By Lauren Russell for the Missoulian • July 22, 2008
They've already captured the hearts and taste buds of Missoula chocolate lovers with their exotic and delectable truffles, but this month Posh Chocolat chefs and owners Jason and Ana Willenbrock snagged something else: eight awards from an international chocolate competition.
The Willenbrocks competed against more than 25 artisanal chocolate makers at the International Chocolate Salon Show - their first-ever show - in Seattle. They took top prizes in the “Best Truffle,” “Best in Salon” and “Best Flavored Chocolate Food” categories, as well as second place for “Best Gift Set” and four honorable mentions in “Most Luxurious Chocolate Experience,” “Best Flavored Chocolate,” “Best Milk Chocolate Bar” and “Best Presentation and Packaging.”
And originally, they weren't even going. When the Willenbrocks were invited to participate in the show in June, they weren't even aware it was a competition. They debated whether or not to accept.
“We weren't going to do it at first because we thought maybe we weren't ready yet,” Jason Willenbrock said.
In addition to samples of all their products, the Willenbrocks brought their hot chocolate machine to Seattle to demonstrate the process in which they produce the luscious liquid that earned them “Most Luxurious Chocolate Experience.”
Besides winning eight of 21 possible awards, the Willenbrocks also sold out of their products at the show and have seen a huge spike in their Internet sales since returning. Willenbrock said that many attendees were surprised Posh Chocolat was located in Montana.
“Some people think that just because we're in Montana we don't have or appreciate that high-end product, so that's kudos to Missoula,” Willenbrock said.
Judges from publications including Bon Appetit and Seattle Metropolitan Magazine kept coming back for the Willenbrocks' garam masala - an eastern Indian spice blend - and mojito truffles, as well as their milk chocolate bar made with Tipu's Chai tea that earned an honorable mention in the “Best Milk Chocolate Bar” category. The Willenbrocks work only with premium-quality cacao and utilize local products whenever possible.
The Willenbrocks have already received two invitations to attend chocolate shows in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles this fall. Willenbrock said that because of the cost of traveling and the responsibility of running the store, they will attend only one.
The Willenbrocks met while students at the Culinary Institute of America and opened Posh Chocolat in 2005. They completed a remodel of the store this May, allowing them to better accommodate lunch customers.
Besides a new location at the Clark Fork River Market, Willenbrock said they eventually want to incorporate dinner items into the menu and increase their Internet and wholesale business.
For the immediate future, they will keep making more of those hemp seed and caramelized banana truffles that Missoulians love.
“Missoulians are pretty sophisticated with their chocolate. They go for more exotic flavors, and they are curious and excited when they can get them here,” Willenbrock said. “We're happy to get the word out that Missoula is accepting of world-class product, which allows us to be in business.”
Lauren Russell is a newsroom intern at the Missoulian. She is a journalism student at the University of Montana.