DAVIS (AP) — In the shadows of the Arbuckle Mountains, the Chickasaws make chocolate — world-famous chocolate.
Though most of Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized tribal nations have spent the past century rebuilding their culture and leveraging gaming opportunities to build tribal economies, the Chickasaw Nation has gone a step further. Stepping deep into chocolate.
The Bedré Fine Chocolate factory was once located in Pauls Valley, but tribal leaders moved it to a new, 34,000-square-foot facility in Davis in 2000. It is the only chocolate factory owned and operated by a Native American tribe, The Journal Record reported (http://bit.ly/1bHDxda ).
The Chickasaws’ secretary of commerce said expanding into sweets was a way to increase tourism in Indian Country and expand the economic base of the Chickasaw Nation.
“There was a synergy with the chocolate factory and the Chickasaw retail operations,” said Secretary Bill Lance, “specifically in Murray County. There are 3 million visitors there each year, 29,000 cars. Our governor thought this area could be an incredible gateway.”
In 2009, Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby told National Public Radio that he’d been taught to diversify his economic holdings at an early age.
“My mom used to say, ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket;’ and that’s the essence of what we do when it comes to businesses,” Anoatubby said.
Time has proved Lance and Anoatubby right.
According to the Bedré website, the Chickasaws’ chocolate is sold all over the country and in retail chains such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus. Business has been so good that 2012 was a record year.
“Last year we had the highest sales in the history of Bedri,” Lance said. “We recorded $1.8 million in retail sales, the highest in the history of the company.”
Lance believes chocolate and the Chickasaws are a natural fit. Because chocolate uses natural products from the earth, it was easy for tribal culture to embrace the delicacy. Lance said it also forms part of the Chickasaws’ efforts to promote tourism along the Interstate 35 corridor from Norman to the Texas border.
“We continue to try to focus on our core businessesEntertainment in general and tourism are a big part of that strategy, specifically in Murray County. We have a huge marketing campaign. We want people to know about Bedré, Treasure Valley, the Chickasaw Cultural Center and retreat, the Artesian Hotel and Chickasaw National Recreation Area. There’s a lot to do in Murray County; there are lots of opportunities to enjoy.”
Based on recipes from the Cantrell family, Bedré (a Norwegian word for ‘better’) has a long history in the area and, for that matter, across the country. Lance said the tribe has worked hard to maintain the integrity of original recipes.
“We would like to think that we’ve improved upon some things over time,” he said. “But clearly, we wanted to make sure we stayed true to the base-line recipes.”
Though the Cantrells are no longer active in the company, Lance said they are pleased with the tribe’s efforts.
“I would say they are still big fans of the chocolate. They like what we’ve done with the product,” he said.
Still, both Lance and Anoatubby are quick to praise others for Bedré’s success.
“We have many partners,” Lance said. “And the rural communities have been proactive in working with the tribes to help make these developments possible. Those partnerships are a big part of our success.”
Success has a very sweet taste for the Chickasaw Nation.