MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When a Memphis-based small business got national attention last year, sales took off.

One of Phillip Ashley Chocolates‘ new customers was Kristen Lucas of Littleton, New Hampshire.

“We are also a local small business owner,” she said of why she wanted to support the company when she saw them featured in a national news piece. “It was something I was hoping to have for the holidays.”

Michael Mahaney, who also lives in New England, saw the same piece.

“Thought it was a great idea,” he said. “Thought it looked really good and would make a nice gift.”

Phillip Ashley Chocolates started in 2012. Since then, they’ve locally moved to a bigger location on Madison Avenue and nationally made Oprah’s list of favorite things in late 2020.

The company’s website refers to owner Phillip Ashley Rix as a “real life Willy Wonka.”

Both Lucas and Mahaney placed their orders.

“That was on December 17, 2020 and nothing,” she said.

Turned out, Rix’s chocolate factory in Memphis wasn’t as ready as he thought.

“Moving from a craft business from one day making several hundred or thousands to making tens of thousands at a time is a major shift,” he said.

The national attention led to 10,000 orders in just a few hours last December, Rix said. That’s as many as they had in the previous two and a half years. Then, a third of his staff got COVID-19. He could not keep up.

Lucas shared the emails they received, like one in January where Rix apologized and promised to get their orders out that month.

But the rest of winter, spring and even summer came and went. Lucas did not get her chocolates.

“It was excuse after excuse after a few emails,” she said. “It was really frustrating. I don’t know if I gave up as far as waiting for the order.”

“There’s a company out there featured on a major news broadcast and they’re not taking care of what they need to take care of,” Mahaney said.

When WREG spoke with Rix in September, he was still trying to catch up.

“We obviously hoped it wouldn’t take that long. When we first had our original crew it wouldn’t have and then we normally would’ve hired another 10 to 12 people to help but as the pandemic happened we couldn’t get anyone,” he said.

In fact, Rix’s company is not alone in struggling with hiring during the pandemic.

According to University of Memphis assistant professor Ernie Nichols, supply chains are still suffering due to employment shortages.

“They didn’t want to put themselves in a situation where they had to be in close contact with other workers,” Nichols said.

Rix said hiring got easier after the coronavirus vaccines came out and that meant he could catch up on orders.

Lucas received her chocolates seven months after she placed the order. But her turtles weren’t as expected.

“This is what they were supposed to look like, but if you look at this, this is molded with the flat bottom and this is supposed to be like it was dropped and flattened out,” she said while comparing a picture of the turtles to what she got.

Lucas picked up on one of the changes Rix says he had to make to survive.

When he invited WREG into his chocolate factory he showed us the molds they use now instead of hand dipping.

“They’re able to do 1,800 turtles in the time it would take to do 400 the other way,” he said.

They’ve also purchased machines, done away with their walk-in store, created new customer service positions and streamlined the menu.

The heart-shaped chocolates shown in a painting on the wall in the Madison Avenue office are no longer available.

“Now all of our shapes are either this or the bon-bon size,” he said pointing to square chocolates on a shelf. “Really learning how to create a greater ecosystem that allows us to meet needs of our customers.”

But Ashley knew his brand took a hit. And for the customers who don’t live in Memphis, all the waiting and misleading messaging got to be too much. They soured on this chocolatier.

“Great for them they got national exposure, all those orders, but I think the way they handled it was not the best,” Lucas said.

Mahaney never received his chocolates and eventually got issued a refund. He said he would never order from the company again.

“I don’t care if it’s the best in the world. Never again,” he said.

Still, Ashley said he’s proud of how they’ve overcome and they’re hoping to get completely caught up this month, just in time to gear up for the next holiday season.