From the March 2010 issue of Startups

Fifteen years into her franchising venture, Stephanie Kusayanagi still has a taste for chocolate--and the profits it generates for her as a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory franchisee.

"It's a great business to be in," says Kusayanagi, a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory franchisee since 1994 and owner of an RMCF store in Monterey, California. "And, yes, I still love chocolate."

Catering mostly to tourists with a sweet tooth, the Monterey store produces annual sales in excess of $500,000. It's the only RMCF operation still owned by the mid-50ish Kusayanagi, who in recent years sold stakes in two other stores to free up time for other interests, such as her grandkids.

Her store has thrived, she says, due largely to the strong backing the Durango, Colorado-based franchise provides its franchisees, from marketing, advertising and communications materials to strategic guidance to frequent opportunities to network and compare notes with other franchisees. That support was key to the Monterey store weathering the recent economic downturn, she says.

"Rocky Mountain held a series of regional meetings for franchisees to help us with marketing and promotional ideas to get us through the hard economic times," Kusayanagi says. "That kind of support is really valuable, and it's difficult to find as an independent business owner. I wouldn't want to be going it alone right now."

Having made a point of speaking with RMCF franchisees before buying a store of her own, Kusayanagi had been told to expect that kind of proactive assistance from the corporate office. Those preliminary fact-finding conversations also yielded vital information about the nuts and bolts of running a successful store, underscoring to Kusayanagi just how important performing due diligence is for prospective franchisees, regardless of the type of business they're considering buying into.

"We got some really good advice from other franchisees," she says. "We found out the business could be profitable and fun at the same time."

But as Forrest Gump's mother told her son, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." With the economic nosedive have come challenges for retailers, even those who sell a universally adored product like chocolate. "In times like these," says Kusayanagi, "you have to find different ways to promote your business."

To that end, she is now focusing promotional and marketing efforts on bringing more locals into the store. After all, tourists aren't the only ones with a sweet tooth.