You’ve probably seen it on the shelves of your favorite coffee shops or name-dropped on the menus of your go-to breweries. The dark chocolate has started a new wave of artisan chocolate lovers in Little Rock, and the name Izard Chocolate has become a buzz word, sneaking into recipes and creating a sense of brand loyalty for dark chocolate that we didn’t even know we were missing. And you can see the artisan chocolatier and entrepreneur Nathaniel Izard in his sunlit shop in Hillcrest, discovering his own chocolate-making process, mastering a new assortment of treats and hand-wrapping his signature bars in gold foil for sale to new and returning customers.
We sat down with the chocolate pioneer to get the backstory on his ever-growing chocolate factory — a success story that seemed to transpire overnight, but is actually the result of trailblazing, trial and error and an undying love for chocolate.
AY: Tell us about yourself. Have you always loved chocolate?
NI: I have. But I have not always had a passion for quality chocolate. I can remember many great experiences from my childhood that include chocolate, and in high school I took a more serious interest in the culinary world. I found that I loved making several chocolate desserts.
Regarding myself, I’ve lived in Arkansas almost my whole life. I enjoy most things that other Arkansans enjoy, including great food, hiking, cycling, camping, water activities and more. I also enjoy reading and traveling. When I’m not working, I’m usually spending time with my friends.
AY: Why (and how) did you start Izard Chocolate?
NI: I love new experiences, and I love learning how things are made (mainly things I can also eat). While I was in Italy, I went to several small cheese factories, and was fascinated by the process. When I got back from Italy, I knew that I wanted to start a business, but wasn’t sure what kind of business to start. What I did know was that I wanted to make chocolate. I wanted to actually make the chocolate. At the time, I didn’t know where to begin. So I started doing research, and was fascinated by what I learned. The rest is history. I meshed my new love of making chocolate and my desire to start my own business, and Izard Chocolate was born.
AY: How long have you been in business?
NI: I started my research and development process about this time two years ago. I started selling my product in the fall of 2014 at the Hillcrest Farmers Market, then opened up my shop/factory in August 2015. It’s seems like such a long time ago, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of all the plans I have for the future.
AY: What makes Izard Chocolate special? (How is it different from other store-bought chocolate?)
NI: I believe that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I decided to start making chocolate that would be known for it’s deliciousness and quality. The process starts with buying delicious (and have I mentioned high-quality?) cacao from some amazing farmers all across the world, and using other excellent ingredients. I have customers coming in quite often who say that I’ve ruined them on cheap chocolate. We pay attention to the details and make sure that people who have tasted our chocolate don’t have to ask this question.
AY: What is a micro-batch, bean-to-bar factory?
NI: Micro-batch means we do things on a very small scale. We produce about 120 lbs of chocolate a week, less chocolate in a year than say, Hershey, would process in a couple of hours. This very small scale gives us the ability to closely monitor all the steps in the production process.
Bean-to-bar describes what we do. We buy cacao “beans,” roast them, winnow them into cacao “nibs,” grind the nibs and add organic cane sugar, age the chocolate for 2-3 weeks, temper and mold the chocolate into bars, and wrap and label the chocolate in beautiful papers. In other words, everything is made from scratch at our factory in Hillcrest.
AY: Why dark chocolate, as opposed to milk chocolate? (What’s the difference, anyway?)
NI: Dark chocolate contains high levels of cacao solids and cacao fat, and should not contain any milk solids at all. Milk chocolate, on the other hand, includes milk solids (milk powder) in the recipe.
While milk chocolate is the most common chocolate found on any given shelf, not many think of milk chocolate as your quality chocolate. And there’s a reason for that. Milk chocolate is more milk, fat and sugar, than it is chocolate. And so I decided to stick with dark chocolate. I believe that dark chocolate tastes better (once accustomed to it), and for a fact, it is healthier for you. Taste, quality, nutrition. Can anybody argue with that?
AY: Can we buy chocolate from your factory? (If so, when, and how much does it cost?)
NI: Absolutely. We’re open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. We have a range of items including bars, truffles and caramels. You can get out of our shop without spending more than a buck or two if you are just looking for quick treat. On average, our items run between $8 and $15. You can also find our chocolate throughout Little Rock, Hot Springs and Fayetteville.
AY: Do you think it has helped your business to be based in Little Rock? If so, how?
NI: Well, I’m an Arkansas boy, and didn’t even consider being based anywhere else. But yes, I have had overwhelming encouragement and support from people near and far in Arkansas. It’s been a very humbling experience, and I am very grateful to all my supporters (including AY for doing this Q&A with me!).
AY: Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. Can we gift your chocolate bars with a bouquet of roses? Do you have any other clever gift ideas?
NI: When I started the company, I absolutely fell in love with the idea of creating a product that could be gifted. That is why our bars already look like a present when you buy them. We will be doing gift wrapping at our shop for the chocolates for Valentine’s Day. You should absolutely include some flowers from a local florist in your gift to that special someone.
AY: My significant other doesn’t like chocolate. Do you have anything other giftable goodies?
NI: Oh dear. It must be hard (note my sarcasm). As a matter of fact, we do carry caramels that are not dipped in chocolate.
AY: What food or drink goes best with Izard Chocolate? Wine? Coffee?
NI: Beer actually goes really well with chocolate. So get yourself down to one of the many local breweries and gift a growler of the best. I’m not biased or anything, but Lost 40, Flyway Brewery and Stone’s Throw all use Izard products in some of their beers. Next up, I would suggest a bottle of good red wine. Or maybe a good port.
AY: What’s next for Izard Chocolate? More products? Different flavors? We want to know!
NI: Yes, more products for sure. We have at least two new flavors of bars coming out very soon. And more than that before too long. Getting a flavor into production is harder and more intense than you would think. But, over the next several months, our goals include getting these new flavors into production and increasing distribution.
AY: What is your advice for aspiring business owners? Google it?
NI: Google is definitely not a bad place to start. I would say this to the aspiring business owner: Are you ready to work the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life? Good, then just go for it. Be smart, do your research, make sure you have some money, but then just go for it.
AY: Do you have any announcements coming up?
NI: Well yes, now that you mention it, we do. The good news is that our caramels that have been very well-received at our shop are now being sold at several of the locations that also carry our bars. If you are not sure if your go-to location for picking up Izard Chocolate will have the caramels, then give them a call and ask. We’re adding new locations daily.
What’s your favorite Izard Chocolate bar? Tell us in the comments below!