Carmen Portillo: We have major chocolate holidays kicking off with Halloween. Then you have Christmas. Valentine’s is our Super Bowl. Then you have Easter. Then it’s just too hot. So what I did to compensate that, as far as for the retail sales and selling boxed chocolates and things like that, I built a lot of my revenue for the off-season to go towards wedding and event season.
Robert Wagner: From HoganTaylor CPAs + Advisers, I am Robert Wagner and this is How That Happened, a business and innovation success podcast. Each episode of the show, we sit down with the business and community leaders behind thriving organizations to learn how business and innovation success actually happens.
Carmen, welcome to the How That Happened Podcast.
Carmen Portillo: Well, thank you so much, Robert. So happy to be here today.
Robert Wagner: Yeah, we’re very excited. We don’t have many… well, we don’t have any chocolatiers on the podcast so far, so thank you so much.
Carmen Portillo: We’re a rare breed.
Robert Wagner: Yeah, indeed, indeed. Carmen, I just want to have a little bit of fun here, because you started your education career, if you will, at the University of Central Arkansas and HoganTaylor has many, many fine graduates from UCA. You started in accounting and finance, I believe, and you actually… I think your first job was at an accounting firm. Do I have that right?
Carmen Portillo: That’s correct. Yes, yes-
Robert Wagner: Yeah. Yeah.
Carmen Portillo: … a well-known accounting firm here in Arkansas.
Robert Wagner: Okay, So what went wrong? I mean, how-
Carmen Portillo: What went wrong or what went right?
Robert Wagner: You were on such a-
Carmen Portillo: It depends on how…
Robert Wagner: Well, you were a very good path there, so tell us what happened.
Carmen Portillo: I was. I was on a very good path. I was on a practical path. And I think that’s what a lot of people do, going into setting your career and what you want to do. You’re coming out of college, you’ve got bills to pay, you want to make a living and that was the practical route. My mother worked for the State for… by the time she finished, it was 35 years with the same agency. So it was always, get your education, get a good job, work your way up… all that kind of stuff. There was security there in that. But what happened is, once I got into accounting and finance, and when you’re a student as well or you’re a new graduate, you’re an auditor.
Robert Wagner: Right. Yeah. I mean, say that with a smile.
Carmen Portillo: [crosstalk] long hours.
Robert Wagner: Yeah.
Carmen Portillo: You’re an auditor, the long hours, the travel… all those things. Even just all of it, I just realized it wasn’t for me long term when I looked at the trajectory of what I really wanted. I knew if I continued on the path of senior manager or partner or anything like that, it didn’t really spark passion for me. And I think I was just young and naïve enough to still want to dig into a passion and that’s where I decided to go into something that I was passionate about.
When I started at the accounting firm, I was a newly wed as well, and a year and a half into it, I told my husband, I said, “I don’t think I really want to do this career wise. I want to do something creative. I love the culinary arts. I think I want to start over and start from scratch.” And he looked at me and said, “Okay, well what does that look like practically, because we have loans-
Robert Wagner: Right. A fair question.
Carmen Portillo: … student loans that we need to pay off” and “How can I be of support?” I started thinking through my head about what that would look like for me, and I didn’t really want to go to culinary school and become a chef. I really have always been a person that wanted to pave my own way. And that’s when a seed was planted years prior, where I lived in England, and I fell in love with chocolate and seeing the chocolatiers there make chocolate. I turned to my husband, I said, “I want to become a chocolatier.” And he was like, “What is that?” And that’s where the journey began. That’s were I pivoted, and I just really got into it and made a career for myself in this industry.
Robert Wagner: That’s awesome. I like the contrast with the practical, and I guess at least most of the folks here at HoganTaylor maybe just stayed with the practical, but I get the difference. It’s very [inaudible].
Carmen Portillo: But you know particularly… and we can can get into this later in the podcast… but that skillset that I have in understanding your finances and things like that, a lot of small business owners don’t. So I really think that has given me a leg up and to know what to look for… budgets, forecasting, looking at a P&L. All those things that, for small business owners, we just get in and say, “Okay, I want to make my wares, I want to do my thing and then I’ll make money at it.” And then years later you’re still in the red, and you don’t know what happened. So that education, I think, was important for me to have and laid a foundation that I could use later.
