by Jackie Markin
When you walk through the door of the bright, Siskiyou Boulevard storefront the aroma of chocolate fills the air. At first the neat rows of chocolates in the display case get your attention, but just a few feet away there’s something even more eye-catching: a large bowl of deep, rich Belgian chocolate is on the counter. Deena Branson is intently stirring and testing the temperature. This is Branson’s dream come true—her own chocolate shop in Ashland where she lovingly makes small batch chocolates.
Branson is the quintessential local business owner. She was born and reared in Ashland by two self-employed parents and nearly every job in her working life has been with local small businesses. So, it’s no surprise her chocolate business grew out of that work experience.
Branson worked at the Ashland Fudge Company for ten years before moving on to another job. But, when the owners of Ashland Fudge decided to close the business in 2005 she jumped at the chance to get back into the chocolate business. She and her husband Kevin purchased all the production equipment and recipes, found an industrial kitchen space and Branson’s Chocolates became a reality. But, as Branson points out she had “no retail, no customers, just stuff I had bought and I have slowly but surely figured out a way to get my product out there.”
Her strategy at the beginning: local events like the Jackson County Master Gardeners Spring Fair, the Chocolate Festival and growers’ markets. Branson says “Every other week I was trying to be somewhere and then have a week for production.” Sounds busy, right? Well, she also worked a full-time job as a restaurant server the first eight years of her business.
“My husband and I always wanted retail, we’re going to find a retail, we’re going to find a retail and it wasn’t until we did the mindset change of let’s get into wholesale that things just started falling in place. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time and found the right people and have slowly grown the business.”
Her custom labels for the Ashland Springs Hotel and Paddington Station really got things going. Branson’s Chocolates are now found in Tudor Guild, Grange Co-Op, Shop ‘N Kart, Sew Creative, as well as several B&Bs and hotels.
The wholesale success allowed Deena Branson to quit her job as a restaurant server, focus all her attention on chocolate and then move into retail. The Siskiyou Boulevard storefront opened two years ago. Three-quarters of her business is still wholesale, and the balance is split between retail and online.
Branson built her website herself and uses it as a springboard for promotion. She’s very media savvy and understands how to get her business name out there without spending a lot of money. Every month she creates a new YouTube video called “Chocolate Talk” for the product of the month. Her brother-in-law shoots and edits the video, posts it on her site and also spreads the word on social media. “That’s my biggest advertising all the social media platforms—Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Google+, Twitter—I post on all of those regularly.” Branson says she really noticed a difference when she started focusing on social media.
While she is the face and name of the business—getting things up and running has been a family affair. Her husband helps behind the scenes and other family members were instrumental in getting the retail business going. “When we opened the doors I had no employees for the retail,” she says. She recruited her niece, nephew, mother and mother-in-law to help out. “Up until recently it was just family that made this work.”
But, this year Branson hired someone to help with production three to four days a week and she also has a packaging manager. She and her husband still do all the distribution because she says her margins are too thin to hire a distributor. Most of Branson’s business is in Oregon and a few locations in Northern California. She has one customer based in Utah that sends her chocolates into Utah, Nevada and Idaho.
Branson’s strives to buy local for her ingredients. She says she tries to buy in the Rogue Valley and expands out to other parts of Oregon and beyond when necessary. “My hazelnuts come directly from the farmers up in Eugene, so that’s as local as I can get the hazelnuts.” She gets mint oil from Portland, lavender from local growers and dairy products from Umpqua Creamery. “If there is someone I can get the product through here, even if its slightly higher than if I go somewhere else I’d rather buy it from a local place to support them.”
The chocolate, though, comes from Belgium. She says it is a GMO-free and the highest grade of chocolate you can get for a reasonable price. Her biggest seller: toffee. “Tudor Guild and Paddington Station have made my toffee popular.” Peanut butter cups, caramels and truffles are also local favorites.
As an Ashland native who has seen many businesses come and go, Branson understands how important her local customers are—and how important it is for local businesses to support each other. “If we don’t support each other, we won’t survive. Three-quarters of my wholesale is local. They could go down and buy the national brands, but they would rather keep it local to help support me, which then helps support them, and in turn we all work together.”