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July 23, 2013
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Drain couple parlay complementary talents into chocolate business (video)

DRAIN — Everything about Sweet Thang Chocolates, Candies and Gifts is the stuff of fable.

Once upon a time, a woman shopping for an antique wedding dress stopped to knock on the door of a storybook home in Drain. Thirty minutes later, she decided to buy the house.

As they enjoyed their antique home, she and her husband took a chance by starting a new business whose main product was a dark, sweet substance more demanding than Goldilocks. Humidity, temperature and ingredients — all had to be just right, or the mixture wouldn’t work its magic.

Yet with all its fairy-tale elements, Sweet Thang Chocolates is as solidly real as the 1892 Victorian home in which Jim and Ame Beard were married five years ago after moving from Eugene. So are the accolades Sweet Thang has been reaping in its short lifetime.

At the Oregon Chocolate Festival held in March at the Ashland Springs Hotel in Ashland, Sweet Thang’s Cleopatra truffle seduced the judges and took home the Best Truffle award. The Beards’ booth also eclipsed 49 other vendors to net the People’s Choice Award, according to Karolina Lavagnino, festival coordinator and creator.

“We purchase and partner with (Sweet Thang) for romance packages for VIPs,” Lavagnino said. “They make great gifts.”

Heidi Underwood, owner of My Coffee and The Wine Experience in Roseburg, says the Drain chocolatiers’ treats don’t linger on her store shelves.

“First and foremost, they are good quality, and they don’t cost an arm and a leg,” she said. “Secondly, I love it because it’s local, and we’re trying to sell all local.”

Underwood described Sweet Thang’s Oregon S’mores as “the perfect little morsel ... it’s my favorite, though the truffles are amazing.”

Sweet success came quickly to the Beards’ joint venture, which they launched as a wholesale business about two years ago. Impressed by his wife’s culinary skills, Jim Beard said he urged her to put them to good use at a time when she was between jobs.

“We’ve both been entrepreneurial-minded, and I thought she should start doing her own thing instead of trying to find something else out there,” he said.

The choice of chocolate was inspired in part by “being tired of going to high-end shops and paying $3 for a truffle,” said Ame (short for Amethyst and pronounced “Amy”) Beard.

The couple quickly settled on a plan for dividing up duties. Jim Beard, a computer programer at the University of Oregon, crunched numbers and drew up a business plan. Ame Beard delved into the creative process — teaching herself the fundamentals of tempering chocolate, researching expressed oils and experimenting with flavors. She particularly likes fusions, which bring together unexpected unions from a palette of tastes like pomegranate, apricot, banana, pineapple and coconut.

About six months into the venture, the two decided to transform a vacant first-floor room of their home into a retail shop. They also hired local people part-time to help mind the shop and work in Sweet Thang’s commercial kitchen a few blocks from the house. Currently there are three employees; the Beards had 10 people working for them during the holiday season.

“What I love is the creative part,” Ame Beard said. “Once I master something, we find an employee to do it when it becomes mundane.”

The Beards have little time for boredom. They have four children, ages 17 to 5, all of whom are part of the candy business. Jim Beard continues to commute to Eugene. Ame Beard is principal and superintendent of a Eugene charter school. Nevertheless, they are attached to the north Douglas County home she discovered when she arrived in Drain to explore its bridal shop.

They also have long-term plans for Sweet Thang.

“From the get-go, we were looking at it as a potential full-time job,” Jim Beard said.

To ensure their niche market, the Beards have set some standards to set them apart from competitors.

As Underwood pointed out, their prices are more than reasonable. Truffles that might sell for twice as much elsewhere cost $2 each. Preservatives such as wax, used by many larger companies in chocolates, have no place at Sweet Thang, meaning the chocolates have a shorter shelf life. But the all-natural flavors and extracts have another benefit.

“They’re bold. If it’s a lemon truffle, then pow! The lemon flavor really hits you,” Jim Beard said.

Visitors to the Drain shop are also hit by Ame Beard’s seasonal decoration. For midsummer, she swathed the showroom in oceanic accents. Candy molds in the shape of sea horses, mussels, scallops and conch shells complete the tidal theme.

In or out of the shop, the Beards seek to make their customers feel pampered. That sensation has seeped into the home as well, according to Jim Beard.

He used to bring home the occasional Hershey bar with almonds as a treat for his wife. Not anymore.

“Even the kids bite into a Twix and say, ‘This isn’t good,’” he said.

• You can reach Tricia Jones by phone at 541-957-4216 or by email at tjones@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Jul 31, 2013 04:22PM Published Aug 6, 2013 01:19PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.