Assistant Professor of Health Systems Management Alissa Dickey utilizes her decades of managed care experience, coupled with a caring, supportive attitude, to help Southeastern students excel in both their courses and the real world. But her current
accomplishments don’t end there.

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Alissa and Jeff Dickey

Alissa, along with her husband of 31 years Jeff Dickey, owns and operates Zocalisa Fine Chocolates. Founded by the couple in 2014, Zocalisa sells gourmet, hand-crafted chocolates and caramel sauces made from fresh, natural ingredients. The products, often inspired by the unique culture and flavors of Louisiana, are created in Hammond—in the kitchen of The Rind, only about half of a mile from Southeastern’s campus.

Like the products themselves, the origin of the business was a sweet adventure. “In October 2013, my husband Jeff and I took a trip to Costa Rica for our 25th wedding anniversary,” Alissa began. “While we were there, we overheard one of the B&B owners where we stayed talking to other guests about sourcing cacao beans. That same week we saw a cacao tree in the wild with small football-shaped cacao pods growing straight out of the trunk! We were fascinated . . . and hooked on learning about chocolate.”

A few months later, Jeff enrolled in an online class with Ecole Chocolat, through which he became a certified chocolatier, and began making artisan chocolate in their home kitchen. When he brought some of these test batches to his workplace, Jeff’s coworkers raved about the treats—even stating that they had “never tasted chocolate like this before.”

Seeing how much people loved their unique creations, the couple decided to bring their product to market.

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When it came time to name the company, Alissa and Jeff paid homage to the history and culture surrounding cacao as well as the experience that sparked their love for it. “Xocatyl (zocatyl, shocatyl) was the Aztec / Mayan / Olmec word for a drink made from cacao beans,” Alissa said. “These were the first people known to have used cacao, the bean from which chocolate is made. The Zócalo is the name of the central square in Mexico City and in many other cities in Mexico. So we are centered on chocolate and chocolate is the center of the community.” And when the couple was on their Costa Rica trip, the one during which they first discovered wild cacao, their guides would shout encouragement during new adventures like rappelling down a waterfall as “Aleeesa! Way to go Aleeesa!” The couple then creatively put it all together as “Zocalisa” and registered the name with the US Patent Office.

a061519_035While this was their first venture into the world of chocolate production, Alissa and Jeff had plenty of experience in starting and managing a business. When the couple first met, Alissa owned a computer consulting business, which she operated until giving birth to a set of twins. They have owned rental property and, most notably, opened the popular PJ’s Coffee on W. Thomas St. in Downtown Hammond, which they owned and operated for nine years. Relying on their business foresight and market research, the couple opened this location in 1992 as only the third franchised PJ’s Coffee, a company which today boasts over 100 locations in nine states and growing.

Alissa regularly draws on this entrepreneurial experience in her role with the company. “My primary work with Zocalisa is marketing, sales, packaging, strategic planning, and finance. Jeff says that he makes the chocolate taste good, and I make it look good.”

This perfectly balanced partnership does indeed result in a chocolate that is both melt-in the-mouth delicious and beautifully packaged. When each batch is completed, the chocolates are also carefully inspected for any imperfections. Alissa and Jeff are left with the hard job of “disposing” of any that have even a minor flaw on their surface to ensure an even, quality product.

a061519_148Jeff mentioned that people often comment on how they’re surprised he doesn’t gain weight making and taste-testing so many sweets. But a lot of work and energy goes into making the products, sometimes with him spending an entire evening after his primary job, and occasionally even an entire day.

Chocolate making can be very temperamental, and the often hot and humid Louisiana weather does not always play nice. “There is an art and science to making chocolate,” Jeff said as he began to demonstrate the very delicate process by making a batch of pecan caramel chocolates.

The chocolates are all made using either a milk or dark chocolate base, heated to a precise temperature then poured into specialty molds. These molds form a delicate shell for the filled chocolates. When cooled to the right stage, the filling is meticulously piped into the cup of each chocolate. More warm, melted chocolate is poured over the mold to form the bottom of the chocolates to protect the sweet, gooey filling. The fillings are made ahead of time, often drawing on Louisiana flavors such as Ponchatoula strawberries, cayenne pepper, and Pointe Coupee pecans.

a061519_253Their most popular flavor is the pecan caramel, which is available as a caramel sauce in addition to a filled chocolate. “This is a true caramel made by heating sugar until it turns a rich reddish-brown, like the color of strong tea, then adding butter, cream, some flavorings, and pecans,” explained Alissa.

But everyone has their own favorite, including Alissa. “I’m a purist—I like the simply dark, just chocolate and butter,” she said.

a061519_354After more cooling, the chocolates are tapped out of the molds, inspected, placed in individual paper cups, and either placed on trays for catering and wholesale or into upscale packaging complete with a hand-tied ribbon. Along the way, there is a lot of scraping and banging on the molds to help the chocolate settle just right and remove excess, waiting on heating and cooling to exact temperatures, and cleaning.

Through all of this effort, the couple can produce 400 chocolates and six cases of caramel sauce per week. It has become a labor of love. Alissa explained that “trying new flavor combinations; the sheer joy on someone’s face when they bite into our chocolates; the sense of accomplishment when perfectly tempered, glossy chocolates just fall out of the molds; and when a customer comments on how pretty our packaging is” makes the hard work worth it.

This love for making chocolates, entrepreneurial spirit, and the happiness they get to bring to people through their products has kept them going despite the challenges they have had to overcome. Following flooding from the devastating “no-name storm” of August 2016, Alissa and Jeff had to take a break from Zocalisa to get their home back together. They also faced difficulty in finding the right commercial kitchen space before settling in to their current location at The Rind.

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The location has worked well for the couple, but they hope to eventually move the center of operations even closer to home and keep growing. “We have plans to build out our own commercial kitchen space on our property in Ponchatoula,” Alissa said. “And we have a marketing plan in place to attract more wholesale accounts in general and more corporate accounts for the Christmas gift-giving season.”

Alissa’s passion for Zocalisa is evident—as is her love for research and teaching in her field. She reflected on why she chose to continue her career at Southeastern, joining the faculty of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences in the fall of 2018. “Southeastern provided an opportunity for me to integrate my information technology background with my managed care experience. It seemed like a job made just for me. I’m a good example for students to see that it’s possible to have a wonderful career in healthcare without being a clinician (e.g., nurse, doctor, therapist, and so on). We need clinicians, but we need non-clinicians, too, to solve the challenges we face in the healthcare industry.”

While she loves and believes in the work itself, Alissa has also been moved by the caring, supportive environment she has encountered since calling Southeastern home. “My department head, Dr. Jacqueline Guendouzi, and my dean, Dr. Ann Carruth, are amazing. My awesome colleague in the Health Systems Management program, Ms. Susan Tufts, has been generous with her time and knowledge more than I can say. And I don’t know what I would have done this past year without all the folks at the Center for Faculty Excellence. These people allow me to be the best I can be for our students.”

And at the end of a long day, there’s always chocolate.

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Alissa and Jeff’s products are available for online orders, catering, and wholesale, and they can also be found in select stores across the region. To find out more about Zocalisa Fine Chocolates, visit zocalisa.com or follow @zocalisa on Facebook and Instagram.

By Sheri Gibson

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