our journey like it was a scavenger hunt that would lead us to the next step.”
The next steps were dropping out of their respective graduate schools, buying a school bus and driving it to the coastal Costa Rican village of Puerto Viejo.
Jael, who had signed up for an environmental business seminar in the Central American country, decided to make use of her plane tickets and visit anyway. Dan joined her, and once they had spent a week in Costa Rica, the couple’s fate was sealed. They were moving to paradise.
“It was quintessential Caribbean blue sea, beautiful beaches,” she said. “The vibe was just so nice, and everyone was friendly.”
Puerto Viejo was also full of expats from Japan, the United Kingdom, Europe and Canada who had given up everything for a life in the tropics. Dan and Jael saw themselves there, too. They bought a “little piece of jungle” — an abandoned cacao farm — where they would park the bus and spend their days making bread and chocolate by hand.
However, they had to tweak their plans when they found out Jael was pregnant with their first son, Sam.
“That starts to change your risk aversion,” Jael said. “I got on the bus. I made it through Mexico and Central America. We landed in Costa Rica, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m done.’ I’ve left everything. I’ve left everyone starting this new life. I can’t live on a bus in the jungle with no access to running water, electricity. I need a roof, and a toilet would be great.”
While walking through Puerto Viejo, the Rattigans saw a breakfast joint with a for-sale sign and asked the owner about taking over the restaurant. The couple didn’t have the money to buy it, but the owner agreed to rent it to them. The restaurant also had an apartment above it, solving their housing concerns.
The Rattigans renamed the restaurant Bread & Chocolate, serving food made from scratch, down to the peanut butter and jelly. Jael said the response was immediate, from both locals and tourists.
“That was our first experience at creating a place that felt like home and gave people a place to connect and share community over food,” she said. “That was very formative in our journey.”
But after awhile, the insects, heat and regular rainfall began to take a toll.
“It’s beautiful and I encourage everybody to go visit there. Plenty of people that we met and became friends with still live there, but it is a tough place to live,” Jael said. “The jungle is intense.”
The Rattigans also had to think about Sam, who was one-and-a-half at the time. They asked expats about locations that would support local businesses and serve as an ideal place to raise children. Asheville came up over and over again.
The city, tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains, had everything the Rattigans were looking for, including a climate that welcomed homegrown eateries and emporiums.
“It helped our business immeasurably to be part of this growing food scene, and we are a part of the scene,” Jael said. “We are a part of the landscape. There are so many restaurants, makers and farmers that are creating this beautiful community that we are lucky to be a part of.”
After selling Bread & Chocolate to one of their cooks, the Rattigans loaded the bus and moved to Asheville, staying with a friend until they found a house large enough to accommodate a chocolate studio. They found one and began producing handmade, certified-organic truffles to sell at farmers markets.
Customers loved the Rattigans’ truffles, and around this time, their son, Max, was born, but things still weren’t going exactly as they hoped. The Rattigans weren’t making enough money to sustain the business.
“We were scared. We were broke. We thought we had to give up,” Jael said. “We were going to go get jobs. Actually, Dan did get a job, but he got a job not as a way to give up but as a way to support our dream.”
The couple also partnered with Mountain Bizworks, a nonprofit in Asheville that helps small businesses flourish. The organization helped the Rattigans develop a business plan and secure financing. After finding a space, they opened the French Broad Chocolates Lounge in 2008.
The Rattigans named their business after the French Broad River, which cuts through Asheville. While it’s recognizable locally, telling the brand’s story outside of the city has been more difficult, Jael said.
“We thought at the time it would be interesting for people outside of Asheville and kind of intriguing,” she said. “We’ve since learned the challenges that come with that. We’re dealing with that as best we can, and that’s mostly by closely identifying with Asheville — integrating the Asheville brand into our own.”
Two years after opening the lounge, Dan and Jael began to hone their philosophy of local sourcing and creating relationships with suppliers. That’s when they realized they weren’t completely connected to their medium — chocolate.
The couple bought a small grinder and started to experiment with chocolate making. Through a connection of Dan’s sister, they visited cocoa farmers in Peru and developed relationships there. Later, they began sourcing cocoa from Nicaragua, as well as Costa Rica. In fact, they source Costa Rican cacao from a former Bread & Chocolate employee.
“We have good partnerships and good relationships built on trust, fairness and respect,” Jael said. “We feel secure in that. We feel like we’re setting ourselves up for long-term partnerships.”
In 2012, the Rattigans opened the French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room, which has an annual capacity of 19 tons. Most of that chocolate serves the lounge, while some serves the company’s 100 wholesale accounts.
By 2014, the Rattigans were using their own chocolate for all of French Broad’s needs. The last eight years have been crucial in refining their process, Jael said.
“Our chocolate is so different,” she said. “We sometimes stumble across the archives and taste chocolate we made originally, and it has improved so much. It will continue to improve. We are continuous improvement folks, and we never stop trying to be better in every way.”
Not that French Broad doesn’t already have a strong following. The line for the lounge can sometimes wrap around the block, and they have distribution in Japan, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands as well as in the United States.
It’s gotten to the point where the Rattigans are out of room. They plan to open a new, 12,000-sq.-ft. factory in Asheville’s River Arts District this summer, complete with specialized equipment that’s more suited to scaling production. The new facility will initially produce 50 tons of chocolate annually, though it has room to reach 250 tons with the addition of more equipment.
The new factory will feature a chocolate café, as well as a tour hallway wrapping around the production area designed to educate visitors on cocoa sourcing and chocolate making.
“It helps to be able to have that conversation and share what’s different — from what we’re paying for the cacao, what the farmer is getting from it, the quality of post-harvest process our beans go through relative to a commodity cacao, and the way that we’re doing business in Asheville — it all matters,” Jael said.
French Broad’s ice cream-making operation will move into the current factory, which will also be turned into a café. Jael said the Rattigans will have to add to their 80-person staff to serve the new facility.
And, in bringing the story full circle, Jael graduated in May with a master’s degree in business administration from Lenoir-Rhyne University. But that doesn’t mean the Rattigans have lost their talent for seizing the next opportunity.
“We listen. We look for the clues, but we’re going to back it up with knowledge, education, planning and hard work,” Jael said.