Robert Wagner: Yeah, yeah. That’s absolutely true, and there are many, many people who launch out great businesses and successful businesses, and they don’t always understand what the numbers look like and what they mean.
Carmen Portillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Wagner: Now we call those people clients, so we need a few of those folks around.
Carmen Portillo: Right, right, right.
Robert Wagner: So, Carmen, there’s all kinds of food. There’s fine dining, there’s comfort food, there’s decadent sweets and then there’s chocolate. What is it about chocolate that connects with people. It’s almost universally loved and adored, really, around the world. What’s different about chocolate?
Carmen Portillo: Yeah. I think, for me at least, my personal story has to do with when I fell in love with chocolate. I was 19, I was a college student at the time. I moved out of Little Rock, Arkansas, moved to England, and I was in a small town, Morden, right outside of London. I would visit a chocolate shop. At the time, I was dating a British guy. I will admit that was the motivation for me leaving to go overseas. I was young. But other than that, those were the only people that I knew… his family and the guy that I was dating, so I was alone and quite depressed during that time and would go out shopping.
I met a girlfriend over there, and she would take me out shopping and my first chocolate shop I visited where I saw a chocolatier was a chocolate shop in Wimbledon. And it was this tiny little shop, and I would see these chocolatiers making the chocolate, and they were absolutely beautiful and they were works of art and it made me feel so special and comforted to get this tiny and expensive box of chocolates and that was a treat for me myself. That’s what I think it is, it’s people… Not only does it taste good, but fine chocolate looks good, smells good, makes you feel good… all those things after a rough day, whatever.
It’s just universal. And I think, like you said, across the globe, different cultures embrace it differently. In Latin culture, it has spices and exotic flavors with it, as it does in India. Of course in Belgium and France, they do something very different with it, very delicate and light and beautiful there, too. So I just think it is… I always tell people that as a chocolatier, I’m an artist and chocolate is my medium. And I think that’s what people realize when they’re eating chocolate. It gives us comfort, it tastes good, it can be a piece of art… all kinds of things. Is great.
Robert Wagner: That’s awesome. You mentioned something there that’s a great segue and that’s the artistry involved. I know chocolatiers sell chocolate bars, but a lot of what is done is not just the chocolate, not just the taste. It’s the piece of art that is made with it. Is that a talent that you always knew you had or was always there, or did you develop that along the way?
Carmen Portillo: I think I developed it along the way, I’ve never been a real crafty person, so to speak. But I know good flavors, and I know what goes well. I also was more drawn to becoming a chocolatier versus a chocolate maker, because there is a difference between a chocolatier and a chocolate maker. Your chocolate makers are bean to bar operators where they get it in and the raw product in bean form and they roast it and winnow it and grind it and make it into chocolate, where they create a chocolate bar; whereas a chocolatier, we already get it in bar or coin form, and then we can create different things from that.
So it took a lot of practice in figuring out what flavors go well, how to layer my flavors, how to translate that visually in a box of chocolates for when people open it, it’s pretty for them to look at, it makes them feel special.
Also, creative projects that I might do, whether it’s sculpture work or a couple of years ago for a Cartise Festival of Fashion… they’re fundraising event… I made a dress out of chocolate that a model actually wore. And that is a skillset that I didn’t realize I had, until I had a stirring to just put together a dress for somebody to wear, made out of chocolate. All that’s developed over time, and I love what I do [inaudible].
Robert Wagner: That’s really good, and that’s sort of heartening to know that that’s a skill that can be developed for someone who has a passion at things that require some artistry to them, that you can develop that. That’s very encouraging, I think.
Carmen Portillo: Thanks.
Robert Wagner: So we’ve touched on this a bit. You do have a little bit of a business education and background, which I’m sure helps you. But running a business is different from being a chocolatier. What has been an aha moment you’ve had, I guess, as small business owner in growing your business?
