Jeff Shepherd, left, and contractor Jerry Nutter discuss the remodeling of a Central Point building that will be the new home of a Lillie Belle Farms retail store. - Bob Pennell

Cheese & chocolate for all

CENTRAL POINT — Welcoming a chocolate factory to the neighborhood will help Rogue Creamery promote its property as a tourist destination for gourmets, company spokesmen and city officials say.

Lillie Belle Farms plans to open a retail store in a remodeled building on the creamery's North Front Street lot by November, said owner and chocolatier Jeff Shepherd. The company will then move over its production in January from a 1,500-square-foot warehouse on Table Rock Road.

"We're really expanding," Shepherd said.

The creamery had been courting Shepherd for more than a year to put down roots next door with several other artisan food producers, but Lillie Belle required the entire 4,000-square-foot site, said Francis Plowman, director of the creamery's marketing and merchandising.

"We have wanted for some time to make this more of a destination point," Plowman said. "We feel they're a very similar business to us."

A number of other businesses — local and from out of the area — looked at the space, but they were "not a good fit," Plowman said. Before agreeing to the long-term lease, Lillie Belle had already collaborated with the creamery on its Smokey Blue chocolate truffle, which contains award-winning cheese of the same name. The confection was anointed best new product at the July International Chocolate Salon in San Francisco.

The truffle's success is just the most recent coup for Lillie Belle, which has seen its sales double every year for the past three years. Shepherd's lavender fleur de sel caramels impressed Martha Stewart so much that she ordered 250 pounds for her 2005 corporate Christmas gift.

The larger space near the creamery will allow Shepherd to triple production, hire six new employees and develop new products. The location also promises a first for Lillie Belle — a true retail store where customers can customize a box of chocolates or purchase single candies.

"Having a face to what we do really helps," he said.

Most of Shepherd's business is now through wholesalers. The company doesn't even advertise its address in a bleak industrial complex behind a trucking company. By contrast, Lillie Belle's new digs will showcase an exhibition kitchen through large glass windows adjacent to the retail area, Shepherd said.

The chocolatier said he plans to spend about $175,000 gutting the building and partitioning it into the kitchen, store, offices, packaging area, storage and restrooms. Shepherd declined to discuss details of the lease. The creamery's previous tenant, the nonprofit Gleaning Network, vacated in December.

A third building on the property is scheduled for a food-service enterprise, possibly a coffee shop or deli, Plowman said. The creamery probably would operate the new venture but may bring in a partner, he said. Opening is planned for spring next year, he added.

The development may prompt the city to push up plans for improving Front Street for pedestrians and easing access to parking, said Tom Humphrey, community development director for the city. Preliminary figures for building a pedestrian median range from $200,000 to $250,000, Humphrey said.

The creamery's plans for an "artisan corridor" fit in perfectly with the city's plans to bring more people downtown, Humphrey said.

"This is exactly what we want to accomplish."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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