CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. -- Mike Ritz is trying to help save Central Falls – one chocolate bar at a time.
While Central Falls is often called a "failed city" that was taken over by the state and later filed for bankruptcy, a new project is highlighting a very different story: its history as a chocolate manufacturer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Ritz says the "Save Chocolateville" bar – honoring Central Falls' nickname – recalls the tale of an American city that once thrived as a manufacturer, sank into decline and is trying to turn itself around. Proceeds will go to a yet-undecided program benefiting city children.
"Chocolateville to me represents the spirit of ingenuity, entrepreneurship, productivity, and – when that first mill building was created there – it was the heart of the community," said Ritz, who heads the organization Leadership Rhode Island. The old Wheat chocolate factory that operated along the Blackstone River is pictured on the chocolate bar's label.
"The bar will make some money for the kids, no doubt. But it's almost more important that the bar gets distributed ... so that it can tell the story of Chocolateville and Central Falls," he added. "To me, it's the story of America in one square mile. The bar itself is just a calling card to tell that story."
The bars are being made right in Central Falls by Andrew Shotts, a well-regarded chocolatier who worked previously as a pastry chef in New York City, including at the Russian Tea Room. He relocated to Providence in 2003 and moved three years later to a 7,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Central Falls, where he produced the latest batch of Save Chocolateville bars last week.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Central Falls is in trouble," said Shotts. "To try to help the city, get it back to where it was, is a good thing. That's why I'm doing it."
The 3.5-ounce bars, which went on sale this month at a Whole Foods in Providence, cost $5, a portion of which goes to cover Shotts' costs. More than 700 have been sold.
Said Shotts: "We're going to just keep making them and selling them."
Ritz said a local credit union has ordered 200 and the travel agency AAA is likely to buy several hundred as well to sell at its busiest branches. He also said he has had conversations with CVS, based in Woonsocket, about sales in its stores, which could bring a much broader distribution.
The settlement that became Central Falls was known as a regional center of chocolate manufacturer during early industrialization along the Blackstone River, according to a history on the website of the Confectioners Mill Preservation Society. The Wheat Chocolate Mill was that of William Wheat, a trader, innkeeper and chocolate maker who is said to have relocated his factory from Providence to a spot in Central Falls around 1782.
Most of the mill's chocolate was bought and consumed locally, but the preservation society said some also likely made its way onto whaling ships, fishing vessels and warships. Some may have been used as military provisions as well, as hot cocoa was considered to have a medicinal quality.
The history quotes an 1854 Providence Journal article as saying the two-story mill was "seriously injured" during a flood in 1807 and that all traces of it were gone by around 1834.
The preservation society, a nonprofit that researches and supports the preservation of old chocolate mills, had plans to rebuild the old Wheat mill and turn it into a museum. But that project – expected to cost $12 million – was shelved because of the sour economy, said Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.
Now the tourism council is raising money for what's known as the Chocolate Mill Overlook on a city-owned parcel along the river. It's slated to be an interactive park that highlights Central Falls' history as Chocolateville.
"Central Falls really has the right and the privilege to tell a story that's no one else's in Rhode Island," said Billington, the park administrator.
About $18,000 toward a $35,000 matching grant from chocolate maker Mars Inc., a major donor to the preservation society, has been raised so far, he said. The park is expected to be complete in May.
Ritz said his chocolate bar project – separate from plans for the park – is part of a broader effort at Leadership Rhode Island to help revitalize Central Falls. He recently dressed up as Willy Wonka, the fictional character from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and handed out the bars at the state's major philanthropic organization, the Rhode Island Foundation, from which he's seeking a grant for his organization's larger work.
"Central Falls, because of all the negative attention it's gotten over the last few years, it's a heavy sort of thing to think about," said Ritz. "By playing with the history of it, it lightens it, and it also brings back this sense of Americana."