No trip to Asheville, N.C., would be complete without a visit to The Chocolate Fetish, host of Retail Confectioners International’s (RCI) Spring Regional Conference.

Owned and operated by Sue and Bill Foley, and their daughter, Elizabeth Foley, the business has evolved from a one-person hobby shop with a single display case to becoming one of the finest chocolatiers in the United States, having been named a Six Star Grand Master Chocolatier by the International Chocolate Salon and TasteTV.

After Bill retired a decade-and-a-half ago from a career in international marketing that brought the Foleys to seven states and three countries, it was Sue’s turn to pursue her passion.

“Sue gave up her career and followed me around,” Bill said. “When I retired early, she wanted to fulfill her dream of having a small business related to food.”

With their travels taking the Foleys to Belgium, Sue studied and developed an appreciation for the intricacies of chocolate.

“It’s something I enjoy,” she said. “It’s something that every place you go you can see some and it’s different, and it’s fun to explore. From a production standpoint, chocolate isn’t an ‘A+B=C.’ There are lots of nuances and lots of things when you’re working with chocolate that vary.”

The Chocolate Fetish seemed like the perfect place to put Sue’s passion on display. The Foleys, having lived in Asheville in the early ‘90s, knew the business had an established clientele and were already familiar with its products. And there was no passing up that unforgettable name.

“In spite of the fact that it was a very small business, it had a good reputation,” Sue said. “It was a good foundation to buy.”

The Foleys purchased The Chocolate Fetish on Sue’s birthday in 2002 -- arguably the best birthday present. The couple immediately set out to make the shop their own. In addition to holding regular hours, the first thing the Foleys did was scrape and clean the shop’s windows.

“Having come from living in Belgium where every business owner is on the street first thing in the morning cleaning the windows and cleaning the sidewalk, that was really important to us,” Sue said.

The Foleys also made a point to subscribe to trade publications and join industry associations such as RCI, Bill said.

“It proved to be invaluable because the people shared so much information with us,” he said.

Elizabeth, who began working at The Chocolate Fetish full time in 2007, now is its general manager. After studying fine art and ceramics at the University of Oregon, she brought her passion for art to the family business. Elizabeth received training under world-renowned chocolatiers, helping her to create intricate chocolate displays and other chocolate art pieces.

“Being able to be a part of developing more of our chocolate art offerings has given me the ability to express my creativity and my love for art in chocolate,” she said.

Developing flavors and chocolate blends for The Chocolate Fetish’s award-winning truffles is an art in and of itself. Inspiration can come from a meal or cocktail, customer requests and Sue and Bill’s foodie son, Patrick.

“The initial ideas for flavors can come from lots of different places,” Elizabeth said. “Then it’s a matter of figuring out if that’s something our customers are wanting, if it’s going to fit into the bigger picture of the shop and what we’re needing.”

She pointed to their Dragon’s Sigh Ecstacy Truffle, based on an idea Patrick posed. It features a dark chocolate wasabi ganache center that’s enrobed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds.

Sue said it took a year and 40 to 50 batches to balance the flavors.

“It took me a long time to get over the ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be horrible,’” Sue said. “(But it’s) one of our best sellers. It’s a good example what it takes to develop a truffle for us.”

Also on the exotic end of the spectrum is the Ancient Pleasures truffle, a dark chocolate piece dusted with cocoa powder and cayenne pepper.

Elizabeth said her favorite truffle is the African Queen, a Belgian-style truffle featuring a crispy hazelnut wafer topped with a creamy caramel ganache and enrobed in dark chocolate from Tanzania.

The Chocolate Fetish is also known for its hand-decorated chocolate pieces, which include Easter eggs, dinosaur eggs, Santas, snowmen and the store’s signature high-heel shoes.

Elizabeth noted The Chocolate Fetish’s delights are for the eyes as much as they are for the nose and mouth.

“When you come into our store, it’s really a feast for the senses, from the heavenly aroma of chocolate to the visuals, the art, our European-style shop, and of course, the taste of the chocolate,” she said.

While The Chocolate Fetish has a strong local base, it also works to extend its unique chocolate experience to the ever-growing tourist population. Groups from Asheville Food Tours visit the shop six days a week, and The Chocolate Fetish hosts its own tours three days a week.

The business doesn’t stop at fulfilling Asheville’s chocolate needs, however. The Chocolate Fetish also donates to Helpmate Domestic Violence Services, which offers shelter, counseling and other services to victims of domestic violence.

The Chocolate Fetish provides chocolate for fundraisers and supports the organization with anything it might need, including replacing a broken dishwasher and collecting Christmas gifts from employees each year. The business also sells a Helpmate chocolate box and donates 100 percent of the proceeds to Helpmate.

“You funnel money where it does the most good,” Bill said. “We chose this because it reaches a whole socio-economic strata. I really encourage people to focus on one thing. If you scatter it out all over, it doesn’t have an impact. This has an impact.”

The Chocolate Fetish also makes an impact by hiring local artists and musicians -- a mutually beneficial arrangement, Elizabeth said.

“The artists and musicians need a reliable source of income to support them while they’re making their art and learning how to get their art in the world, and then we benefit from their creativity and their skills,” she said.

It’s also a rewarding partnership for Sue and Bill, who took on a second career after already having a lifetime of experience.

“When you’re having fun and you’re working with a lot of young people, you don’t grow old,” Bill said. “You enjoy life.”