June 1, 2012

Entrepreneur Spotlight – Lillie Belle Farms

artisan chocolateWhen it comes to food, Southern Oregon is known for producing pears and berries that are second to none.   In recent years the area has also been gaining a reputation for its chocolate delicacies thanks to the passion and artistry of Jeff Shepherd of Lillie Belle Farms.  Between being featured on Oprah’s website in 2009 and just recently being awarded a 2011 Good Food Awards honoring top artisan chocolate makers, Lillie Belle Farms has come a long way from selling chocolates out of a zip lock bag at farmers markets! 

You started Lillie Belle Farms about six years ago, correct? 

Actually this will be our tenth year since I started making chocolates.. Blame the website guy for not updating the information, oh wait, that’s me.

What had you been doing prior to that?

Before settling in Oregon I had been living on the island of Kauai where I owned a successful B&B, a catering company, and was the program director for KKCR Kauai Community Radio.

What prompted you to start a chocolate business?

It wasnt a plan at first. I fell into it because of my long history of cooking professionally coupled with the recent purchase of a run down berry farm. I made some raspberry truffles to sell alongside my fruit at a local farmers market and people liked them. You see, during a trip to europe between Hawaii and Oregon. I really liked the chocolatiers I encountered in my travels. The variety, the creativity, the convenience; it seemed like there was always a shop around, like near the patisserie, and charcuterie and boulangerie….the whole concept of a local, fresh made chocolate shop seemed lost in america.  All that….and I REALLY like chocolate.

Tell us about the “farms” part of your name.  Is there really a farm behind Lillie Belle? 

Yes, there is a farm. I bought this two acre run down berry farm on the outskirts of Jacksonville Oregon when I moved here. I replanted the farm and began this concept of being a gentleman farmer. I of course I barely pass as a gentleman and I can assure you I am no farmer. But the berries flourished and was in need of getting rid of them without doing a U-Pick situation where people were always at my house. So I did the farmers market thing. Like I said, I made a few truffles from my berries and it exploded. We still grow some of the berries that we use but my chocolate production exceeded my berry production about  years ago. I now supplement my crop with  a friends organic berry crop too. She was my booth neighbor at the market 10 years ago!

The response to your chocolates was obviously very positive as you’ve grown substantially since then.  In addition to selling your products online and in your own retail store, approximately how many retail partners does Lillie Belle now have?

At last count about 200. We sell to lots of small candy shops and gourmet retailers as well as some significant chain stores like Whole Foods, PCC, and Market of Choice.

How many people do you now have helping you since you’ve been growing so quickly?  What are your hours and responsibilities like on a day-to-day basis? 

I have 10 full time employees and I am in my 4th kitchen since starting out. The space we are in now has yet to be maximized. We now do over 20 tons of chocolate per year and our kitchen rarely runs more than 40 hours a week.

My days are crazy; but I have a serious attention deficit disorder fueled by sugar. I am usually the first one here and the last one out. Between making sure production is up and ready and that they have everything they need to execute the day,  to overseeing the opening of the retail store, to answering a myriad of emails and sales calls I barely have time to design packaging, hand winnow cocoa beans, and play Halo online.

A lot of food artisans dream about getting picked up by the likes of Oprah.  Lillie Belle was actually featured on the Oprah website in 2009.  How did you go about getting your product in front of her magazine writers?

Ah, the Oprah thing. The writer that did that particular list for her was a writer previously at treehugger.com. She had seen us couple years prior and fell in love with our stuff and our story. In this case it was truly a situation of “who you know”.

Some food artisans who, like you, have been picked up by major press outlets say that the publicity can result in a deluge of orders that can be hard for smaller companies to keep up with.  Did you find this to be the case?

Not really. Oprah came later and we knew it was going to happen so we were pretty ready o that christmas. It can get hectic though. A few years ago Martha Stewart chose us as her corporate gifts. She wanted 500 x 1# boxes of our lavender sea salt caramels. We were still hand dipping at that point.  I had 2 people helping me and it was quite an adventure. Her people were so excited we ended up doing her Valentines Day stuff too. Now THAT was crazy.

In addition to the Oprah feature, you’ve had a substantial amount of national press.  Do you work with a PR company or have a publicity expert on staff?

LOL. I am it. All of it. Love me or hate me, you gotta deal with me. 

 It must be mentioned that you recently won the 2011 Good Foods Award in the Chocolate category.  Why did you decide to enter the Good Foods Awards?

Well this  was the second Good Food Awards they have held. I entered in the first one with a 70% bean-to-bar and was a finalist. That showed me we were onto something. When entries came due this year I was already concocting my next bar.

The chocolate category at this year’s show was especially competitive.  When you heard that you’d won what was your reaction?

A bit of shock. The entry, Perfect Illusion, was barely a week old when we sent it in. We had only made 1 batch of it with a sample sent to us from Peru. We knew it was good; probably the best thing we had ever made but we held no “illusions” that it was that good. Bean-to-bar is not how I started this company; I was a chocolatier – not a chocolate maker.. I did bean to bar stuff as a personal quest in my kitchen. I have lived and breathed cacao for 10 years. It was always a goal to make good chocolate from scratch and as my company grew I was able to carve out time and get the right equipment to experiment in my “utility chocolate research kitchen” late at night.

When they told us we were finalists we ordered  a bunch of beans. When they told us we won and the beans were still “on the water” , we freaked out. We didn’t have anymore of it! We used almost the whole batch before we knew we were finalists! The beans arrived at christmas and we were able to reproduce it  over new years and have it ready for the Good Food Awards on January 12th. I lost a lot of sleep over the Perfect Illusion.

The day after the Good Food Awards, award winners are invited to sell their products to the public at the Good Foods Marketplace.  Tell us about your experience selling in the Good Foods Marketplace the day after the awards.

It brought back a lot of memories. It reminded me that getting up at the crack of dawn to sell your product on a cold concrete surface was how I started.  The response from strangers eating your product and digging it is always a cool thing to experience.

Do you have any plans to try for another award this year?

If we got new something new to say, we’ll enter.

With chocolate as good as yours, in a country where chocolate is revered so highly, what’s next for Lillie Belle Farms?  Any plans to run for President?  🙂

Our plan is to continue to continue to make great chocolate. Our kitchen motto is “make em better today than yesterday”. Obviously we dance to the beat of several drummers simultaneously, so the rhythm is what drives us. If the economy tanks we pull back and hunker down. If the economy improves, we expand. As for running for public office…why not?  I mean then someone could dig up all the dirt from my 20’s and remind me of what I actually did…LOL….

You can get your hands on Lillie Belle Farms’ chocolate bars, bon bons (with flavors ranging from decadent raspberry to one-of-a-kind Smokey Blue cheese), and even their handcrafted Voodoo Bunnies (which you just have to see to believe) at the company’s online store.

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