In the mid-1990s, Marilyn Lysohir’s brother overheard the owner of a Pennsylvania chocolate company say he’d give $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a new chocolate flavor.
Thinking about it as he ate spicy nuts, Lysohir’s brother wondered what would happen if spice were combined with chocolate. He brought the idea to the company’s, who responded by playing a practical joke on him.
“They mixed the pepper in (some chocolate),” Lysohir said. “And then, when he wasn’t looking, they threw a whole bunch of pepper in. So they made it inedible, where it was just so hot that it just blew your socks off.”
Lysohir was upset her brother was made fun of, and thought the idea of sweet and heat was a good one. She began experimenting with chocolates and spices, conducting taste tests using homemade truffles infused with wasabi and anything else that might give them the right heat.
Sixteen years later, through a lot of perseverance and a little luck, the result is Cowgirl Chocolates, a business selling 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of chocolate a year through its website and Moscow shop.
Cowgirl is known worldwide for pioneering the concept of spicy gourmet chocolate bars and truffles. The business also makes spicy caramels, hot cocoa, desert sauces and several types of brittle, as well as non-spicy chocolates.
The spiciness from the chocolate provides more of a feeling than an actual taste, Lysohir said. Roughly three seconds after eating, one feels heat at the back of the throat, which radiates downward.
“It has this physical feeling to it which is really pleasant,” she said. “I try to balance it so that, if you have a medium palette, you feel the heat and you get that little kick.”
Lysohir said while the Mayan and Aztec civilizations were known for adding spices, including peppers, to their cocoa-based drinks, the combination of chocolate and chilis was not a popular trend for modern chocolate-makers at the time Cowgirl began in 1997.
“I knew it was good,” Lysohir said. “I had no doubts, because I could taste that it was good.”
Lysohir, a 1979 WSU graduate, began by selling her handmade truffles to a local Moscow restaurant.
Soon, she was running the business out of her home and making phone calls to get people interested. Sales were small the first couple of years, but a 2000 case study on the company by the University of Idaho’s business department helped pique interest.
Still, Cowgirl was not turning a profit by 2002. Lysohir was using money she’d made in her other career as an artist to subsidize the business, and was considering closing it down. Non-locally, she had doubters.
“I was at some fancy food shows in San Francisco,” Lysohir said, “and I remember people just saying, ‘No, you’re ruining chocolate. Like, what are you doing?’”
But she vowed to keep at it, entering her chocolates at fiery food contests and often winning first-place honors. In the summer of 2002, Cowgirl caught the eye of the Food Network, which featured the business on two of its programs, including “Unwrapped.”
The night the program aired, she and her husband watched it and went to bed. At 3 a.m., their phone began ringing. The next morning, they checked their computer.
“The orders were just page after page after page after page,” she said. Their printer broke while trying to hardcopy the orders, which Lysohir estimated to be more than 1,000. Their Internet service provider in Moscow crashed due to the heavy traffic volume to their website.
Lysohir said she hired six to eight people, working them practically non-stop, in order to meet the sudden demand.
“When they did our segment, it was like a floodgate opened,” Lysohir said. “People really rallied around the product.”
The exposure paid off — literally.
Lysohir was able to recoup the art money she’d sunk into her business within three years. In 2005, she moved Cowgirl out of her home to its current location at 428 W. Third St. in downtown Moscow.
The shop, which also sells art-related gifts in addition to chocolate, employs five to six people. Her husband of 33 years also helps out from time to time, despite being diabetic.
Cowgirl has used an outside factory vendor to produce their chocolate since 1999, saving money on otherwise costly equipment, she said.
Internet sales have been plentiful, and Lysohir said people from five continents have ordered her chocolates. A couple of years ago, she said someone from Harry Potter Studio in London placed an order.
Lysohir is also an artist known for her ceramics. She’s held numerous showcases of her artwork and lectured at several universities including WSU, where a two-ton, 24-foot long, clay battleship she created was once featured at the Museum of Art.
While art takes up a lot of her time when chocolate-selling tapers off, she said it doesn’t mean she gives up sampling her own products.
“Someone said that, if you work in a candy shop, you won’t eat the candy after a while,” she said. “And for me, that’s never worked. I just love it.”
For Lysohir, whose first job at age 16 was making $2 an hour behind the front counter of a Pennsylvania chocolate shop, Cowgirl Chocolates comes down to one word: joy.
“Chocolate just…is a joyful experience,” she said. “Everyone that comes into our shop—they’re happy, they’re laughing, they’re smiling. It’s just a joyful thing.”