By Brigette Williams :: Photography by Jamison MosleyF
or most, a piece of chocolate serves as a special treat when the craving strikes. For Carmen Portillo, a chance visit to a British sweet shop provided a safe haven and inspiration to become Arkansas’ only certified chocolatier.
t this time, Carmen Portillo, 32, can say she’s a one-of-a-kind Arkansan, a claim few of us can make. She is the state’s only certified chocolatier.
Petit and beautiful, with an infectious laugh, she is a confessed chocoholic. But, Portillo’s entree into the profession of confectioner surprisingly is inspired by a situation that is anything but sweet. Her journey begins, approaching 15 years ago, during college at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
“I was a freshman and madly in love with a ‘Brit’ also attending UCA,” she says smiling. Following her heart, she moved to England with him at the age of 19. When asked about family reaction to her relocation at such a young age she explains, “My family is interesting, in that my mother was from a military family, so they’ve always been open to world travel. His family had previously been here and met mine so there was familiarity.”
Soon after the move, it was apparent all was not as rosy as it had seemed on campus. “I was finding myself being 19 and thinking you’re in love, growing up, trying to find yourself-things change. The relationship ended up being very toxic,” she said.
Portillo found herself in an abusive relationship, far away from family. Despondent, but resolved, she was committed to getting back home. “As in a lot of abusive relationships, my family knew nothing. I didn’t want them to worry.” But Portillo would have some respite to herself on day trips.
“One day I stumbled upon this sweet shop in Wimbledon. It’s funny when I think about the phase I was in and what I was going through at the time. That shop was so peaceful, and it brought about so much joy and excitement, watching the chocolatiers make the chocolate,” Portillo remembers. And me getting to pick out my box for the candy and having something special for me that I hadn’t experienced at home; it was a piece of happiness in this world that I felt was falling apart.”
For Portillo, chocolate was more than a treat. “So, I think people’s perception of ‘Oh, I was always a chocoholic’ and passionate about chocolate yeah, I like chocolate. But, the connection was so much deeper. It brought me peace and happiness at a time that was very, very dark.”
The toxic relationship now feels like an old dream, she says pensively. “Not a bad one. Just a dream,” she said. “I want people in toxic situations to not lose sight of themselves because it’s very easy to do. Not only was I alone, I’m small. I’m 5″5, and at the time 115 pounds. He was 6’8″. I was not feeling mighty and powerful then. Chocolate was my peace from all of that. I knew I was going to get out of the situation the best way I could, finish school, save money from work and leave.”
“You know, it’s funny how life’s journey takes you through different places that you don’t think are on track,” she said. “Why am I here? What is the intention of this? But, in that kinda wondering through and going back to accounting, I was able to work on other people’s business and learn how processes should be set up. Understand, I started Cocoa Belle at 24. And, I didn’t know enough about business.”
Fast forward. With Robert graduated from nursing school and the birth of daughter Isabel two months later in 2013, Portillo had decisions to make. Reflecting on lessons learned from her River Market retail shop experience, she decided to reopen, this time focused on wholesale and e-commerce.
Cocoa Belle ships products across the country. Social media is a big driver of product. She enjoys talking to her customers, who provide great feedback. Locally, Cocoa Belle chocolates are available at Catering to You, The Market at Capers, Green Corner Store and her storefront in Bryant.
When asked to reflect, she’s honest. Portillo said she has changed her approach, adding that when she was 25 years old in 2008 she wanted to own her own business. “But I was looking at it from a technical point. I was exhausted; I was a one-woman band. This time, I know to be more aware of how to proceed. You want to look at every opportunity, but not necessarily take every one. If this is putting me back into a ‘technician’ place, I don’t want it. This isn’t just a job for me. It’s more than that. I really want to build a legacy with Cocoa Belle,” she said.
Portillo remembers the thrill she felt when she visited the sweets shop in Wimbledon. “I want to be that excitement for somebody. I want to recreate certain things I experienced there, like when I would buy those boxes of chocolate. It was my treasure that he didn’t know about . . .”You’re a jerk, but I’m happy here alone with my chocolates,” she said laughing.
“I want to tell the story of cocoa from the pod to the finished product, the whole story of chocolate.” To accomplish this, Portillo will host chocolate and wine tastings, chocolate making nights and other activities for people to have a true experience at her Bryant location.
“There are times in the chocolate artisan world, when we can get a little too sophisticated in our ingredients-this has Himalayan salt and blueberries from a hidden jungle; whatever the most remote ingredient we can find on the other side of the Andes Mountains. Let’s put it in chocolate and everybody’s going to love it,” she says laughing. “I’m from Little Rock, not Europe. I like that kind of exotic stuff, but I’m from the South. I’m a Southern girl and that’s something to be proud of. So, my signature Southern Sweets line features high-quality ingredients using flavor profiles of traditional desserts known south of the Mason Dixon line such as pecan pie, ambrosia, Mississippi mud pie. No one in the artisan chocolate world is doing that.”
During the time her shop was open in the River Market, Portillo noted her most popular truffle was key lime pie. “People loved it and appreciated the quality of the flavors. But, why else did they love it? Because the key lime had a memory to it that makes it relatable. But, they also want great quality.”
Which brings Portillo back to her belief in her Signature Southern Sweets line. “So, I think most people don’t have a memory of Himalayan salt. But, you do of Snickers or Kit Kat. I’m wanting to merge memories with taste and high quality in Arkansas.”
When asked about her journey so far, she is introspective. “I feel God is intentional in everything. Every situation, even though I have my own free will, it’s all intentional. I would often ask, how can I make the best out of this situation in this hardship and being so far away from home…so alone, feeling trapped, what is it you want me to get form this? I didn’t’ realize it at the time, because I was in the middle of it. But, when I was removed from it, I came back to myself; I got my sanity, and I was able to breathe and to reflect and prosper.”
At a point I thought, “I’m working at the accounting firm, I’m a newlywed, I’m on a great path. What is it that brings me a joy that I can’t buy and can’t stop thinking about? It was chocolate. So, all of that turmoil and craziness still led me to something greater. Of course, that’s definitely hard to see in that moment.”
Today, her dreams are good ones. “I am the dreamer,” she says. “I’m more aware, conscious and cautious. I’m good, with Robert as my greatest cheerleader. He’s always like ‘what do you need? Cause I’ve got you!’ I can go to him and talk out problems.” She laughs admitting they’re both alpha personalities. “We’re both leaders, so the one thing we can’t do is work together.”
In March, Portillo will be one of 16 companies at a pitch competition sponsored by the Delta Regional Authority in New Orleans. This is an opportunity to present her chocolates to influential buyers and investors from across the country. “I’m really wanting to make Cocoa Belle a national brand, so if I can win the competition there is a $10,000 prize which is great.” According to Portillo, there have been businesses that didn’t win, but still secured impressive contracts.
“Success is when opportunity meets preparation. So, I’m trying to prepare. And, if that’s the opportunity, I want to be ready.”