Phillip Ashley Rix started out by selling his chocolates from the trunk of his four-door sedan. Now he’s got a partnership with one of the most legendary names in automotive history: In June, Rix was named the exclusive chocolatier of Cadillac.
The Phillip Ashley brand, based in Memphis, has built its success on unorthodox flavor pairings that—somehow, as if by magic—work. The effect on the tongue is always a bit of a surprise. When you bite into his Top Shelf Margarita chocolate, for example, you first taste the kosher salt that’s been dusted on the bottom, then a burst of aged tequila and lime, and the experience rounds out in the sweetness of white chocolate.
His Fried Chicken chocolate contains actual pieces of crackling made from deep-frying chicken skins. The addition of smoked sea salt and blond chocolate balances the savory with the sweet. Each bite-sized square packs a unique filling encased in a decorative chocolate shell.
In his partnership with Cadillac, Rix created a custom collection for the brand’s electric car, Celestiq. It includes some not-totally-crazy flavours such as saffron vanilla bean and blood orange guava. Still, there’s a black truffle fig, 100-year balsamic, and Rogue Creamery blue cheese. Rix also provided signature chocolates for launch events tied to the 2023 Lyriq and Escalade V-Series.
In addition to Cadillac, Rix has worked on custom confections for the likes of FedEx and Nike. He created an Old Fashioned-inspired chocolate with Woodford Reserve as part of his Masters of Whiskey collection. He’s sold chocolate to such celebrities as Serena Williams and Stevie Wonder. His unconventional approach earned him the moniker “the Willy Wonka of Chocolate,” but according to Rix, it’s all a long way from where he started in 2010.
“Back then, I was doing a lot of charity events and pop-ups,” says Rix. “I spent a year sampling and selling out of my trunk, kind of like Master P when he started No Limit Records.”
The New Orleans rapper and entrepreneur was selling mixtapes, but Rix was hawking the first of many eccentric flavors of chocolate, the Mama Jean. It blended toasted sweet potatoes and spices with milk chocolate in a dark chocolate shell.
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The flavor was named after his grandmother, Jean, who first sparked Rix’s curiosity in the kitchen when he was a child, showing him how to clean collard greens, shuck peas, and peel potatoes for family Sunday dinners. He still cooks often, but now it’s to tinker with balances in flavor and create new treats.
“I cook to help with chocolate,” Rix says. “Like our soul food collection, for instance: Understanding how to cook helps me understand how to create a collard green chocolate, or a fried chicken chocolate, and bring in the savory element into the confections.”
Before he started his brand, Rix spent 12 years as a sales executive, gaining experience in the world of consumer packaged goods. But he always dreamed of going to culinary school and creating his own business.
He was inspired by the character of Willy Wonka to think about what was missing in the chocolate market—and how he could stand out.
Rix spent the next three years learning the art of making chocolate. He tasted and catalogued ingredients and tried various herbs and spices. He saw an opportunity to experiment not only with strangely delicious flavor pairings but also with the design of his chocolate.
“I always envisioned [my brand] as something that was going to be a luxury—avant-garde,” he said. “I looked toward the fashion industry in terms of how they release collections and do fall, winter, spring, summer shows. I wanted to take that approach to how we release collections or named collections, or even design chocolates.”
The name, Phillip Ashley, was chosen because it had a classic ring to it, but it also gave Rix a new outlook on a middle name he once hated.
After achieving some early success at pop-ups and charity events, Rix launched a guerrilla marketing plan that targeted businesses as the main audience.
“I thought, ‘How can I get to the most people for the least amount of money, or make money getting to the most people?’” Rix recalls. “Some of the first companies I targeted were insurance companies, because I knew they had huge customer databases and they’re always looking for ways to get new clients and maintain policyholders.”
As his visibility grew, Rix put his networking prowess into overdrive. In 2011, he was invited to a gifting suite held in honor of that year’s Academy Awards. Usually brands pay thousands of dollars to be invited to give their product to celebrities. But Rix’s chocolate got there by word of mouth.
“I negotiated producing enough chocolate for guests to taste at the moment and take away as gifts, because at the time, I could not afford the fees.”
By 2013, early clients such as Lipscomb & Pitts Insurance and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital brought enough revenue for Rix to leave the trunk behind and open a brick-and-mortar location in Memphis.
Rix has always found inspiration in music, and his upcoming set of flavors—called the Mixtape Collection and timed to be released for this year’s holiday season—will call out that influence directly.
“I’m doing deep dives into folks who were prominent in R&B and hip-hop,” he says. “I’m learning a lot of cool stuff about them and their music and asking questions like, ‘If Prince was a flavor, what would he taste like?’”
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In 2016, he was named the Official Chocolatier of the Grammy Awards Gift Lounge. He created more than 8,000 exclusive 23-Karat Gold Salted Caramel Pecan Praline treats for attendees to take home with them.
It’s where Rix met Stevie Wonder, who gave him the perfect response to a question Rix hears constantly: “What’s your favorite flavor that you’ve created?”
“A reporter asked [Wonder] about his favorite song he’s ever written, and he said, ‘I haven't written it yet.’ I nudged him to say, ‘I’m gonna use that.’”