Carmen Portillo: I mention this often, and a lot of people say it. It’s not anything that people haven’t heard before, but working on your business rather in your business. I think it’s very easy to, as a business owner, particularly when you’re first starting out, you have to wear all the hats. You’re customer service, you’re the janitor, you’re cleaning, you’re washing the dishes, you are the face of the social media, you’re accounting, you’re bookkeeping… all those things. You’re wearing so many hats, and it’s so easy to try to juggle all those things and, particularly, if you’re not the best at doing something, then your business is going to suffer.
One of the books I read early in my business was The E-Myth, the entrepreneurial myth. It’s by Michael Gerber. Gosh, I think it was originally written early ’90s or ’80s, and he’s had several versions out since then. But it’s so good in talking about the entrepreneurial myth that we think that we can wear all the hats and to run a good business, it takes three parts: You have the technician, you have the manager and you have the entrepreneur. And it really took me looking at myself and being honest with myself in really what am I best suited for.
When I first started Cocoa Belle in 2008, in the River Market, I was all three, and, for the most part, everything was done by my two hands. So I was a technician, and I could not crank out chocolates fast enough. I often compare myself to Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy with her and Ethel on the conveyor belt, eating all those chocolate, because they were just coming out so quickly. And so, I was exhausted, and from the technician role that I was in, I had no energy for the entrepreneurial part and that’s the part that was the dreams, the push, the passion to push forward and take your business to new heights. I was burnt out on Cocoa Belle, something that I love and that I was so passionate about, because I was the technician. And I had to do it, but I didn’t manage it very well, and I let that bog me down. And there was a point where I’m like, “I’m done with Cocoa Belle.” It had just really stifled my dreams.
Then there’s the part that’s the managerial part, too, that I love working with people, but I’m not a macro manager either. So I had to just take an honest look at myself and say, “Okay. I really am the dreamer. I am the entrepreneur, and that’s where I thrive best. Now I need to get people that their strong suit…” And one position isn’t higher than the other. They work in harmony with each other. But there are some people that I’ve brought on board that they’re great technicians, and they love doing that part, and that’s where their strong suit is, so that’s where you can be, or the managerial part and things like that.
So, really, for me, those aha moments were realizing that I can’t do it all and I don’t want to do it all, and really being honest with myself in where my strong suits were.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. That’s very good.
Carmen Portillo: Because I didn’t want to be a jack of all trades, master of none.
Robert Wagner: Right. Yeah. I just want to follow up on that, Carmen, because one of the things that’s unique would seem like about your business in regard to what we’re talking about is we’re not producing widgets here. So we’re producing art, if you will… edible art, and it’s Carmen’s work product, so you’ve got to find a way. Everything about it is you, your brand, your signature, essentially. So how do you make sure that… You’ve got to be able to multiply yourself and delegate and get things done, but it still has to be… everything that comes out the door, out of the case, has to be you, your brand. How do you do that?
Carmen Portillo: Well, I struggled with that a little bit as well, just being honest, as my brand has grown. I struggled with being the face of the brand… Carmen behind the brand. I wanted to be this… I just wanted to make the chocolates, make the art, people recognize Cocoa Belle and then fade into the background. But that wasn’t going to happen, and so, as my business has grown, I’ve become more comfortable with not only being the face of the brand, but also how do I replicate that message when I have other people producing it, managing it and things like that. It’s definitely setting certain standards. For me, what I do, it’s a lot of it’s recipe based, and so I do everything to the gram. All of our recipe is not a scoop here, a cup here. Everything is to the gram, so everything as far as… Customers want consistency. And when I create something, I create a recipe, everything’s done to the gram so that I know that, whether or not I’m making it or someone else, there’s that consistency there.
Along with messaging, too… speaking to people that… my staff, making sure we’re using the same language when we’re speaking to our customers. All that kind of stuff, I really have to keep a cap on to make sure the messaging is clear.
Robert Wagner: Right. Very good.
Carmen Portillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). [crosstalk].
Robert Wagner: Just a couple of questions that are maybe down in the weeds a little bit. But one is just around the supply chain. You mentioned this a little bit about the bean to bar part of the food chain. But from a supply chain basis, where do you buy chocolate or how do you buy chocolate? I mean, is there an attempt or is there a desire to get closer to the farmer or not really?
