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Potomac Chocolate owner Ben Rasmussen makes five types of artisan chocolate bars. The “Upala 70%” bar garnered a silver award at the 2011 Academy of Chocolate Awards and was a 2011 Good Food Awards finalist.

BEN RASMUSSEN: POTOMAC CHOCOLATE

Flavor to Savor & Never Forget

By Jennifer Rader, Contributing Writer

Like a fine wine, quality chocolate can emit a bouquet of flavors. Hints of cherry, raspberry, plum, citrus and even banana fall on the palette when permitted attention and patience in exploring its subtleties. If you are not experiencing  this flavor nirvana, you aren’t partaking in true “bean to bar” artisan chocolate. Luckily, Ben Rasmussen, Woodbridge resident and owner of Potomac Chocolate, is bringing that opportunity a little closer to home.

Chocolate originates from the cacao (kuh-kah-oh) bean. Bean to bar artisans work the beans through the roasting and conching process  to coax layers of flavor rarely, if ever, found in supermarket sweets.

Rasmussen, an award-winning chocolatier and Gar-Field High School graduate, is one of these artisans. His entire operation is done by hand, from bean sorting to roasting, taste-testing and wrapping each bar for display and shipment.

Potomac Chocolate bars can be found at retailers across the country and through its online store at www.potomacchocolate.com.

To learn more about his business, Prince William Living spoke with Rasmussen.

PWL: When did Potomac Chocolate begin?

Rasmussen: I started talking with a friend about it around March to May 2010. … The first bars were released in November 2010.

PWL: Is this a second job or hobby?

Rasmussen: I consider it more of a second job. It did start out as a hobby.

PWL: What is the story and inspiration behind your start into artisan chocolate?

Rasmussen:  I was introduced to fine chocolate by my older brother. He came home for Christmas and did a tasting for the family. I

Potomac Chocolate owner Ben Rasmussen makes five types of artisan chocolate bars. The “Upala 70%” bar garnered a silver award at the 2011 Academy of Chocolate Awards and was a 2011 Good Food Awards finalist.
Potomac Chocolate owner Ben Rasmussen makes five types of artisan chocolate bars. The “Upala 70%” bar garnered a silver award at the 2011 Academy of Chocolate Awards and was a 2011 Good Food Awards finalist.

had no interest whatsoever in dark chocolate. I said, “I’ll try it; don’t expect anything from me. I don’t like dark chocolate; I like 3 Musketeers bars. I have a terrible palate.”

We tried these bars and they just blew my mind. It was unlike anything I’d ever had in my mouth before. I started doing tastings for my friends. One of my friends suggested we should try making this. I thought it was one of the most ridiculous ideas I’d ever heard. We started looking into it and thought maybe it could work; we would just do this on the side. We bought just the very basic pieces of equipment. It became obvious very quickly that it was an unsustainable hobby.

[But] the chocolate was pretty good. We could see with work that it could be very good. We worked for five months or so finding the beans we wanted and working the batches with the Upala bean once we decided upon it. We launched the “Upala 70%” bar that November [2010].

PWL: Did you have previous business experience?

Rasmussen: I had a small wedding photography business. I stopped that in November of 2011. So for a time, I worked a day job, the photography business and chocolate.

PWL: Did you ever think you would become an entrepreneur? Rasmussen: For a long time I thought I was just going to be an IT guy, and that was cool, and I still enjoy the IT stuff I do. The photography started the same way as the chocolate. I just got real interested in photography and wanted to buy some new gear, but I couldn’t really justify spending that kind of money, and I wanted to do more. That’s very much the way the chocolate has moved, but much quicker. I wanted to really be able to do it and do it right. …  I just love it.

PWL: Do you think Potomac Chocolate will ever be produced externally?

Rasmussen: I will never allow it to grow too big that I am not involved in at least the flavor development steps. … I don’t foresee a time that I’m not doing the roasting. My artistic interpretation of these beans is what I am selling. But the wrapping or packaging of the orders I’d be happy to pass off.

I do want it to grow. Someday I envision it will probably need a separate facility. I have this idea that maybe one day it will be a little shop in the front that has a glass wall where you will be able to see the workshop and [I will] give classes and tours.

PWL: What challenges had to be overcome?

Rasmussen: A lot of the daily challenge has been space and time.

On the business side of things, it’s finances. We did this small Kickstarter program where we raised about $2,000, but other than that, everything has grown organically. It’s a constant issue of what is the next piece of equipment or what improvement in the process can I accomplish to enhance the chocolate without breaking the bank. I’ve had to grow much more organically and slowly.

PWL: What differences has Potomac Chocolate brought to you personally?

Rasmussen: As far as just starting a business, I love it. I love being the boss. I love being able to make the decisions. This is my vision and I don’t answer to anyone. I’ve traveled more, attending events, meeting people, because of it. I just love the process of making

chocolate. So that’s what it’s really enabled me to do.

PWL: How have you gotten the distribution you have?

Rasmussen: They find me. I’ve been very lucky. The Academy of Chocolate Awards brought a lot of attention to me in the fine chocolate world. Most stores that carry my bars are fine chocolate shops or small book, gift, wine and coffee shops. They pay more attention to these things. NPR has done a couple pieces on me. Their posting on [NPR’s food blog] Jan. 15, 2012, started my back orders. So all of that was huge. I also have a distributor in Salt Lake City representing me, mostly in the Western markets.

I’ve gotten a lot of good reviews, good press. I’ve won an award or two and, for the most part, people just find me. I’m actually just now at the point where I’m about to start contacting shops to send samples.

PWL: How did the Potomac Chocolate logo develop?

Rasmussen: We just wanted something to identify ourselves as  being local. You’d be surprised [at] the questions I get about the Potomac River, though. I’ve blogged about it on my site. We wanted something simple, minimalist, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously other than the chocolate.

PWL: What is your vision for the future of Potomac Chocolate?

Rasmussen: Just what I’m doing but more of it—more beans, more bars, more shops. I love making single origin bean to bar chocolate. I don’t foresee a time that I would make a confection like a truffle and I like truffles—maybe if I had a shop, but my passion is pure, dark chocolate. The bar is the perfect chocolate delivery mechanism.

PWL: What is your advice to others considering starting a business?

Rasmussen: I wish that I had been more fully prepared with more capital and machinery on hand to handle the growth better. Another tip is to consider a distributor; it’s worked pretty well for me. And there’s probably a lot to be said for figuring out if there is a market for your product. I got very lucky. Artisan chocolate has been on an upswing as people learn about better quality products available.

My best advice is that you’ve got to do something you have a passion for. The way the market is going, people are embracing do-it- yourself [and] … artisan foods, local foods. I just can’t foresee a time when people say, “Local just doesn’t make any sense anymore.” If there’s something you are passionate about that has given you a “eureka moment,” just go for it. Then don’t let the business side outweigh the joy side of it.

A nonprofit development director for more than 10 years, Jennifer Rader now works as a freelance writer and consultant. She lives with her son and husband in Manassas and can be reached at [email protected].

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