After managing 16 school kitchens in North Texas as a nutritionist, Rio Grande Valley native Veronica Barrera-Cuellar returned home with a dream of attending pastry school. She ended up selling chocolate.
“I love pastry and I wanted to go to pastry school, but life happens,” she said. Needing to find a livelihood, she teamed up with her sister Patricia and began looking into franchise opportunities to start their own business. An application for a Chick-fil-A franchise was unsuccessful but they found a home with Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
Veronica’s background as a nutritionist in the food industry and Patricia’s financial and bookkeeping expertise gave them the credentials to pass muster with Rocky Mountain. With an investment of $24,500 to purchase a franchise license and $220,000 to build out the first store in the Rio Grande Valley Outlet Mall in Mercedes, the sisters opened the chocolate shop in 2006. “We were working 16 hours a day,” Veronica said. “It was crazy busy. We were really blessed in the first six months.”
Even though business boomed from the beginning, Veronica and Patricia came to realize that the one store would not support both of them and they turned to Rocky Mountain for permission to open a second location. “They took a chance on us and we did it,” Veronica said.
The sisters had to dig deeper into their pockets to come up with more money to build out the McAllen shop, which amounted to about $270,000, bringing the total investment for the franchise and construction at both stores to more than $514,000. “We invested everything,” Veronica said. “We took out our 401ks.”
A year after opening the first shop, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory became one of the first tenants of the Palm Crossing Shopping Center in McAllen. In October they celebrated 10 years in that location with one of the most successful stores in the Rocky Mountain chain. “They have 286 stores nationwide and we are always in the top 20 stores,” Veronica said.
Veronica said she enjoys the independence of owning a business as well as the support provided by the Rocky Mountain company. Most of the inventory comes directly from Rocky Mountain, such as truffles, candy bars, chocolate-covered snacks like pretzels and potato chips, and gift boxes. “When you bring something national, we’re helping the Valley by providing more choices for local people,” she said.
Some of their biggest sellers are created right in the shop. Following company recipes, caramel and fudge are made on-site in copper kettles. The caramel is used for one of their most popular items, apples dipped in caramel and decorated with combinations of chocolate, toffee, candy pieces, nuts and more. Chocolate-covered strawberries and marshmallows are also prepared in house.
“That’s what pays the rent here,” Veronica said about the caramel-coated apples. “They’re not cheap so they have to be good and we take a lot of pride in that.”
The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory also offers a variety of specialty items for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other special events. Veronica works with customers to find the right treat for the right occasion.
Small business owners often struggle with the best ways to promote their products. Veronica said they discovered that giving back to the community by helping with community fundraisers also gives a boost to the business. She sells Rocky Mountain products at wholesale prices to organizations such as school groups or nonprofits, which in turn sell at retail prices and keep the proceeds.
“For us it’s also a form of advertising but you’re also helping out the community, helping these kids get somewhere,” she said.