Who owns the U.S. chocolate market?

Hershey's: 44.6 percent

Mars: 29.2 percent

Nestle: 4.6 percent

Ghirardelli: 9.2 percent

All others: 12.4 percent

Source: Statista

Loveland attorney Matt Busch always knew when his son Brandon, a United States Marine Corp. helicopter pilot, was home for a visit because the Food Network was always on.

"From the time he was a little boy, he loved to cook," the elder Busch said. So when his son came off his 10-year stint in the service in 2013, it was no surprise that he would use the GI Bill to attend culinary school.

But he wasn't interested in sauces, meats or vegetables. He was most interested in pastries, until he discovered chocolate.

The exacting nature of the medium, the boiling and curing and pouring, was all absorbing and very difficult.

Undeterred, once Brandon graduated cooking school in Denver, he began shopping for a space in which he could build his own commercial kitchen.

"I was going to start from the ground up," he said.

In doing so he would become one of thousands of veterans who've returned from war and found a way back into society by starting their own businesses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Lift Chocolates is among some 405,235 veteran owned companies in the U.S.

Those who've chosen candy, perhaps not surprisingly, are much rarer, with fewer than 25,000 vet-owned firms classed as being in hospitality and food services, according to the 2016 Census report.

During his time in the U.S. Marine Corps, he spent hours thinking about his next career and how he would get there. Once he enrolled in school, however, he quickly became intrigued with chocolate.

Dana Jardine, right, prepares a pan of chocolate on Wednesday at Lift Chocolates. Her daughters, Grace, left, and Mary, package chocolate bars.
Dana Jardine, right, prepares a pan of chocolate on Wednesday at Lift Chocolates. Her daughters, Grace, left, and Mary, package chocolate bars. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

He was willing to go it alone, until he found a woman who had paved the way for him, someone who had been making exquisite hand-made chocolates for nearly 20 years and was ready to sell her kitchen and shop in Gunbarrel.

When Brandon met Chris Widlar, founder of Concerto Chocolates, the two quickly worked out a deal. Brandon closed on the purchase last May, with Chris agreeing to stay on for 80 hours to help him with the transition.

Seven months later she is still there.

Brandon Busch has renamed the store Lift Chocolates, a nod to his experience in the Marines, while Widlar is helping him learn the art, the craft, the science and the business of operating a chocolate shop.

Chocolatier Clorisa McKeta makes different flavors for the chocolate squares.
Chocolatier Clorisa McKeta makes different flavors for the chocolate squares. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

"It's a challenge," he said, as he helped a retail customer with her order. His white cook's jacket has a bright red winged patch on the shoulder, with "Candy Man" embroidered along the top.

On a recent morning, Widlar, in a hair net, a chef's jacket, and clogs, is silently examining a tray of chocolate signs that spell LOVE in dark, milk and white chocolate.

"It takes three people to simultaneously pour these," she says. "But this," she says quietly, almost to herself as she uses her thumb nail to scratch a groove in the surface, "this is not quite right. Something did not set up here."

This batch will be remelted, and they will try again.

Helping Lift in the kitchen is another young chocolatier, Clorisa McKeta. She gave up a job as a sous chef for Hyatt Corp. to pursue life in candy land and she hasn't looked back. Working on a batch of green apple ganache truffles she has designed, she said the range of ingredients to experiment with is growing.

The shop's all-natural line of chocolates it sells through Whole Foods uses radish, beet and paprika powder for coloring, ingredients that offer super-intense colors, but whose flavors disappear as the chocolate is processed.

"It's all very intricate," she says, as she shakes out a makeup brush she's been using to apply gold specs.

The chocolate wheel turns at Lift Chocolates in Boulder. The shop buys its chocolate worldwide, including in Switzerland, France and South America.
The chocolate wheel turns at Lift Chocolates in Boulder. The shop buys its chocolate worldwide, including in Switzerland, France and South America. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

Each week in the shop hundreds of pieces of handmade candy are imagined, mixed, cast and painted in the shop, which sells its products, largely, on a wholesale basis to such local outlets as Whole Foods and Pharmaca.

Brandon estimates that Widlar's Concertos line includes 18 different truffles, while he has developed another dozen or so himself.

Lift also sells small chocolate bisons to the University of Colorado and to stores in South Dakota and Iowa.

The St Julien hotel in Boulder was one of the shop's early devotees and continues to sell the chocolates in its gift shop and to provide them free to its guests, according to General Manager Bob Trotter.

"We like to give our guests an authentic Boulder experience and we are fortunate to have a number of local businesses who have top quality products," he said. "It's good business and it's good karma."

Lift, like other chocolatiers, buys its chocolate worldwide, from Switzerland, France and South America and it is riding a wave of interest in hand-made, artisinal chocolate.

According to a 2016 report by UBS, small-scale chocolatiers such as Lift are capitalizing on a recent trend that has seen consumers' appetite for mass-produced chocolate wane. At the same time, however, an interest in high-quality, small-batch chocolates has increased.

Candy giants such as Hershey's control 44.6 percent of the U.S. market, with Mars coming in at 29.2 percent, according to market research site Statista. While Ghirardelli, long considered one of the highest quality chocolates on the mass market, claims just 9.2 percent, the "all other" category is growing, and reached 12.4 percent last year.

Brandon Busch wants to see that growth continue and he is pitching his small-batch sweets to such large retailers as Nordstrom and other boutique hoteliers, such as the Hotel Boulderado.

Widlar calculates that Lift has five full-time and four part-time employees, "but that doesn't count Brandon's family members," she says smiling.

His father and mother help out in the store on big days, such as a recent open house, his wife helps with package design and marketing, and his father spreads the word about his son's sweet adventures every chance he can.

"Obviously there is a move to recognize veterans nationwide and people like to hear about their transitions back into society," the elder Busch said. "But what's been really cool is to see how much people want to see him succeed."

Jerd Smith: 303-473-1332, smithj@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/jerd_smith