by Robin Beaudoin
As a premium chocolatier, Phillip Ashley Rix has embraced the opportunity to lift up and endorse fellow local businesses with partnerships in philanthropy and flavor. “If I have to pick one thing that successful businesses have, it’s the relationships and the network that they develop. That is the greatest currency that I have.” He feels similarly about his growing relationship with the LGBT community.
He returned from Baltimore to Memphis after college and a corporate sales career with Apple, Inc. and FedEx, with expert-level marketing skills and a drive to start fresh. Airbrush gun and paper plates (for practice) in hand, Ashley read obsessively, piecing together tutorials to advance to Willy Wonka status as a chocolatier in his hometown.
“I was getting to the point I wanted to do something different, and I’d been bitten by the whole chef bug,” recalls Ashley. He loved food but preferred to be in the consumer space rather than the back of a kitchen. “When you’re open and receptive, something tends to come.”
With no mentor and no open access to the industry, he forged his own path, letting his own imagination and drive take over.
His first public foot in the door came after providing turndown chocolates for the Italian destination wedding of a Memphis-area LGBT couple, theatre director Dennis Whitehead and neonatologist husband Bryan Darling. Their wedding was featured in a Martha Stewart wedding magazine. The spread included mention of his chocolates, which were shipped via FedEx to Italy in boxes of two for the occasion.
The publicity clinched his new career, and he needed a storefront. “I was looking for a cool place to put a chocolate shop, not your everyday type thing. Cooper-Young stood out.” A landlord friend showed him the spot at 798 South Cooper Street, and it was home. “We were moving in the week of Cooper-Young Fest 2013. We were right down the street from OUTMemphis (MGLCC, at the time), and we all introduced ourselves.”
Cooper-Young Festival fulfilled traffic expectations, and his crew passed out 2,000 postcards to plug the store’s opening. “It’s a great thing to have, knowing how many people will be there in front of our store. It’s one of the best-run festivals in Memphis.”
The store’s grand opening fell just before the Christmas holiday.
Phillip Ashley chocolates have since evolved into jewels, known for their unusual—yet cohesive—flavor combinations, such as Gorgonzola and fig, jerk spices and plantain, or sage, caramel, and fennel. Many of his creations celebrate local Mid-South ingredients, such as Wiseacre and Ghost River beers, Central BBQ or BBQ Shop rubs, Wynne, Arkansas sweet potatoes, and feature local cream. Since his inaugural season, the man Forbes dubbed a “Real Life Willy Wonka,” Phillip Ashley Rix has been bestowed the honor of Official Chocolatier of the GRAMMYs®. His creations have been featured in a James Beard Foundation’s “Taste of the Delta” dinner; he was named one of the Top 40 Under 40 Urban Elite Professionals; and he has teamed up with Horchow and Neiman Marcus’ gourmet food gifts to amplify internet chocolate sales, while he pitches his strongest product— himself.
The storefront remains active for special sales and tastings, while the chef takes his business savvy to the masses, teaching entrepreneurship master classes, hosting charity galas, and raising money for local children’s hospitals St. Jude and LeBonheur. This fall he will host his 5th annual Memphis Masquerade in a Casino Royale theme, celebrating James Bond, and hopes to see his LGBT neighbors join in on the fun and support the Heart Institute at LeBonheur. And, yes, there will be chocolate.
“We tell stories that taste like chocolate, and using local flavor only helps to be more authentic. Our overarching slogan is “Crafted in Memphis, coveted around the world,” to say we are in Memphis and we are doing really big things.