As Valentine’s Day approaches, it is an opportune time to highlight a very sweet store and even sweeter individual. Carmen Portillo is the woman behind the successful operation, Cocoa Belle Chocolates, which offers handcrafted, artisan fine chocolates and is unique to the Little Rock food scene.
If you have the opportunity to run by her storefront, Portillo is a bubbly, passionate individual who will welcome you warmly and help select the perfect treat to satisfy your sweet tooth. Start your year off right and explore this special boutique, support a local entrepreneur, and surprise your loved ones with beautifully crafted chocolates.
Her journey, present operations, and vision for the future are truly inspirational. At the age of 19, Portillo moved to England to live and experience European culture. She recalls taking the Chunnel to Paris where she savored her first taste of fine chocolate.
She remembers strolling the streets of Paris, enjoying the experience of the local chocolate shops. The artisanal practices she observed in Paris peaked an interest in fine chocolate and sparked a desire to bring home the European tradition.
“There you can see the chocolatiers making chocolate. Being born and raised in Little Rock, I remember grandma making fudge, but it’s not a national past time,” Portillo says with a laugh. “They expose their children to fine chocolate at a young age. It’s part of the culture of having chocolate every day. It peaked my interest and obsession.”
It wasn’t until after Portillo graduated college, was newly married, and worked for an accounting firm that she recognized her ambition to become a chocolatier. In 2007, she attended Notter School for Confectionary and Chocolates Arts in Orlando. The next vocational step was to attend Ecole Chocolat Professional School of Chocolate Arts in San Francisco, which provided
Portillo necessary training to become a certified professional chocolatier — the first in Arkansas.
Her financial background was beneficial to start Cocoa Belle. “I put whatever money I had at age 25 into this business,” Portillo reflects. “I don’t come from a family of wealth, didn’t have credit, loans or assets. I had to be really smart and strategic on how I was going to survive.”
In 2008, Portillo opened Cocoa Belle’s original location in the River Market. “It was really hard for some people to take me seriously,” she says in reference to her young age at the time, minority heritage and being a woman. “But I had just as many people excited about those things that would encourage and support me along the way.”
“The first person that reached out was Scott McGehee,” Portillo recalls. “He told me to keep it up, and let him know if I had questions.”
She found support from many other customers, local food and entrepreneurial professionals that provided encouragement and advice along the way. A recipe for success.
Portillo, like many others, felt the effects of the Great Recession. She was retail focused in the River Market location and the physical space left her with minimal room to grow. While she learned valuable business knowledge, Portillo wasn’t able to expand her business.
“I feel like I was a bit ahead of the curve,” Portillo says reflecting back on 2007 and 2008. “People are catching on to the better options for sweets. The demand for more artisan, more local, small batch, breweries, all of that was not around in abundance like it is now.”
“This plugs into the Millennial market — we’re making money, have jobs, and started realizing that the traditional route is not for us. We’re traveling more, developing a better palette and appreciation for artisan items,” she says.
A shift in direction brought Cocoa Belle to its current location in Bryant, Ark. It primarily serves as a processing and packaging facility. You’ll find beautifully packaged chocolates on her shelves and the store can accommodate much more. Portillo fulfills custom, large-scale corporate orders, local distribution demands, and international orders.
“This is a production facility,” Portillo states. “We do everything in house, from labeling to sealing the bags for shipments, online orders, or preparing for stores that carry them, or here.”
“I use a high grade, fair trade cocoa in all of my recipes,” Portillo states. “You can see how dark it is, that is Dutch-process cocoa — which is the same type of cocoa used in Oreos, and what makes them black. It’s not bitter at all, just a different quality.”
Portillo has continued to grow the product line, adding chocolate butter and chocolate bark along with her truffles.
You can find Cocoa Belle Chocolates in many local stores including, Green Corner Store, Nexus Coffee, Eggshells, Heights Corner Market, Tipton & Hurst, Catering To You, Market at Capers, and Mary Martha’s Florist in Arkadelphia. They are also launching a monthly subscription service for chocolates delivered.