Sweet! Chocolate in The Natural State

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“All you need is love.
But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

­ — Charles M. Schulz

Every year around Valentine’s Day, people start bringing their velvet-and-satin heart-shaped boxes back to

Kopper Kettle employee Brandi Kizer finishes a batch of raspberry cremes with lightning swirls on top to indicate flavor. photo Jenny Boulden

Kopper Kettle. That’s right, back. While most shoppers at Kopper Kettle — the 64-year-old granddaddy of Arkansas chocolate shops — are shopping for new boxes of assorted chocolates, a number of regular customers return to have boxes from previous Valentine’s Days refilled.

“We have one couple who has been bringing their box back for 60 years,” says owner Tommy Greer. “Another fella brought his back every year, until he came in one time and said he needed a new one. ‘Oh, did that old box finally give out?’ I asked him. ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘I just got a new wife!’”

Whether you’re a traditionalist or ready for something new, 2020 is a good time to be a chocolate lover in Arkansas. Chocolate has been revered as a food or drink for nearly 4,000

Kopper Kettle’s renowned flavor features a proprietary blend of chocolates from Ivory Coast and Central America. photo Jenny Boulden

years, yet now may be the best time for Arkansans to enjoy chocolate in all its varied glory. Conventional confectioners, organic bean-to-bar chocolate makers and artisanal chocolatiers are all living their chocolate-covered dreams here in The Natural State. The cacao bean’s scientific name, Theobroma cacao, roughly translates to “food of the gods.” Sampling some of Arkansas’ best chocolates (this list is not comprehensive), “food of the gods” sounds about right.

The traditionalists

Tommy Greer and Martin Greer are brothers who grew up in the chocolate business. Their father, Martin Greer, Sr., began working in a confectionery as a kid in 1924 and founded Kopper Kettle (named for the huge copper kettles used to melt chocolate) in Van Buren in 1956. After Martin Sr. died in 1978, Tommy and his wife, Berry Ann, took over Kopper Kettle (kopperkettlecandies.com), which now has a second location in Fort Smith, while Martin Jr. pursued a Ph.D. and a career in education.

If you were to tour Kopper Kettle’s chocolate operation, you’d instantly be reminded of the iconic I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode. In one room, Kopper Kettle today still uses a mid-century conveyor belt machine (they clearly were built to last) that evenly coats pieces like raspberry creams with chocolate above and below as two employees start and finish each piece by hand. The Greers get the joke: above the conveyor belt there’s even a framed photo from that episode of Lucille Ball with cheeks stuffed full of bonbons.

Kopper Kettle’s employees — many of them family in this four-generation business — make dozens of varieties of beautiful, professional confections. Pecan treats (caramel and pecans covered in chocolate) are the best-sellers, but everyone has a favorite. People come in to get boxes filled with custom combinations of what they love.

Kopper Kettle also excels at helping customers with grand gestures. Besides the collected boxes, the largest of which is about 3 feet wide and $195, Kopper Kettle has been known to seal a box for customers with an engagement ring or jewelry hidden inside. And at Easter, they don’t just make normal chocolate Easter bunnies; they make one that’s 3 feet tall.

In 2000, at age 60, Martin opened his own chocolate shop, Martin Greer’s Candies (martingreerscandies.com), on U.S. 62, near Garfield. Martin Greer’s Candies is a small roadside shop with a quaint charm aided by the 80-year-old Martin’s colorful folk art paintings on the walls. The milk, dark and white chocolates overflowing the cases are again the star.

Besides satisfying visitors to the store near Garfield, Martin Greer’s ships its 200 varieties of famed chocolates to customers all over the country. photo Jenny Boulden

Martin credits much of their success to his wife of 30 years, Jeanette. “I was content to make 20 kinds of treats,” he says, winking at her. “She came up with the other 180.”

