Sugar Mama

Work and family make up Carmen Portillo's sweet life

By Dwain Hebda, Photography by Katie Childs

Cocoa Belle's Carmen Portillo and Isabele

It may only be 1,000 square feet in a tucked away strip mall on the edge of Bryant, but every square inch of Cocoa Belle is like a family photo album to owner Carmen Portillo.

Over there is the industrial kitchen, reminiscent of the cooking she did as a child alongside her mother. Over here is the gleaming display case, where rows of hand-crafted bon-bons stand in rapt attention just as they did in the shops of Great Britain and Paris where she fell in love with the craft. And tucked onto a shelf, packages of gourmet divinity, at once just like, yet nothing close to, what she made with her late grandmother.

“Is it too cliche. to say this is my passion?” Portillo said, scanning the sleek, modern room. She shrugged.

In fact, chocolate is passion; that's the whole point. Few foods engage the senses and disrupt the body's chemistry like the world's favorite candy, at least when it's done right. As the state's first licensed chocolatier, Portillo is the keeper of a very solitary flame in Arkansas.

“Once people try us, they definitely know the difference,” Portillo said. “I have customers who were never really into chocolate, then once they found something that is this high quality they’re like, ‘Oh, I absolutely love it.’”

Cocoa Belle handcrafted chocolate

Portillo makes chocolates that defy description, or at least comparison to anything you can buy off the rack at your favorite convenience store. Made one at a time from premium, imported ingredients, her wares are more indigenous to Central Park than Central Arkansas.

“People wonder why things cost so much sometimes,” she said. “Everything's handmade. There are not big conveyor belts running through here. It's very labor intensive.”

 Many a consumer’s sweet tooth is becoming more discerning now, especially among those who stopped by her humble booth in the Rivermarket where she first started her one-woman cocoa crusade. Since then, she's been featured in media from British Vogue  to local TV and can be found in a growing number of retailers both locally and from as far away as Atlanta and New York. But there's still a long way to go.

“I’m always trying to look at ways to include more people in my products,” she said.

There are limits, of course. She’s developed a few vegan options, for instance, but hasn’t yet ventured into sugar-free. This isn’t because she doesn’t see a market there, or because she lacks empathy for people to have to watch their intake, but because she can’t find a formula that meets her strict standards.

“I don’t want to do something just to satisfy a market if it’s something I would not eat and if it doesn’t stand up next to the integrity of my other products,” she said. “If it’s not good, I don’t want to sell it.”

Portillo isn't the only one in the family with extremely high standards for her chocolates and related lines of chocolate sauces, butters and mixes. Daughter Isabel, age 4, is every inch a cocoa snob and much less diplomatic than her mother when confronted with commercial sweets.

“My daughter is a huge chocoholic,” she said. “At 2 years old, she called it black chocolate, which is dark chocolate—the darker the better. At 2 years old where most kids don’t want anything if it’s not milk chocolate, she’s like, 'Gimme the good stuff.'

“Even Halloween, we went trick-or-treating and I've got this huge bag of candy because she won't eat it. She doesn't like the cheap stuff at all.”

Portillo's eyes light up when talking about her daughter and Robert, her husband of 11 years. Once she decided to make chocolate her livelihood, a decision that led her to Notter School for Confectionary and Chocolate Arts in Orlando, her only detour has been a brief period surrounding Isabel's birth.

Cocoa Belle Chocolates

Today, she's more driven than ever, but she's also wiser to the demands of both family and framboise.

“When I pick my daughter up from school or once I get home, that's family time,” she said. “My phone might be going off but [family members] are my priority. When I get home, it's about my husband and my daughter. That's important for us to have that time.”

“Sometimes when one person is doing it all, it can cause a lot of tension. I try to find that balance. Even though I wanna check my phone and return that email, I have to respect that time and give it to my family.”

She looks through the storefront windows and smiles out at the overcast afternoon sky.

“You never work harder than when you work for yourself, but with the freedom of working for yourself, you have flexibility. You have choices,” she said. “And there is nothing in the chocolate business that cannot wait three or four hours at the end of the day.”