Dagoba Chocolate raises the bar

As the economy goes south, Americans begin to turn to affordable luxuries to sooth the sting of the stock market.

Luxuries such as Dagoba Chocolate, which is made in Ashland.

"Luckily, chocolate is somewhat recession-proof," said Mary Heckenlaible, mother of the founder of the business, Frederick Schilling, and director of public relations and international sales at the Benson Way facility.

The company produces 18 types of chocolate bars, infused with lavender, chili spices and other oddities. But the strange combinations have, in fact, helped the company make a name for itself and inspired other chocolatiers to follow suit.

Founded in 2001 in Boulder, Colo., the company has operated in Ashland since 2005, after a stint in Central Point.

Two years ago it was sold to the Hershey Company and operates under a subsidiary, Artisan Confection Company, which also owns the Joseph Schmidt and Scharffen Berger chocolate brands.

The cacao — which forms the bitter, cocoa base of chocolate — is harvested in Central and South American rainforests, because it only grows about 20 degrees north or south of the equator, Heckenlaible said.

Farmers collect the cacao pods, grind them down and pack the cacao into 25- to 50-pound bricks that are shipped to Ashland.

"It's healthy for biodiversity," said Heckenlaible. "So we're really pleased about being able to offer a product that is also healthy for the environment."

Schilling, who has always been interested in sustainability, now works on reforestation projects.

All of the chocolate is organic and no chemical additives are used, Heckenlaible said.

"It's strictly an organic facility. That was one of the driving forces behind the company and that was at the time when you mentioned organic chocolate and people pretty much went, 'yuck,'" she said.

The Ashland facility is also a "green" and sustainable business, she said.

Now that the green movement has taken off, Dagoba is one of the top organic chocolate companies in the world, Heckenlaible said.

The chocolate can be found at natural and specialty food stores, like Whole Foods, and in some organic sections in supermarkets, she said.

Despite the economic downturn, chocolate sales continue to be strong, but commodity prices have also increased, putting the squeeze on some chocolate companies, she added.

"We're reasonably strong, and we're holding pretty close to last year, which in this economic climate is a feat," said Doug Massey, Dagoba's production manager.

The Ashland facility employs 27 locals and is capable of producing as many as 36,000 chocolate bars per day, he said.

And the market for organic chocolate is growing, Massey added.

Sue Powell, Dagoba's senior accountant, said friends are envious of her job at the chocolate factory.

"I tell them, you can't beat chocolate everyday," she said.

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