Seeking to fulfill his dream of starting a business, Phillip Ashley Rix traded his corporate marketing and sales career for life as a chocolatier. Dubbed a “real life Willy Wonka,” Rix has catered many business events and even Hollywood award shows.
Here he talks about his influences, challenges he’s faced, his company’s unique high-end flavors, and his experience on Chopped Sweets.
Who inspired your love of food? Forbes compared you to Willy Wonka. Did that movie pique your love of chocolate?
My grandmother got me interested in food because I always spent time there as a kid. Food is also a big part of my family’s holidays. And I’ve always been a fan of the Gene Wilder version of the film, but I like the new one, too, and the book. In fact, during the holidays, I dress up as my alter ego, Cocoa Claus, and hand out the book to kids at hospitals.
Honestly, the movie was the catalyst for me getting into chocolate. I was working in the corporate world in 2007, and one night I woke up at 3:00 a.m. from a crazy dream and decided I was going to be a chocolatier. I became obsessed with bringing Willy Wonka to life. I was always fascinated by that stick of gum with the tomato soup, roast beef, potatoes, and blueberry pie, which inspires the flavor profiles and intricate formulas we do.
You are completely self-taught. How did you learn your craft?
It was very challenging. I looked into culinary school, but there wasn’t a chocolate-focused path. I just figured I would make it happen myself.
Over the next five years, I spent thousands of hours researching and learning. I studied the history, science, and art of chocolate, saw how other companies marketed and did their packaging, and taste-tasted quite a bit. But the thing I didn’t see in my travels was a fantastical approach to chocolate making: why wasn’t anyone making a BBQ chocolate or putting blue cheese in chocolate? I wanted to figure out how to take the fundamentals of chocolate making and add my imagination and love of storytelling.
Why did you open Phillip Ashley Chocolates in Memphis?
Memphis is home. But more than that, it’s a great place to strategically start a business. The logistical infrastructure, especially for consumer foods, is very viable because all points of transport intersect here, which gives us a competitive advantage. Plus, there’s so much history and energy to draw from, whether it’s music or art. It’s just a cool community and place to be creative.
What are your most popular flavors? What are your personal favorites?
Our most popular flavor is a French blue cheese chocolate called Savoy. Other popular ones include Porto, made with goat cheese, port wine, and fig jam; Top Shelf, made with margarita; and Mama Jean, made with sweet potato, which was the first one I ever made and is named after my grandmother. People also love our Taste of America and Uncle Nearest collections.
One of my favorites is our whiskey-infused cherry cordials. I like some of our newer flavors, too, like chocolate with saffron and burnt orange peel. Another is one drawn from my childhood, called D’Artagnan. It’s my play on a 3 Musketeers bar, but it’s infused with fennel. We use very intricate, nuanced flavors.
Where do you get your ingredients?
I source my ingredients from all over the world, which can be challenging. For example, we’re working now to source our cocoa beans, peanuts, and cashews from West Africa. One reason for our price point is we use the highest-quality ingredients and are always doing R and D to make sure the taste is just right.
Did any flavor experiments bomb?
Bee pollen and beer hops. We were supplied real hops, which I’d never used before. I made the chocolates and painted Van Gogh’s The Starry Night on each. After putting a ton of work into it, we tasted them, and they were terrible.
You focus on the corporate and hospitality fields, but you also work with schools and hospitals in your community. What does giving back mean to you?
As a general principle, I feel it’s good to be a giver. If I can help others with the talents and gifts I’ve been blessed with, I’m all for it. It’s my way of showing appreciation to my community and for being able to help others who are in situations far more precarious than mine. I always say kindness is free.
Have you experienced many challenges?
Oh, yeah. And I still do. I’ve yet to find anyone who’s successful who hasn’t gone through a world of challenges. And, as someone once told me, blessings often come with burdens. For example, we were fortunate enough to recently be part of Oprah’s Favorite Things, which put us in a position to grow exponentially overnight. We had over 10,000 orders come in, and about 75 percent of that was in a six-hour period. That was more orders than in the previous eighteen months.
And then there’s the pandemic. I was making sure our team was safe, but I wasn’t sure if the business would survive. It was our worst year ever. Also, increasing productivity while maintaining handcrafted quality and navigating the issues in the shipping world has been challenging. However, I feel like the things we’ve gone through over the past few years will help us in the years to come, and the lessons learned have been plentiful. I don’t get flustered by challenges. I attribute a lot of that to my parents and having good people around me.
How else has COVID-19 changed your business?
Fortunately, I had started shifting to an almost exclusively online business model right before COVID hit. Still, we had to make several pivots. Corporate projects were going away, so we started virtual chocolate tastings on March 8, 2020. Since then, we’ve done over 350 events for over 10,000 people worldwide. That really helped to sustain us early in the pandemic, as did holding a virtual date night for sixteen straight Fridays. Our mantra of “Every chocolate should tell a story” was never truer than at that time.
What was it like to be on Chopped Sweets?
I am a big fan of Chopped. They called in 2019 and invited me to be on their spinoff. It was such a cool experience. Seeing it on TV is one thing, but that clock doesn’t stop. Forty-five minutes feels like five minutes. I started competing at around 5:30 p.m. and didn’t finish until around 2:00 a.m. I barely got edged out in the finals. I definitely want another shot! [Laughs]
Has your business exceeded your expectations over the past ten years?
The opportunities I’ve had are special, and I don’t take them for granted. I still remember having to borrow my parents’ or my aunt’s kitchen because mine wasn’t big enough to even do a small job. Each year has brought new opportunities and challenges. I just want to continue to get better at meeting those challenges—I want to be least responsible for creating them but most responsible for solving them. I want the company to thrive so I can continue to provide jobs and a living wage for my employees they can have good lives.
Mostly, I’m super grateful that, through all the ups and downs, we’re still here. Somebody recently asked me, “Could you have imagined doing all these different things?” My immediate answer was “Yes.” When I started this company, my vision was to go above and beyond and create something special—and yet we’re still moving in directions I couldn’t imagine.
For more info, visit phillipashleychocolates.com