Carmen Portillo: Yeah. So it really depends on the scale of your business. I’m a small medium-size business, so I work primarily with distributors. To work directly with the manufacturers, I would have to buy so much chocolate to get the pricing that I need. If I work with distributors, I go through, I guess, a vetting process with any new vendors that I purchase from for my ingredients.
What’s so important to me… and I’ve stuck with this since I started my brand in 2008… is that I am adamant about buying fair trade chocolate. When I was doing research in becoming a chocolatier, the history of chocolate and sourcing, I ran across it. And, again, I was… I’m 37 now… I was 24 or 25 then and so very green in this industry, and I didn’t realize how much of the world’s chocolate was not fairly traded and sourced. And there’s this whole industry out there where you have child labor involved and things like that, and this real dark side of chocolate, I guess. No pun intended there.
Robert Wagner: Right. Right.
Carmen Portillo: So right then, I made a decision. I’m going to get ethically-sourced chocolate. My vendors send me certificates. All the products that I get in, if I need to ask for quality assurance certificates from this batch that’s made, they’re able to supply that for me. Obviously, I wouldn’t know the origins of the actual farm that it came from, but there are certificates there that say that it was from an ethically-sourced farm or fairly-traded farm and things like that. So if that means there’s sometimes when the supply chain is scarce or something’s happened in the industry through these years and so prices go up and things like that, but I’m just adamant about getting fairly-traded and ethically-sourced product as much as possible. Organic, I get organic when I can. Some things don’t come in organic form. But our cream is, our butter. All those types of things, I always try to get organic when possible. Our sugars are organic and vegan as well, so that’s important for us.
Robert Wagner: Very good. That’s very insightful, I had no idea that was a big issue in the industry, so that’s very good.
Carmen Portillo: Yes. Yes. It’s a huge issue.
Robert Wagner: So talking about just from a marketing standpoint, it seems like one of the key ways to grow a business like yours is just to expand the people who become aware and are interested in fine chocolates.
Carmen Portillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Wagner: It seems like there’s some headwinds. I mean, this isn’t Paris, because there’s [inaudible] in Oklahoma, we’re in Arkansas. There’s not a fine chocolate shop on every corner. There’s one or two. In Tulsa, I think there’s… I don’t know… a couple, maybe three or something.
Carmen Portillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Wagner: So what are you doing? How do you try to do that… let more people know about them, educate them, get them interested in finer chocolates? I call it converting the Hershey crowd.
Carmen Portillo: Yeah, yeah. You’re exactly right. It’s been a process over these years. I remember when I first started in 2008, in downtown River Market. My inspiration… Cocoa Belle, people think Southern belle, B-E-L-L-E, but it was actually inspired from when I went to Paris, and I tried chocolates. So belle is French for beautiful. And when I first opened my store, a lot of my flavors were in French. So raspberry was framboise.
And I’m born and raised in Arkansas. I should know better. I’m not knocking Arkansans at all, because I’m an Arkansan. But I remember I was in the River Market, so farmers market Saturdays, I would get people that would come in. You might… Some guy come in, “Oh, these are some fancy…” He’s in his overalls, “These are some fancy looking chocolates. What’s framboise?” And I was like, “Oh, gosh. They’re not getting it.” Or people would say, “Are these those things the hogs or dogs find in the woods?” Because there’s a mushroom truffle and then there’s a chocolate truffle. So I would chuckle a little bit. We would have a little laugh. And then I would say, “Actually, no. These aren’t those types of truffles.” And I would give them a sample.
Then I started realizing, “Well, maybe I should be more relatable to my audience, my customers.” And at that point, I scrapped all the fancy hoity toity French names, and I started doing things that were something that brought nostalgia to people. So I had the… In the summer, we have a key lime pie truffle. People know what key lime pie is, and they love it. We have a German chocolate cake truffle. We do hot toddy and spiked apple cider… all these things that when people see it, “Oh, I know what that tastes like. Oh my gosh, it’s in this little bitty chocolate form. How wonderful.” so it’s giving people something I know people already love and elevating it with a quality ingredient.
Robert Wagner: Got you.
