Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has a Fresh Face in Petaluma Franchise

Thursday, October 01, 2015

In the course of a few months, Ben Circeo went from playing college baseball and studying finance at a small university in southwest Idaho to running his own chocolate business in Petaluma.

The transformation began last semester after the 22-year-old enrolled in a new "Applied Entrepreneurship" course at Northwest Nazarene University near Boise. The class required its three students to come up with a business plan for taking over the franchise of a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory outlet that has long existed at the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets.

Among the three students, Circeo ranked first in May and was given the opportunity at graduation to buy the local franchise. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory helped arrange a five-year loan to finance the new business.

Circeo, who grew up in Seattle, said he was delighted at the chance to become his own boss. And the financing proved crucial.

"No bank in their right mind is going to give a 22-year-old that kind of money," he said this week while standing behind the counter at his shop, near a glass case filled with various types of caramel apples and other treats handcrafted by his four workers.

The store, which had closed in December after roughly two decades in operation, reopened Aug. 1 with Circeo at the helm. The previous owner had retired and sold the franchise back to Rocky Mountain, a spokesman said.

While Circeo was the first student at his college to receive such an opportunity, Rocky Mountain has awarded similar five-year loans to 16 graduates from another college, Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo.

New college grads for years have considered purchasing franchises. Before the last recession, some grads viewed owning one as an alternative to advancing in the corporate ranks. And during the downturn, buying a franchise was an option when good jobs seemed in short supply.

But financing for such businesses can be extremely difficult for young people to obtain. The Rocky Mountain program provides a rare way that "a college student can come out of college owning a business of their own," said Casey Crail, who oversees the program and is himself a graduate of Northwest Nazarene.

Durango, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain has 220 stores in the U.S., plus more than 50 in Canada and other countries. Its total annual revenues amount to nearly $42 million.

At the Petaluma store, most of the chocolates for sale come from the Rocky Mountain factory in Durango.

But Circeo also sells a variety of handmade items. They include "Zebra" caramel apples, which are coated in white confection and drizzled in dark chocolate, plus "Tiger Butter Bark," a bar artistically covered with feather-like swirls. Both items are made by staff member Liz Gardner.

In his first two months, Circeo already has grown sales compared to the same period last year under the previous business owner, Crail said. The young man, he said, understands wise money management and has shown a dedication to making the franchise a success.

Circeo and Crail didn"t reveal the actual cost, but a new Rocky Mountain franchise can require an investment of roughly $116,000 to $469,000, including a franchise fee of $24,500, according to the company website. The expense for the college grads is typically "a lot less" than $400,000, Crail said.

Among the perks of his new occupation, Circeo said he likes running things his way, working with his crew and interacting with the customers.

And, he said, "it's really fun signing my own paycheck."

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Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory
265 Turner Dr.
Durango, CO

Phone: (970)259-0554
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