Serving Up Chocolates, Inspiration
Eating a Phillip Ashley Chocolates confection is unlike anything else. Where else could you find flavors like Sage Caramel Fennel Sea Salt, Raspberry Peppermint Earl Grey or Blood Orange Balsamic Vinegar? From the gorgeous, jewel-like hues and embellishments to the gourmet ingredients, each handmade chocolate is a work of art — and the work of a chef at the top of his game.
"I've always known that I wanted to go into business for myself," Chef Phillip Ashley Rix says. "It was just a matter of time of finding the right thing, or the right thing finding me." In his case, this wound up being chocolate.
The journey to mastery
Rix fondly recalls his childhood and attributes the eclectic interests of his large close-knit family to his success as a business owner and chef. One of his uncles is an artist; another owns a graphic design company. His father, who was a history teacher, and his grandmother both loved to cook.
"I was brought up around cooking," he says. "I grew up around gardening and art. That taught me how to do things with my hands."
That artisan's approach soon came in handy. In 2007, when Rix began laying the groundwork for his company, he couldn't find any culinary school programs that took an in-depth approach, so he took it upon himself to become an expert. "I spent two years doing nothing but thinking and reading and researching about chocolate," he says.
Rix taught himself everything from the history of the plant to the molecular structure of cocoa. (Luckily, he had studied chemistry in college.) He melded this science and data with creativity — many of his signature chocolates are individually airbrushed for an extra, artful touch — and a love of good food. The result? An in-depth understanding of all things chocolate.
This paid off — in a big way. Phillip Ashley Rix doesn't just make candy; he makes headlines. Forbes has called him a "real-life Willy Wonka."* He's been featured at The James Beard House and commissioned to create chocolates for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, the 2016 Oscars and, most recently, the 69th Annual Emmy Awards Governors Ball Dinner. And during all of this, his Memphis-based storefront continues to thrive.
Determined to succeed
That's not to say it's been easy. "There's a new hurdle every time," Rix says. "I went from, 'Will there be any demand? Will people care?' to 'OK, how do I meet the growing demand and continue to grow it even more?'" Often, the biggest challenges an entrepreneur faces come from within, he explains. Not everyone who starts their own business is prepared for the stress — and each success or setback can begin to feel very personal.
Rix says that some of the best business advice he ever received was "Don't quit."
Determination is the name of the game, but it certainly helps to have a certain tolerance for risk. "One of the things I love about entrepreneurship and being a small-business owner is that it keeps you on your toes," he says. The pressures are real, but so are the rewards, and Rix speaks in glowing terms about the rush of overcoming obstacles.
What keeps Rix pushing through the challenging periods? Competition invigorates him, and he takes inspiration in all forms of excellence, whether it's in the kitchen or on the playing field. "I've always admired artists and craftsmen," Rix says, citing the custom chef knives of Japanese steel craftsman Yu Kurosaki as an example. "And I get emotional from sports championship movies, when people win."
Above all, Rix draws energy from his pursuit of perfection. "I strive daily to do something better than anyone else has ever done it. Whether that is true or not, that's my goal."
Looking back to look forward
Other influences are a little more homegrown. Rix's grandfather was also an entrepreneur, who owned a construction business. And the first-ever chocolate Rix created, the sweet potato–infused Mama Jean, was a tribute to his grandmother's sweet potato pie.
Rix is proud of his heritage and sees Black History Month as a useful spotlight to honor year-round work and triumphs. "African Americans have a truly deep impact on society, both in the United States but also clearly across the world," he says. "It's just a great way to celebrate what has been done and what continues to be accomplished."
Rix himself is making a mark not only as a chocolatier but also as a philanthropist. As an example, he's an ambassador for the Heart Institute at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, where he raises money toward life-saving efforts for heart transplant patients. He also consults with black, Latino and women business owners on the importance of branding, focusing on consumer and packaged goods, marketing, sales development, and shipping. This work — and other social efforts he's involved with — is important to Rix. "It's just a good feeling to help people out," he says.
Taste of success
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