At Martin Greer’s, the chocolates are famously hand-dipped, each one spilling over with a glorious amount of chocolate coating. They use Peter’s Chocolate, the Swiss company founded by the man who invented milk chocolate in 1875. Most everything is homemade, with the exception of some premade treats they hand-dip such as Oreos or pretzels. Some recipes used date back to the early 19th century.

The makers

Elm Springs’ KYYA Chocolates make dozens of kinds of organic, single-farm, ethically sourced chocolate bars, including a line of Arkansas bars representing local cities. photo Jenny Boulden

In contrast to chocolatiers, who cook chocolate into treats, chocolate makers create the chocolate itself, transforming raw cacao beans from single-source, organic farms overseas into ready-to-eat chocolate bars. KYYA Chocolate (kyyachocolate.com), the first and by far the biggest bean-to-bar maker in the state, started eight years ago when, on a mission trip in Uganda, Rick Boosey decided to change careers from software to chocolate. By partnering with small organic farms abroad, Boosey realized he could make an ongoing economic difference for cacao growers and produce high-quality chocolate bars in Northwest Arkansas.

“At the time there were no chocolate makers within 500 miles of us,” Boosey says, “so there was a hole to fill, once I figured out how to create the stuff.”

Chocolate cannoli made from KYYA’s specialty bars is one of the handcrafted treats available at KYYA’s stores. photo Jenny Boulden

Boosey says it takes time to make great craft chocolate, “We follow 12 distinct steps from the time the bean is picked to the moment your mouth goes on the bar. You can’t skip them. That process takes 8-10 days.”

Today, KYYA has 23 employees working at a factory in Elm Springs and at three KYYA stores in Northwest Arkansas. The bars are sold at Whole Foods, Fresh Market and other outlets, totaling 378 stores in the South. At 16,000 to 20,000 made each month, bars are the bulk of the business, but KYYA has branched out, serving chocolate drinks and treats (cannoli, bonbons, fudge, toffee, sea salt caramels and artisanal chocolate drinks) at its KYYA stores. It also has the distinction of making the only single-origin chocolate syrups sold in the country.

Sometimes success happens overnight. Joel and Ali Rush founded Ouachita Chocolate (ouachitachocolate.com), the latest single-source bean-to-bar maker to join Arkansas’ scene, in September. Less than four months later, their brand was being positively highlighted on ABC’s World News Tonight. A chance Facebook comment from a satisfied customer had caught the eye of a news producer, and Ouachita’s bold two-ingredient (just cacao and organic sugar) chocolate was featured in a short prime-time segment a week and a half before Christmas.

“The phones started right away,” Joel says. “We filled several hundred orders from 43 states that night and went through our entire Christmas stock in a few hours. We had to scramble to keep up with demand the rest of the season.”

Joel says Arkansas’ growing craft chocolate industry has much flavor diversity within it. “We all do it differently, but we’re each trying to put our own spin on using organic, ethically sourced, single-farm ingredients. We’re expanding Arkansans’ palates and helping people understand that craft chocolate is a luxury good every bit as much as fine wine.”

Another Arkansas bar maker’s motto is “Celebrate people, make amazing chocolate.” University of Arkansas alums Preston Stewart and Lauren Blanco founded bean-to-bar maker Markham & Fitz (markhamandfitz.com) in 2014 with an emphasis on organic ingredients, supply train transparency and sustainable packaging. Its Bentonville location uses the award-winning bars in delightful treats like cookies, caramels, truffles, cocoa tea, “drinking chocolate” and elegant, Instagramable cocktails. Markham & Fitz has 18 employees and a national reputation, placing among the top chocolate makers in the country at the Good Food Awards.

Markham & Fitz produces delectable treats from their award-winning chocolate bars, now distributed at nearly 200 retailers in 37 states and four other countries. photos Lauren Rae

Sharing space with Markham & Fitz’ retail and bar space is their chocolate factory, available for public tours. “Craft chocolate is still a growing industry and most people aren’t really familiar with how chocolate is made,” Stewart said. “Having the chocolate factory  in the same space as our retail and cafe really connects the process to the product. We’re always making chocolate, whether we’re roasting cocoa beans, molding chocolate bars, rolling truffles or hand-wrapping chocolate bars, there’s something to see and experience when you come to the shop.”

