Phillip Ashley Rix is changing the dessert world with his imaginative flavor blends. From sweet potato to French bleu cheese, this designer chocolatier provides a chocolate experience like no other. Nicknamed by Forbes as “The Real-Life Willy Wonka” and honored as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things” for 2020, this self-taught artist found a way to reimagine the industry and launch a product that not only challenges your palate but also give back to the community and the hardworking people who harvest the cacao beans.
Phillip’s expertise span from curating dining experiences at the James Beard House in New York City to creating tens of thousands of chocolates for major award ceremonies. Now, adapting to our new reality, the Memphis native chocolatier uses technology to virtually connect with his clients and offer them the opportunity to be part of his nationwide chocolate tastings with wine pairings and explain more about his unique spin on chocolate.
To continue using his understanding of flavors and chocolate, Rix will launch a special edition 50-piece “Taste of America” collection on Memorial Day to feature custom flavor profiles for each state. However, those eager to try his exquisite creations can enjoy his Ester Amaretto Peach, Thai Curry Cashew, or Grand Marnier Orange Blossom Honey chocolate from the Signature Collection available at Phillip Ashley Chocolates virtual boutique.
Curious about Phillip Ashley Rix’s vision, we decided to investigate more about his career and where he gets his creativity from. In an interview with HOLA! USA, he shared how he decided to venture into the chocolate industry and how he keeps his employees happy, healthy, and working during the pandemic.
I’m actually doing great — all things considered. I’m fortunate to be healthy, and so is my family.
The business has done well despite all of the challenges. When 2020 started, quite honestly, I couldn’t have told you what was about to happen because everything and everyone was uncertain. I went ready to have a great year. We were planning to open a store in Seattle and do some other really cool things. And then, just after Valentine’s Day, we started getting a bunch of notices, saying something is happening, and then by March, we all knew what was going on. So, I had to pivot and figure it out as many business owners and entrepreneurs have to do, and, thankfully, I was able to be creative enough to come up with doing the virtual tastings. We used to do live and in-person tastings, and then we had to take it into the digital space. We did 16 weeks straight during our stay-at-home order, and in every virtual date night, it would be anywhere from 20 to 70 people from various parts of the country. Even some in Canada and southern Europe. 2020 made me look at ways to reinvent. My whole goal for 2020 was just to survive and take care of my employees.
I knew, even back in college. I knew very early that working for myself was something that I wanted to do. When I was in school in the late 90s and early 2000s, we were taught to be a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, or get a job. Entrepreneurship is hot now, but 20 years ago, not so much in terms of just conventional knowledge. Working for FedEx and working for other companies gave me insight into the world of relationship development. I always say there‘s no more valuable currency than relationships. What I learned from my corporate career really sparked my desire to take all of that information and knowledge and experience and then import it and put it into my own business.
I woke up at three o‘clock one morning, living in Baltimore, with the notion that I’m going to be a chocolatier and make chocolates for the rest of my life. So that flipped the switch. I spent the next three, four years teaching myself how to make chocolate learned everything I could about food. I’ve been cooking for some years, but I wasn’t doing it professionally per se. Still, I was an avid Cook, so I just proceeded to learn everything I could about manipulating flavor and using chocolate as that medium. In FedEx, I understood the value of creating a product and moving goods across the world, so that’s what I wanted to achieve with my chocolate. I wanted to make my chocolate, like the sticker gum of the Willy Wonka story where it’s roast beef, potatoes, and blueberry, so I wanted to bring that into reality with chocolates. That’s why we put bleu cheese in chocolate or goat cheese or make chocolates that taste like a margarita even with this kosher salt.
Well, the world is so full of flavor. I study Latin American food or explore different European cuisine and African cuisine, Caribbean cuisine, American, new American, all of that, and it’s really about figuring out. If someone in some country is putting it on a plate or putting it in a cocktail glass, I want to figure out how to put it into chocolate. I‘m a student of people, so I talk, watch, and listen to people. I spend a lot of my time finding ingredients and things from around the world to incorporate into chocolate.
Everything is handcrafted. My dad, who was a history teacher for 40 years — I taught him how to paint the chocolates, and so he paints all the chocolates that leave this building. We are working to impart a genuinely high-level and well-executed piece of chocolate that will take you on a journey. It’s not just a piece of chocolate or a piece of candy. It‘s really an experience.
I have a very diverse team. I do seek to hire people of color because, frequently, we are the ones that are not as represented, particularly in this industry from the artists inside. And so I try to train chefs and practitioners to understand chocolate. Diversity is not something that we try to do. I’m a diverse person, and it’s represented in every company element, from the people we hire and train the businesses and the companies that we partner with.
The most remarkable story was meeting Stevie Wonder at the Grammys in 2016. I ended up talking with him for about 20 or 30 minutes about vegan recipes and things like that. And I‘ll tell you one of the most profound things that I got and have ever learned. Honestly, it came from that conversation. He had just been rehearsing backstage, preparing for the Grammys, and kind of towards the end of our conversation, a reporter yells out to Stevie Wonder: “Which is your favorite song you’ve ever written?” And he replied: “I haven’t written it yet!” When he said that, I was like, “man, I haven’t made [my favorite chocolate] yet.” Now, I’m constantly searching for the favorite.
Well, first of all super grateful. And I’ll tell you this too. I truly understand the responsibility of saying that it is not something that you can take lightly. I’ve learned a lot from this opportunity. She was fantastic for selecting us. When we were featured on David Muir’s ABC World News, she opened it up, and then it was essentially introducing us to the world. It’s been huge. Going from a small business and navigating all of the things that come with it have been a learning experience and something that I truly value. I can’t say anything but thank you.
We’ve worked with St. Jude over the years and help to raise awareness about childhood cancer and the cures and treatments that extend lives. One of my employees is a performer patient. She’s been cured. We are creating chocolates for them and helping them raise money. St. Jude is a fantastic place. I mean, you can’t even imagine the amount of work and effort that they have to put. I’m always amazed by what they do and the little bit that I can do to help; I’m happy to do it.
The Phillip Ashley Foundation will focus on several areas but primarily working with entrepreneurs of color, founders of color and help them create businesses that support their families and support other families through job creation and workforce development. Another part of it is working with child healthcare and working with Ghana and West Africa, and other indigenous areas where cocoa is a staple, ensuring that the families and the folks on the ground harvesting are getting fair market value.
I always say people want to buy into you before they buy from you, so tell your story, craft it and be authentic about it, but do what you love if you‘re doing what you love. Do it better than anyone else. People will find a way to help you, and also, you’ll learn how to thrive. Stay healthy, take care of your people. Family is always first. Employees are family too. Help those folks out as well. Be good to your folks in your community. Be kind and have fun.