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Flagler alum’s chocolate factory a hit in Raleigh and beyond

Dec 1, 2016
by Bobbie Stewart

In 2011, when alumna Starr Sink Ratto, ‘99, husband Sam Ratto and partner Chris Heavener opened Videri Chocolate Factory in downtown Raleigh, N.C., they were one of about 30 businesses nationwide that specialized in a particular variety of chocolate-making, known as bean-to-bar. Now, that number has swelled to 180.

For the three chocolate aficionados, this is good news. The rise of their niche industry, in which the chocolate maker hand-selects the beans and processes them into edible chocolate, means they’ve landed on a winning business idea — and that they were among the first bean-to-bar pioneers.

“I always thought we’d be a small mom-and-pop shop where the products would run out by the end of the day,” Starr said. “I never thought we’d be where we are. I step back and think, ‘How did this happen?’”

Her wonder stems from the staggering growth she’s witnessed since Videri first opened its doors on Dec. 15 of 2011. Since then, the business has expanded from offering only three chocolate bars to confections packs, a full coffee counter, bon-bon case, hot cocoa mix and on-site tours. The chocolate factory employs 28 people and more than 120 shops across the country carry its products. Restaurants buy Videri’s four-pound blocks of chocolate, known in the industry as couverture, to make desserts. Breweries have been calling to buy roasted cocoa nuts to use in chocolate stout and porter beer.

Approximately 200 people per day —  or tens of thousands during the year — tour the factory to watch Sam, “the bean guy” as Starr calls him, demonstrate the chocolate-making processes of roasting, winnowing, grinding and tempering. Business is booming. And it is due in no small part to Sam, whom Starr credits for getting it off the ground.

“He developed his own theories when it came to roast profiling,” she said. “He was going to go into a golf course turf management program, but then he got his hands in some beans and said to me one day, ‘I think I want to make chocolate.’”

But it wasn’t just a passion for transforming cocoa into chocolate that made the endeavor work. He is, said Starr, “a born entrepreneur.”

Without skipping a beat, she added with a laugh, “And I’m a born executive assistant. I want people to feel like this place is theirs, like it’s their secret they want to share with their friends.”

For the Flagler English major, her purpose emanates from behind the Videri counter, greeting customers as they walk in the door. It was a skill, she said, she picked up from her days at Flagler.

The chocolate trio are now thinking about moving into a second, larger location.

“I like where we are,” Starr said of Videri’s current size, “but Sam is leaning toward huge.”

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