Brandon Busch’s previous career inspired the name for Lift Chocolate, a Boulder-based chocolatier. Busch, a Colorado native, was a Marine helicopter pilot who served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2013.
In the midst of such chaotic, often hostile environments, Busch sought out sweetness. “During our downtime, I read every culinary textbook I could get my hands on from cover to cover,” Busch recalls. “I realized you could educate yourself on cooking, but you couldn’t teach yourself pastry skills — things like sugar work, laminated doughs and chocolate.”
After active service, Busch returned to Colorado and immediately started pastry school at Johnson & Wales. “I tried to work with chocolate a few times before school, but never successfully,” he says. “I was the worst at making chocolate, but I became obsessed because I felt like I should be able to do it. I eventually got better.”
A lot better. “I have always loved chocolate, but never thought of it as a career until after school,” Busch says. In May 2017, two years after graduation and a lot of research and strategic planning, he took over Concertos in Chocolate, a Boulder business, and promptly rebranded the company, expanding its market and adding new products.
Nearly four years later, Lift Chocolate has between seven and eighteen employees, depending on the season. Busch’s signature delicacies — about half of the recipes are his — are in 35 Whole Foods stores in the Rocky Mountain region, as well as all Pharmaca stores, select Nordstrom Ebars and many independents. “We specialize in chocolates that most people don’t want to, or can’t, make,” says Busch. “We do all the specialty molds for the holidays —Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. Gosh, our winter penguins have been on Food Network. It’s all the really festive and celebratory items.”
But Lift isn’t all just chocolate penguins and teddy bears. Pre-pandemic, nearly a third of the company’s business was in-room product for the hotel and hospitality market. “Our chocolates are at the St Julien, the ART hotel and many more,” Busch notes. “Obviously, that’s changed drastically this past year.” In fact, he lost between 40 and 45 percent of his business with the hospitality pull-back because of COVID.
So Busch changed course, revamping the online sales efforts that had been unprofitable until May 2020 and shifting the business model. “Online, we really focus on the European influence of our product. We source Italian Amarena cherries for our cherry cordials, candied oranges from Switzerland for our dipped orange slices, etc.,” he says.
In addition to those fruity chocolates, Busch’s unique Splitz bars — boasting two separate chocolate layers — and his English Butter Toffee are Lift’s bestsellers. And he keeps trying new things, often with a local flavor. “Our first go-round on a collaboration with Finkel & Garf Brewing to create a beer ganache for a truffle was probably our biggest challenge to date,” he notes, “and it took many attempts before we concocted the correct recipe.”
But while he’s tried beer as an ingredient, he’s drawn the line at marijuana…so far. “Yes, we’ve been approached to make a CBD chocolate and other renditions, but have not done so,” says Busch, adding that he’s also refused other requests. “People want a sugar-free or sugar-substitute chocolate. I have to explain, ‘I’m a chocolatier; I make creations from the chocolate I source.’ The chocolate-maker decides the ingredients in his or her own recipe.”
He’s not afraid to play with recipes, or to discard those that no longer work. “We had a chocolate called Afterburn,” he remembers. “It included a chipotle powder in a chile-pepper mold. That fad is gone. Right now, it’s color. Our contrast and playful nature with the chocolate we source is certainly eye-popping.”
Busch’s transition from a Marine to a modern-day chocolate-maker is a sweet story — not surprising, given his birthplace: the Sweetheart Capital. “I was born and raised in Loveland, and still have many close connections to the city,” he says.
But he also keeps his ties to the military. “I’m still in the Marine Reserves,” he adds. “I have sent chocolate to friends in Afghanistan, and I donate regularly to the Taya and Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, which supports military and first-responder marriages. I have a real affinity for that organization, as I have seen firsthand the impacts deployments have on military families.”
During the pandemic, the fight is on the home front. “As a business owner, I definitely draw on my ability to deal with stress, problem-solve and remain calm from my days in service,” Busch concludes. “It’s an opportunity to emerge stronger than before. There’s always a silver lining.”