It was late 2019, and Brendan Patrick's fledgling boutique chocolate business was, in a word, sweet.
He'd just moved Belle Chocolates to North Market Street, where he shares space with FarmToMed. He says sales were brisk during the 2019 holidays, slowed a bit in January but rebounded ahead of Valentine's Day 2020.
"Right out of the gate, it was busy as all get-out," he says. "Everything I made was selling immediately."
Then came March, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's terrifying being a small business owner when people stop shopping," he says. "To go from having consistent sales, showing profit and paying down debt to having no income for two weeks is shocking.
"You ask yourself whether you're going to be here in six months," he says.
As the world seemed to grind to a halt, the 36-year-old Patrick pushed ahead. He says he emphasized his online platform and figured out how to ship his bean-to-bar chocolate safely.
And an association he'd made just a few months earlier was key to his survival, he adds.
"I'd been part of the Main Street Farmers Market since mid-2019," he says. "The vendors share my values. It's been the most consistent market I've ever seen, and it literally carried me through the first couple of months of the lockdown."
A Florida native, Patrick grew up in the restaurant business. He says he'd been everything from a dishwasher to a sous chef by the time he relocated to Chattanooga in 2012 for a very specific reason.
"Rock climbing," he says. "I was in Tampa, working all the time, and I needed an outlet. I found a rock-climbing gym and got hooked immediately.
"Then I read about the climbing in Chattanooga, and I started making weekend trips. I'd drive all night Friday, sleep in the parking lot at the Soddy-Daisy Walmart, climb for two straight days, then drive home in time to get to work Monday," he says.
By 2018, Patrick was working for Erik Niel – first at Easy Bistro and then at Main Street Meats.
"Erik's an incredible chef, and I appreciate everything both of those restaurants do," he says. "It's about quality ingredients, not how many people you can cram in the door."
Patrick says he started thinking about "how to make really awesome desserts," especially chocolate. Then he took a short vacation to Idyllwild, California, that "literally changed my life," he says.
"I found a small bean-to-bar chocolate shop," he says. "I bought one of everything and ate it all. And I thought, 'I can do this.'"
* Address: 502 North Market St. No. 110
* Website: bellechocolates.com
* Owner: Brendan Patrick
After some research, Patrick says he bought the "entry-level version" of the equipment he'd need to make his own chocolate and began experimenting in his own kitchen. He opened Belle Chocolates in January 2019, but says he didn't go all-in to do so.
"I never overextended myself," he says. "Operate at a lower capacity. No one else to pay, so low overhead and more freedom to cut back on costs when I need to. Always err on the side of caution.
"I might miss out on some opportunities," Patrick says, "but if I'd taken a big loan and had all that to pay back, I'd have been finished. I'm definitely not through [the pandemic], but we've all adjusted to shopping safely and business is better than it's ever been.
"Chattanooga has been incredible about supporting local business during this pandemic madness," he says. "Having a community wanting a local business to succeed has made all the difference."