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Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller

French Broad Chocolate Lounge

Creating a bedroom environment was not what Dan Rattigan and his wife, Jael, had in mind when they designed French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Yet that’s the impression it makes on many customers.

“Innumerable people have told me our lounge reminds them of their bedrooms,” says Rattigan, who opened the dessert café in Asheville, North Carolina, in February 2008.

On the ground floor of a 19th Century building in Asheville’s downtown, the lounge is decorated in shades of light blue and dark chocolate brown. Paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, and abstract watercolor prints line the walls. The dining area is appointed with distressed leather lounge chairs and antique white marble tables, which the Rattigans found at a local Habitat for Humanity store and an antiques business in Waynesville, North Carolina. Customers can see their drinks being prepared and pastries being plated in the open kitchen.

The lounge is designed to encourage people to linger, with wireless Internet service along with the comfy furniture. Customers curl up on the stairs or have a seat on the carpeted floor when the dining area’s 35 seats fill up on Friday and Saturday nights, the busiest times at the lounge.

The most popular items on the menu are the liquid truffle hot sipping chocolates, aromatic, rich, thick beverages available in several flavors. One spicy newcomer to the line is a cayenne and cinnamon liquid truffle, made from fair trade organic dark chocolate and organic cream. The ganache-based hot chocolate drinks are popular with customers looking for lighter flavor.

Baked desserts include the Highland mocha stout cake, made from dark chocolate, flavored with local malt stout beer and layered with Counter Culture coffee buttercream frosting. The Quintessential chocolate cake is a three-layer devil’s food cake with whipped ganache filling and dark chocolate glaze. For vegans, there is a dense, dark chocolate cake, made with coconut oil and coconut milk. The lounge also pours homemade sodas, flavored with syrups infused with lavender, organic rose petals, and citrus agave. Most checks average about $10.

The Rattigans make many of the confections themselves, using blocks of chocolate and wafers, right in their home kitchen. At the store’s kitchen, workers mix the beverages and plate the desserts.

The Rattigans visited chocolate dessert cafés in Chicago and San Francisco for ideas before opening their lounge. They did not need to borrow ideas from other companies when it came to a business philosophy, however. It was always important to them to run a green, local, and mostly organic operation. Rattigan estimates 60 to 70 percent of the chocolate they use is certified organic or fair trade certified. They also rely on local producers for the wildflower honey, berries, and other ingredients. Nearly all the chocolate they use is manufactured in the U.S., which minimizes the company’s carbon footprint. For organic chocolate, the Rattigans rely on Ashland, Oregon–based Dagoba.

And while they support the organic movement, they don’t believe it’s a perfect system. The couple previously operated French Broad Luscious Chocolates as a certified organic operation. With no brick-and-mortar store, they sold chocolates online and at farmers markets as well as to natural foods stores. When they decided to open the chocolate lounge, the Rattigans chose not to be a certified organic business. That choice gives them the flexibility to support local farmers and producers who they know run their businesses in a responsible way, Rattigan says.

French Broad Chocolate Lounge

FOUNDERS: Dan and Jael Rattigan

HQ: Asheville, North Carolina

YEAR STARTED: 2008

ANNUAL SALES: $350,000

TOTAL UNITS: 1

FRANCHISE UNITS: 0

www.frenchbroadchocolates.com

“The more we looked into organic, the more we understood the certifications are vacuous,” he says. “They leave a lot of good, close-to-home products out. Any beekeeper would laugh at the question, ‘Is your honey organic?’ The idea of certifying honey to be organic is absurd. You cannot control where bees go to pollinate.”

The name of their business has a local connection, too. The French Broad River flows through Asheville.

Before settling there, the husband-and-wife team ran a café and dessert shop in the port town of Puerto Viejo de Limon in Costa Rica. While the Costa Rica restaurant served meals as well as desserts, the chocolate lounge is strictly for treats. Trendy, food-centric Asheville, with a population of about 70,000, is a much more competitive town to run a business in, Rattigan says.

In recent months, he has noticed people spending less and attributes the change to the sour economy. Still, he thinks fine chocolates are an indulgence most people can enjoy even in a recession.

“People may not be coming in and buying a whole bottle of wine to drink with their truffles but they are enjoying a glass or two,” he says. “We offer a fairly affordable, small luxury.”

Lynne Miller covers emerging and newly relevant brands.