I f you’ve done some extra binge eating during the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. According to the Nielsen Company, chocolates have been the goto comfort food for many Americans this summer. The global marketing research firm says sales of chocolate products during the 17-week period that ended on June 27, consumers bought $3.7 billion worth of chocolate. That’s a 6.3% increase from the comparable period last year. “Our customers who were stuck at home were telling us they were craving our apples and chocolates,” said Veronica Barrera, who, along with her sister, Patty, own and operate three Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory stores in the Valley. “We did close for about two weeks in late March, and when we first re-opened it was slow going, but we adapted. I was making deliveries myself, because we don’t have a delivery vehicle. Summer is normally a slow time for us, but June and July turned out to be our best summer months since we opened.” Dealing with a pandemic was the furthest thing from their minds when Veronica and Patty decided to bring the popular Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory (RMCF) franchise to the Valley. The sisters, who grew up in Weslaco, opened their first store at Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets in Mercedes in 2006. They opened a second store at Palms Crossing in McAllen in 2007, and a third store at La Plaza Mall in 2017. “We wanted to do something fun, something different and new,” Barrera recalled. “We didn’t have a lot of unique franchises down here. You had to drive to San Antonio. Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has 300 varieties of chocolates to choose from, and we have pretty much everything at our stores in Mercedes and at Palms Crossing. The La Plaza Mall location has a limited menu, because our store there is smaller than the others, but it still has the most-popular items.” Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s signature offering is its candy and caramel apples. “Most RMCF stores around the country only carry about 10 varieties of caramel apples,” said Barrera. “Down here we carry almost 40 varieties. Those are our biggest sellers and that’s what we’re known for. We home-make all our caramel apples here. We decorate everything. We get our apples and strawberries fresh every day. One very popular item is our sal-limon apples, which we created down here in the Valley so it’s been a big hit down here.” Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has something for every sweet tooth, including milk chocolate, dark chocolate, fudge, and white confection. It has frozen cheesecake on a stick, frozen bananas, and they all can be rolled in nuts if you want. There are simply too many combinations and choices to list them all here. If you’re diabetic, or just watching your weight, RMCF has a long list of sugar-free items too. “We use flavored maltitol,” said Barrera. “Maltitol gives you a sweetness that is close to sugar, but without all the calories. It also doesn’t have the unpleasant aftertaste that other sugar substitutes like aspartame tend to have. It’s very popular with people who are diabetic or a special diet.” The Barreras and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory also give back to the community through their fundraising partnerships with Valley school organizations. RMCF provides it products at a discount to school clubs, which then sell the items to raise money. “I have a lot of friends who are school teachers,” Barrera explained. “The state cut funding for school trips in 2006, and my sister and I wanted to something to fill the gap. We only recover the cost of the products and the labor costs for doing it. We do it for the teachers who are struggling, the schools that are struggling for money, and especially for the kids who look forward to and enjoy these trips.” Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory stores in the Valley are still running on a slightly-curtailed schedule due to the continuing curfew. Customers still have to wear a mask, and they might be asked to wait outside in order to observe occupancy limits. Meanwhile, employees are working extra hard to clean and sanitize the stores, and there’s an increased emphasis on delivery and curbside pick-up. But, Barrera says she’s happy to take the extra steps to protect her employees and customers who voted her stores as their Readers’ Choice for favorite snacks and sweets. “There’s a lot of competition out there, so it’s a great honor for us,” said Barrera. “We take a lot of pride in our product as far as making, decorating, and packaging it, but I honestly did not think we would win. When my sister told me, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Our employees are thrilled, too. We really app
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