Carmen Portillo: And I think that’s what’s been, I guess, my secret sauce a little bit and what’s done really well. And then, as far as converting those Hershey’s crowds to… I’m not going to convert everyone. I mean, a lot of times it’s price point that drives what people are going to buy, honestly. When the great recession hit height of 2012, and gas was at $4.50 a gallon, people weren’t spending $20 on nine pieces of chocolate. When everything picked back up and people are feeling a little bit better and the economy’s doing well, those are these types of treats or luxury goods people will buy for themselves or give to other people. And so I’m not expected to convert everyone. I can’t compete with a Twix bar that’s 50-something cents.
Robert Wagner: Right. Sure.
Carmen Portillo: But also, people understand what they’re getting, too. So it’s been a process, but I think as, I would say, over these past 12-plus years, I’ve seen a shift in people are more willing to get out and explore and try new things and treat themselves to a fine luxury chocolatier.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you, Food Network, right?
Carmen Portillo: Yeah. Yes, for sure.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. That’s great. Are most people buying for… I’m sure people buy for all variety of reasons, but are most people buying as a treat, as a special occasion, as a gift? Is that what…
Carmen Portillo: So my online sales, my revenues, generally for gifts, and I ship nationwide. Unfortunately, we’re about to heat up here nationwide, so online sales are about to be shut down. Online as a seasonal revenue for me. It just gets way too hot to ship, and I would be mortified if someone got a box of chocolates after packing them with ice, paying for two-day shipping and it’s just a box of chocolate soup. So I go ahead and make online a seasonal thing. But online is usually gift products.
Our retail downtown Little Rock, it varies for people getting boxes for the weekend to take to their parents or something, or even if they work downtown and they just want something sweet and good for themselves, they’ll pop in and get a couple of truffles individually for themselves, have a little sweet treat to take back to the office or something like that. So it really varies.
A big part of our business, prior to the pandemic, was wedding and events. Hopefully, that’ll start picking up. I know we’ll talk a little bit about that soon/ But I do a lot of favors for weddings and things like that, so that’s another [crosstalk].
Robert Wagner: So that’s a great segue. That has to be one of the impacts of the pandemic that’s had on your business. What other ways have you had to adjust and pivot?
Carmen Portillo: Yeah, it was tremendous impact on my business. So chocolate is a seasonal… by and large, it’s a seasonal business. We have major chocolate holidays; part of fall, starting, I guess, kicking off with Halloween candy, chocolate that kind of thing; and then, you have Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s celebration; Valentine’s is our Super Bowl; then, you have Easter; and then, it’s just too hot. People want ice cream and everything like that.
So I already knew revenue wise for years, I’m a cyclical business. So what I did to compensate that as far as for their retail sales and selling box chocolates and things like that, I built a lot of my revenue for the off season to go towards wedding and event season. So that’s when everyone’s getting married is springtime, summertime. When the pandemic hit March 2020, within a week, I had a wedding in Chicago cancel; the grand opening of the AC Hotel, we were doing chocolates for them, that was canceled; and then, I had a shareholders meeting that was slated for that week of 300 and something people, that was canceled.
Robert Wagner: Oh, wow.
Carmen Portillo: And so, I lost thousands in revenue week one that it shut down. And then, it just was… It was scary. It was scary. I just knew… And then, it just… April cancellations, May cancellations. “Oh, we’re going to reschedule and do it through July,” canceled. And so, I think with everyone, we were just hanging on. But I’ve tried to mitigate some of that feast or famine for myself by picking up into the event seasons and that really, with limitations on how many people can gather and all that kind of stuff, it really put a lot of business… I’m glad, I’m so, so thankful that I was able to hang on. I said, “I just got to hold on until the holiday season. Just hold on until holiday season, and I’ll be okay.”
But one thing that I will say that’s the silver lining out of this is that everyone knew… the community, the world… knew everybody was hurting. But the community here really wanted to see small businesses thrive. So we said, “Okay, we’re going to do curbside pickup.” There was a big push, sharing small businesses. And even from the standpoint last summer, what happened racially in our country with George Floyd and all these types of things, Juneteenth came around, there was a lot of push and awareness to support minority and black-owned businesses as well. And that’s something that’s been of a great benefit as well. And I’m really grateful for that.
