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A sweet tooth for entrepreneurship: Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolates

Beth-TullyAt age 50, following careers in speech pathology, communications and sales, Beth Tully discovered that her real passion was chocolate.

After becoming certified as a Master Chocolatier, Tully launched Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolates in 2005. What began as a traditional candy store in Wichita, Kansas, has evolved into a “chocolate lounge” — a chocolate-centric gathering place where customers can enjoy handmade chocolates, specialty coffees, hot cocoa, gelato, pastries, wine, beer and free WiFi. In May Tully opened a Cocoa Dolce store in Overland Park, Kansas, and the second location has been an important litmus test, she says. “We proved to ourselves that it’s possible to bottle this concept — one with lots of moving parts — and translate it into another market.”

Between the two locations, Tully now has 46 full- and part-time employees, up from 32 at the beginning of this year. Revenue for 2014 is expected to hit $2.25 million, which would reflect an 80 percent increase from 2013. In addition to its two chocolate lounges, Cocoa Dolce distributes its products online and through national retailers including Whole Foods and Vino Volo. Sales to external markets have been steadily increasing and represent about 35 percent of revenue.

Last year in preparation for the second store, Tully created a lot of structure including handbooks, formal procedures and an organizational chart. “It’s all about moving from a dream to a real business,” she says. “We’ve evolved from a one-woman show to a company with a legacy and young employees who want to make this their career.”

In fact, Tully envisions growth beyond her original business plan. “We realized that we could replicate the concept, which we weren’t sure about. It’s sparked our creative juices to think about franchising — something I never would have dreamed of before.”

Tully is also passionate about community involvement and serves on a number of boards including the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Wichita State University Alumni Association. Each month Cocoa Dolce highlights a different charity along with select chocolates and donates a portion of their sales to the organization.

“In the beginning, we took a buckshot approach and did something for everyone,” Tully says. “Over time, however, we’ve honed our partnerships and become more strategic. We also try to make sure it’s heartfelt and partner with organizations that have touched us in some way.” Among these are the Humane Society of Wichita, Susan G. Komen Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Children’s Mercy Hospital and Treehouse, a nonprofit for at-risk women and children.

Giving back also means nurturing future business owners, and Tully is a member of the Advisory Council for Youth Entrepreneurs. “Encouraging young entrepreneurs is critical to maintaining a vibrant community,” she says.

This spring Tully hosted a two-day mentoring event with 14 high school students, which revolved around the launch of a new mint product. The students got involved with research, a SWOT analysis, taste and flavor development, pricing and packaging, and the development of a simple marketing plan.

Last summer Tully incubated a group of six high school seniors who helped develop and launch a pates de fruit (fruit flavored jellies) product. Most pates de fruit are cut as thin squares and packaged in a stack, Tully says. The students, however, took a different approach by using a berry-shaped mold and then placing the candies, individually cupped, in a clear box — an item Cocoa Dolce continues to sell.beth-chocolates “Now that I’m in second stage, I have time to do activities like these — things you can’t really do when you’re in startup and you’re like a deer in the headlights,” Tully says.

“I feel that I have an obligation to mentor our young people and to ask them some of the questions I wish I had been asked at their age,” she adds. “Hindsight is 20/20, but maybe I can help connect a few with their passion much earlier than I did.”

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