Chocolate store hopes product can resist the recession

When Jeff Compton starts to worry about the economy, a well-known mantra eases his nerves.

"People have said that the chocolate business is somewhat recession-proof.," Compton said.

For the owners of Ashland's Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, work is all about feeding peoples' sweet tooth. Compton and his wife, Renee Hallesy, have run Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for nearly a decade, turning an underachieving business to a town staple in the process. They expanded the store's inventory, while changing the way their homemade chocolate was prepared. Today they make more than one hundred different items, caramel apples being one of their specialties.

But like residents all across the country, Ashlanders these days are saving more to bite into mortgage payments than candy-coated fruit. Sales at Rocky Mountain Chocolate are down about 20 percent over the past 12 months, compared with the year before.

"We order a little bit less these days," Compton said. "We make a little bit less, too."

The global recession is hitting local businesses hard. For Compton and Hallesy, the recession has made maintaining a steady workforce difficult. Currently they employ five workers at their store. During summers they will add two more, usually high school students or new graduates. But Compton says the recent increase in Oregon's minimum wage — coupled with the ongoing recession — makes it difficult to hire part-time workers.

"We need to have people on staff for the summer. And in the winter it's difficult, we've got to make tough choices," he said.

State minimum wage rose 45 cents to $8.40 in January, making Oregon's minimum wage the nation's second highest. Since 2002, Oregon wage has been tied directly to the consumer price index, meaning that it increases each year to match the rate of inflation.

Compton said that while the high wage benefits workers, it might not be worth the hours needed to train new employees. But he needs the extra help during tourist season, and enjoys the challenges high school add-ons bring to the summer months.

"We like to take care of our people, we do everything we can to keep them working," he said. His hope is that the extra cost will be offset by what some retailers are calling "staycationing." Faced with lighter wallets, many families are opting to vacation closer to their homes. Places like Ashland — with its accommodations and renowned Shakespeare festival — become ideal summer spots for many tourists, who might otherwise have traveled farther from home.

Compton is hoping staycations translate into higher income for his store. A good summer would have the potential to wipe out any losses the recession may have caused, he said. Like many local shopkeepers, he is anxious for the tourists to "come in and support local family businesses."

Downturn or no, life at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is pretty sweet for Brian Compton and Renee Hallesy. They were manufacturing labels for a printing company ten years ago. Now they are working a dream job.

"Chocolate is one of the necessities of life," Compton said.

Like everyone else, the couple fears what could happen if the economy slides further. But they prefer to focus on day-to-day operations rather than long-term financial forecasts.

That, and the fact that chocolate is recession-proof.

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