 

 

 

The new sophisticates

Cocoa Belle (cocoabellechocolates.com) founder Carmen Portillo is the first Certified Professional Chocolatier

Certified Professional Chocolatier Carmen Portillo founded Cocoa Belle, a line of gourmet chocolate products available online and in downtown Little Rock. photo Kaqren E. Segrave

in Arkansas. Her European-style truffles are like nothing else in the state: small, exquisite chocolates with often intricate designs and rich colors. “People are surprised,” Portillo says. “Each truffle is a little bitty package with big bursts of flavor. People often tell us, ‘I just got back from Belgium, and these are just like the ones I had there!’”

Portillo’s love affair with gourmet truffles began in Europe. Living in London, she traveled around Europe, tasting some of the world’s best chocolates in London, Paris and Belgium. After refining her palate, she returned to the States to study formally the art and science of working with chocolate. She learned well; her products have been featured in Vogue magazine, and Portillo has even competed on a Food Network show, Bake You Rich, with celebrity pastry chef Buddy Valastro. (She did not win, but advanced to the semifinals and had a great time.)

“While my chocolates are European-style, I wanted them to represent where I’m from. One thing you can say about the South — we know our sweets!” she says with a laugh. “So, Cocoa Belle is chocolate from a Southern perspective, married with fine ingredients.” The flavors change seasonally but may include regional faves like pecan pie or (Portillo’s personal summer favorite) Key lime pie. She often infuses truffles with liqueurs like bourbon or cognac for a decadent pop of complexity. Her spreadable chocolate butters (milk and dark) are customer favorites, as are her hot cocoa mixes and specialty bars.

Creative, handcrafted chocolates are a treat for the eye and the appetite at Little Rock-based Cocoa Belle Chocolates. photo Jenny Boulden

Cocoa Belle shares retail space with Bella Vita Jewelry in downtown Little Rock, and Portillo has just moved her upgraded factory to Little Rock from Bryant. Much of her business is online orders from consumers, wholesalers and even monthly subscription boxes. She has also in the past year cofounded CBDolce, a CBD oil-infused chocolate brand used for health and wellness.

They’re more than pretty: Conscious Coco’s truffles and cocoa powders are designed with raw, natural ingredients. photo Lauren Rae

Wellness is the reason Shayla Holder founded Conscious Coco (consciouscoco.com) in uptown Fayetteville, a line of hand-crafted truffles and cocoa powders using raw, unroasted cacao and other nutrients and sweetened with honey rather than refined sugar. “Chocolate and honey are a magical combination,” she says, adding she prefers honeyed chocolate’s taste.

The raw cacao retains its natural iron and magnesium, which she says are specifically what our bodies are nutritionally needing when we’re craving chocolate. “Each chocolate we make has a specific wellness intention,” Holder explains. Although intended for health, taste still comes first; her customers have also compared her raw creations to the best European chocolates.

Another of her products is a line of Magic Mushroom Cocoa Powders that can be added to coffee or made into drinks. Mushrooms and chocolate may not be a common or appealing combination, but Holder says Conscious Coco combines cacao with tasteless pulverized dried mushroom powder and other ingredients that add essential nutrients. She claims the Strawberry Fields Magic Mushroom powder with bee pollen helps alleviate and prevent spring allergies, for instance.

In 2019, Holder expanded Conscious Coco to a full café serving fresh, plant-based comfort foods. The chocolates are still on the menu and available on-site, as well as at several other specialty food partners in Fayetteville. She has plans to hold chocolate wellness workshops and events such as pairings and wine tastings.

Whatever types of chocolates appeal to your taste buds, try an original Arkansas chocolate for yourself. Or better yet, share some with someone you find especially chocolate-worthy.

Have a favorite Arkansas chocolatier in your hometown? Tell us about them at fb.com/arkansaslivingmagazine!

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