Spirit of Enterprise: The Chickasaw Nation Sweetens its Business Holdings by Dipping Into Chocolate
Name: Patrick Neeley, 54
Title: Chief Business Officer for the Chickasaw Nation Division of Commerce
Business: Bedré Fine Chocolate
How long in business: Purchased Bedré in 2000
Advice for other business owners: “If you have a Native-owned business, it is relatively unique in this country. And it is something that can be capitalized on in a positive way when you are developing your story, your message and your brand.”
The Chickasaw Nation is quite the enterprising tribe. In addition to business interests in energy, retail, media, gaming, banking and medical services—to name just a few of the markets in their portfolio—they have sweetened the pot as the proud owners of a chocolate company called Bedré Fine Chocolate, based in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma.
“We were familiar with the product and we liked the idea of having a Native-owned chocolate company,” explains Patrick Neeley, the chief business officer for the Chickasaw Nation Division of Commerce. Neeley says the tribe bought Bedré—a Norwegian word meaning “better”—back in 2000 from a local entrepreneur who started the company many moons ago and wanted to retire.
“Acquiring Bedré had less to do with the business and more to do with being a good community citizen,” says Neeley, who added the tribe was keenly interested in keeping the business locally owned and operated, because it was located within Chickasaw territory.
What made the deal even more delectable is that the Chickasaws inherited all Bedré’s original, tried-and-true recipes. “But since then, we’ve added some things to the product mix and taken some out based on taste tests and things we wanted to do,” Neely says. He is quick to add that they do not use any wax, paraffin or additives in the chocolate.
The newest product line that took over a year to develop is called Champoli, the Chickasaw word for “sweet.” The recipes have a distinctively Native American twist. “What makes Champoli so different is the blending of traditional Chickasaw foods with Bedré chocolate,” he says. “For instance, the trail mix has corn in it.” Neeley says you’d be hard-pressed to find these delicacies from any other chocolatier.
The Bedré team is hoping Champoli will be the perfect ingredient to help kick-start slow sales. The tribe’s commerce chief says that as wildly popular as chocolate is, the company has felt the pains of a struggling economy, too. “While people frequently buy our product as a gift item, our business has still been impacted by the down economy. Bedré’s been profitable before, and right now we have a plan in place to get it back to that point.”
Currently, they create chocolate perfection out of a 5,000-square foot plant in Pauls Valley that employs 17 people. But not for long. By March 1, they expect to be fully operational from a new 34,600-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Davis, Oklahoma, which will provide ample space to expand their product line and better serve customers.
Of course, Bedré sells directly to consumers—both online and through retail outlets. But selling their chocolate private label has been another lucrative market for the company, explains Neeley. “Schools use our chocolate for fundraising, and we also sell to high-end retail stores like Nieman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.”
So, what’s Bedré’s best-selling chocolate product right now? “Probably the Crisps, which are chocolate-covered potato chips enrobed in milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white fudge. And I’m telling you,” Neeley emphasizes, “they are seriously good!”
“Spirit of Enterprise” is a biweekly series spotlighting Native entrepreneurs.