Before I knew it, this summer, I was being tagged in articles all over the United States that people had researched and Googled, “African American chocolatiers,” and I was there and I’m like, boom, boom, boom, on lists, on all these shop here. And I’m getting all these orders from New York, California. And then, I’m starting to see the reason why is because people were researching and found me and started sharing. So that definitely helped, as well, bring brand awareness on a national scale. So I’m very grateful for that.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. Very interesting.
Carmen Portillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Wagner: So, Carmen, one of the things you’ve done is you’ve created a cannabis business, and it’s , I believe.
Carmen Portillo: Yes. Yes.
Robert Wagner: So what inspired you to combine chocolate and cannabis?
Carmen Portillo: Well, I was approached by a hemp company, Tree of Life Seeds, 2019, and they were wanting to start an edible line, and, obviously, they had had my product, and I was definitely interested in how that would work. From the CBD standpoint, there’s not as much regulation around it from the THC side of things. So I got my feet wet into that market. It was a little bit more open. And I collaborated with them and co-founded CB Dulce, and it’s done very well for people that are not [inaudible] the therapeutic part of the cannabis without the THC or the psychoactive part of it. And I personally have a relative that has MS and lupus and suffers from seizures, and I have seen how these types of therapeutics help them. So I was really excited about creating that brand with them, and it’s gone very well.
Since then, I’ve also come on board with Native Green Wellness. They are a medical marijuana dispensary, and I am the product developer for them as well. So I develop all types of products, not just edibles and things like that. So we do chocolates, gummies, hard candy… or lozenges, sorry… as well as tinctures, carts, topicals… all kinds of things. And I really think that is where that industry, it’s so ripe for the taking. I think it’s really on a upswing. And it just made sense career wise for me, too, to get into another industry that I can really pave my way in that, because I know that I can create a great product that tastes great, great ingredients. And I think that there’s, particularly from the edible side of things, there is a lot of people that need to medicate, but they don’t want to smoke or they can’t. And so, this is just a way for them to get their medication in a tasty way.
Robert Wagner: Right. Gotcha.
Carmen Portillo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Robert Wagner: So, Carmen, what do you hope Cocoa Belle and CB Dulce look like, say, five years from now, barring more pandemics, of course?
Carmen Portillo: Right. Right. [inaudible], “Where do you see yourself five years?” Well, I don’t think none of us thought we were going to be in this situation a couple of years ago. CB Dulce, I really think has a lot of potential. I think it’s going to come with more education and awareness with that looks like. And I think sometimes the market, I think there’s a lot of noise in the CBD market, too. And so, that’s where the partnership with Tree of Life Seeds I think it’s going to come into play with them from the marketing side and the education side to… Everyone’s creating. I mean, you’re starting to see CBD shops pop up everywhere. So that market definitely is getting a little crowded, but I think there’s some potential for some key players and quality players to come out on top.
And as for Cocoa Belle, I am really wanting to continue to grow the brand, but I know that I have to be strategic and smart about it. There are discussions in other markets outside of the state, one with the large retailer but I can’t say anything about that now. But we’ll see how that goes. So hopefully, I think by… In five years, I think there’ll be something at a major retailer with Cocoa Belle. It just depends on how all those discussions go.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s very exciting. There’s always Tulsa. Don’t forget, there’s always Tulsa.
Carmen Portillo: I have family in Tulsa, so I’m familiar with Tulsa [inaudible].
Robert Wagner: Yeah, it’s great. Well, Carmen, it’s been a fantastic conversation, and I really appreciate the insights and your story and your journey thus far. It’s very exciting.
Carmen Portillo: Thank you so much for having me, Robert.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. Now, you’re not off the hook yet, because we do have five questions that we ask every guest.
Carmen Portillo: Okay.
Robert Wagner: Are you ready?
Carmen Portillo: I’m ready.
Robert Wagner: Okay. What was the first way you made money?
Carmen Portillo: Oh, I was going to say, “With a W-2? Legit money or…” My first job was Woodland Heights Retirement Center. I was the hostess in their in-house restaurant they had.
Robert Wagner: Okay.
