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story.lead_photo.caption Sarah Poulton makes crusts for chocolate tarts on Wednesday at Markham & Fitz in Bentonville. - Photo by J.T. Wampler

Lauren Blanco's plans for a chocolate shop began a few years ago when her company first opened operations in an old restaurant building.

There was plenty the first-time business owner needed to do to simply get Hello Cocoa, a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker, up and running at its Fayetteville location. But Blanco was busy imagining the future in a new place at the same time.

"I was researching floor tile because I couldn't wait to design a space where we could create this cool, chocolate experience," Blanco said. "I knew back then that I wanted to have a space where we could sell chocolate and have a dessert lounge."

The vision has become a reality for Blanco and co-founder Preston Stewart, who have recently re-branded their chocolate company Markham & Fitz and are scheduled to open the doors to their new location this week. The three-year old artisan chocolate-maker is putting the final touches on its move from Fayetteville to a storefront in Bentonville's 8th Street Market, joining Bike Rack Brewing Co. and Yeyo's Mexican Grill as tenants in the food hub anchored by Northwest Arkansas Community College's culinary program, Brightwater.

The grand opening for Markham & Fitz will serve as the next act for a company continuing to carve out its space as one of three bean-to-bar chocolate-makers in the the state, joining Kyya Chocolate in Elm Springs and Little Rock's Izard Chocolate. The co-owners believe that the new location in the heart of an evolving food scene, coupled with the evolution of their business, will lead to continued growth for a company that has seen its revenue increase more than 60 percent each year.

"It feels crazy that we've pulled it all off," Blanco said earlier this month. "It's been a whirlwind. But when you're in it, you just do it. That's kind of been my lesson in small business."

Blanco got into the craft chocolate industry through her experience with a nonprofit organization, which provided her first exposure to small business and cacao production in foreign countries. The nonprofit she worked for helped facilitate business development, which inspired her to learn how to a run a small business of her own. The production of cacao beans -- and sustainable and ethical sourcing practices -- also fit her desire to positively affect an international supply chain.

Stewart -- the company's "Chief Chocolate Officer" -- said he was a "foodie" who always enjoyed working in the kitchen. He studied biochemistry and Spanish in college but was hooked the first time he tasted a piece of craft chocolate, and jumped into the industry.

Together, they've guided a company that changed its name after being unable to secure a trademark for Hello Cocoa.

The new name is a combination of Stewart's son (Markham) and Blanco's dog (Fitz).

New packaging was created, and Markham & Fitz has developed new flavors as well, including a sea salt and almond bar. The company invested in new equipment to improve the quality of the chocolate they were producing and have extended their supply chain, sourcing from places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

"One of the things we realized was that Hello Cocoa chocolate was good but it wasn't going to win international awards," Stewart said. "So we invested in equipment to really refine, primarily, our texture. There was a slight bit of graininess to it. It was detectable to the discerning chocolate people like ourselves. So we feel like we've tightened it up."

Markham & Fitz wants to stand out in a craft chocolate industry that has undergone rapid expansion. Megan Giller, who recently wrote and published Bean to Bar Chocolate: America's Craft Chocolate Revolution, estimated there were five bean-to-bar makers in the United States in 2005. The number has since grown to about 200.

Giller said a key moment came in 2005 when Scharffen Berger Chocolate, the first craft maker in the country, was acquired by Hershey. She believes that it inspired others who were upset about the sale or saw an opportunity.

Giller believes that the growth of bean-to-bar chocolate-makers -- much as with craft beer and specialty coffee -- has been fuled by the farm-to-table movement as well. More consumers want to know where their food, or indulgences like chocolate, come from and want assurance it was ethically sourced.

"I think we're going to see a lot more bean-to-bar chocolate-makers, and I hope it will become more accepted the way it has with craft beer and specialty coffee," Giller said. "We don't blink anymore about paying quite a bit more for a pint of craft beer. I hope it becomes like that with chocolate."

Markham & Fitz intends to do its part in educating customers about the quality of craft chocolate in their new space, which will serve as both a chocolate factory and a chocolate lounge.

Bean-to-bar chocolate making remains the company's foundation, and the process will be visible to customers in Bentonville. Stewart said that there really wasn't any retail traffic in the Fayetteville factory but everything in the chocolate-making process will be transparent in the new space.

They're also using the shop to produce more than their chocolate bars, which cost about $8. Stewart said confectionery items like truffles, bon bons and tarts will be featured as well. There's also a bar to highlight wine, whiskey and chocolate pairings as well as an extensive chocolate-cocktail menu.

"We want people to be able to experience everything that chocolate has to offer," Blanco said.

Daniel Hintz, who was executive director of Downtown Bentonville Inc. and is now chief executive officer of the community development firm Velocity Group, said Markham & Fitz's concept for the chocolate factory and lounge was a good fit for the 8th Street Market. He was impressed by the company's business plan and the tenacity of its co-founders.

"They put their product out there, and it was actually working," Hintz said. "One of the ideas behind the 8th Street Market is the ability to take those businesses that are out there that had some proof of concept and are ready for the next phase, the next jump. Markham and Fitz was ready for that jump."

The company now is eager to open its doors to the public after going through what Stewart described as "chocolate limbo" while making the transition from Fayetteville to Bentonville. Production halted for about a week to pave the way for the move, but the company was able to make a couple of hundred pounds of chocolate bricks to hold them over.

The holiday season is one of the busiest for chocolate sales as well, making the timing of the move challenging. But Stewart said they've been able to fulfill online sales, which have been solid the past few weeks, as Markham & Fitz finalizes its transition to Bentonville.

"We're kind of bummed that we weren't open earlier so that we could have a lot of in-store people coming in to get Christmas gifts," Stewart said. "But it is what it is. We can't change it. We're getting all of our T's crossed and our I's dotted, and we'll hope to capture a little bit of that Christmas vibe."

SundayMonday Business on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: Sweet move for chocolate-maker

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