Carmen Portillo: I remember my first purchase though. I got paid $40 for probably two weeks worth of work, and I went to the pawn shop and got me a TV from my bedroom.
Robert Wagner: There you go.
Carmen Portillo: Very excited.
Robert Wagner: Looking for some freedom there, I can tell. Okay. So if you were not a professional chocolatier, what do you think you would be doing?
Carmen Portillo: I probably would have continued on my practical route, my safer route.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. You would have been a boring auditor.
Carmen Portillo: Right. I really do love numbers. Oddly enough, in school, I wasn’t that excellent at math. When you get into trig and all that other kind of stuff, I really wasn’t… that’s more for engineering. Bt I really do love numbers. I have a knack for numbers. I can memorize numbers like no one’s business.
Robert Wagner: Wow. Okay. I wish I had known that ahead of time. We would have had a test or something. I can promise that the accounting industry is full of folks who couldn’t handle the math of engineering. So there’s not that much math. So, Carmen, what would you tell your 20-year-old self?
Carmen Portillo: What I would tell my 20-year-old-self is that, “You’re guaranteed 100% failure if you never try.”
Robert Wagner: Wow.
Carmen Portillo: If you never try, right there, you’ve already failed before you even got started.
Robert Wagner: Yeah.
Carmen Portillo: Yeah.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. That’s great. Carmen, what will the name of the book be?
Carmen Portillo: Living My Life Like It’s Golden.
Robert Wagner: Okay. What is the-
Carmen Portillo: Yeah, that was one of my… Actually, when I was working at the accounting firm, that’s when you could start customizing the ring tones on your phones back in, what, 2006 or ’05 or something like that. And that was a song that was on my ringtone by Gil Scott, Living My Life Like It’s Golden. And that’s what gets me up in the morning and that keeps me moving forward and pushes me to do fun and different exciting, sometimes scary, things.
Robert Wagner: Yeah. Excellent.
Carmen Portillo: Live My Life Like It’s Golden.
Robert Wagner: Excellent. So last question is: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Carmen Portillo: Oh, man. There’s so many. Best piece of advice that I was ever given… This comes from a spiritual standpoint personally for me is that God is intentional in everything, from our successes to our failures, our mistakes. It all can be used for good, for his good. And I look back at my life and some of the things that I went through and that I’ve been challenged by or shamed by or anything like that, and it has all been for my good. I’ve always been able to turn that around and use that for good later.
Robert Wagner: That’s great. That is great. Thank you so much for that. So, Carmen, again, we really enjoyed the conversation. If folks want to find out more about you and your business, what do they do? Where should they go?
Carmen Portillo: Well, they can go on cocoabellechocolates.com, again to see updates, sign up for our newsletter. We’re getting into summertime soon, so unfortunately, if people are listening to this nationwide, the online services will be paused for a little while; however, you can definitely reach out to us if you have corporate events, custom printing, anything like that, you can send an inquiry through our website and we will gladly get something back to you. And then all the social media channels, so Facebook, Instagram, Twitter… Cocoa Belle Chocolate, you can check us out there.
Robert Wagner: Great, great. Thanks again so much. Truly enjoyed it.
Carmen Portillo: Thank you so much, Robert. It was a pleasure.
Robert Wagner: That’s all for this episode of How That Happened. Thank you for listening. Be sure to visit howthathappened.com for show notes and additional episodes. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts or Stitcher. Thanks for listening.
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Carmen Portillo is the founder of Cocoa Belle Chocolates, an ethically sourced chocolate store in Little Rock, Arkansas. She initially pursued a career in finance before opening up Cocoa Belle and is now working with cannabis companies like CBDolce and Native Green Wellness.
At the age of 19, Carmen set out to live in London. During her time there, she found herself feeling disheartened and solus with only chocolate to provide a sense of comfort. Here is where she fell in love with chocolate, wanting to dig into a passion; chocolate seemed like the only logical next step.
In this episode, Carmen dives into the three parts it takes to run a good business: technician, manager, and entrepreneur. She shares where her weakness lies within the three, as well as her strong suits. From this, Carmen goes into how she markets and brands her small business, including the creative avenues she came up with during the pandemic.
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