Despite their size and mastery of mass-production technology, even the world's biggest confectioners are learning new tricks from small, culinary chocolatiers. It's an acknowledgement that small indulgences can help even penny-conscious consumers survive a recession as long as the product delights.
Top chocolatiers such as Jacques Torres have worked as consultants for industry giants. Both parties can win because the large processor-marketer gains access to chefs versed in experimentation and may help develop a hit product, while the small operator retains independence.
Interest by Big Chocolate in small gourmet idea mills is nothing new. Earlier in the decade, for example, Hershey created an Artisan Confections Co. unit aimed at capitalizing on demand for premium, handcrafted chocolates. The company has since shuttered two of the chocolatiers it acquired, Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt, which offered "great strategic opportunities for Hershey to capitalize on the high-growth, on-trend premium chocolate segment," said Richard Lenny, Hershey's chairman, president and CEO, in 2005. There may be long-term benefits for Hershey, however, as the company gained intellectual capital beyond its initial goals, which included bolstering its upscale department store gourmet business.
"As people look for fresher, more natural [and premium] products, manufacturing becomes an issue," says Michael Antonorsi, a master chef who thinks in recipes, not formulas. He and brother Richard, expatriates of Venezuela with multigenerational cocoa in their blood, founded Chuao Chocolatier in 2002.
Michael Antonorsi in the Chuao Chocolatier plant: While batches are limited to the 160 lbs. of a traditional chocolate wheel, moulding has increased from 50 to 600 moulds an hour as Chuao has grown.
Known for their all-natural fusion approach to fine chocolate, their company grew from one kitchen and store in the San Diego area to three. This growth, a 25,000-sq.-ft. plant and growing, national distribution ranging from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart – anywhere gourmet chocolates are sold – have landed Chuao on cable TV's Food Network, the network morning shows and in some of the chocolate industry's biggest plants as a consultant.
Chuao's roots are in wild flavor fusions that cater more to adult tastes – such as goat cheese, curry, cumin and cayenne pepper. One of the most popular examples is the Firecracker bar, a chipotle caramel fudge truffle with popping candy (think Pop Rocks) and dark chocolate.
As both a manufacturer and a nascent consultant, Antonorsi is sensitive to the "realities and restrictions" of creating and producing products en masse. The contrasts are stark between a typical large plant and his own, artisan operation.
In his own products he uses no preservatives and favors natural ingredients to the utmost. "We don't even use natural flavorings. We use only the real deal," he says. So if he wants cinnamon in his chocolate, he won't use even a natural oil concentrate. So it's tricky to scale up his artisan recipes to mass production. But when done right, chocolate turns into gold.
In terms of the mechanicals, Chuao's plant is based on "the artisan principles of chocolate – small batch, lots of control. We are a HACCP facility. We are in more than 5,000 points of sale nationwide, but we're still a very small player out there," he says. Being both a plant operator and a consultant to the big brands, the chef-turned consultant sees both sides of the art and science of volume production.
His own batches at Chuao are limited to the capacity of his smallest piece of equipment. "We are still operating in a very traditional style of Belgian style of chocolate using a little chocolate wheel." This limits production to 160-lb. batches. While the technology predates depositing lines, the end result has earned Chuao's gourmet products the national epicurean spotlight.
That's not to say production hasn't become more efficient. The little plant started out handling 50 moulds an hour with labor done completely by hand. Today, a machine moulds roughly 600 moulds an hour. "And if we grow, eventually we'll get into another moulding line or else a faster line," says Antonorsi. He's "constantly" looking for new equipment to operate more efficiently, however he draws the line at technology that "transforms the product into something different."
For example, if he wants a full-nut bar, he won't change it to chopped nuts just to accommodate a machine. In addition to being principled, he's also realistic; he can't buy every piece of whiz-bang technology to solve problems, such as evenly depositing nuts just-so. But he will cobble together prototypes to accomplish what he needs.
Plant solutions start small
A small company adding equipment isn't all that different than a large one testing a new product, because new lines typically start small. Leading companies often even buy the same equipment as small processors, scaling-up for high volume only after success in the handful of test markets.
While there are some stark contrasts between small plants like Chuao's and those operated by the biggies, the chocolate-making process hasn't changed all that much for decades, even hundreds of years. Smaller plants typically begin by melting 10-lb. blocks or wafer-type bulk chocolate in tanks, to a temperature that allows the crystal structure to form. The chocolate is then tempered or cooled to enable the crystals to form with the cocoa butter, and unstable crystals are heated-off, then run through an enrober or moulding process then cooled and packaged.
Large manufacturers typically bypass the initial stages, receiving melted chocolate in storage tanks. Their innovation in terms of process technology is generally geared toward greater efficiency, since when dealing with many chocolate products, "there's normally not much adjustment that needs to be made," says Ray Cote, president of American Chocolate Mould Co., Bohemia, N.Y.
Chuao Chocolatier's Firecracker chocolate bar is a premium dark chocolate bar with chipotle, salt and popping candy – an unusual but brief ingredient statement.
While small and mid-size plants have greater difficulty justifying new machinery, Cote advises them to think of efficiency, too, especially improvements they can make on existing lines. "It's a whole world easier to be able to more efficiently make a product you already have sales for than to spend money on 'being creative.' From there, you branch out and gain the ability to invent more products, with the capability of the new equipment already paying for itself."
He cites an extruder/depositer that has added automation to handle a wide range of products from heavy as well as highly aerated types of masses – think cereal bars. The addition of pressure sensors allows product to be continuously pumped to the line without compressing and de-aerating the product. The double-head depositer replaced an exhaustive, manual process to deposit truffle center masses upstream of the enrober.
"In the past, you might have to reformulate the product," Cote says, "and now you don't have to go through those gyrations." This double-head depositer not only solved the truffle problem, "but also gave [the plant] the ability of doing a double-layer type of product, like a nougat base with a caramel layer on top of it."
Sollich North America, Tampa, Fla., installed much of the equipment used at Chuao, as well as many of the industry's biggest plants. The basic technology is often common to both – technology investment is often a matter of scale.
"Right now expenditures are very strong," says Bob Limburg, Sollich's managing partner, especially among the larger companies, "where a lot of the drive is for production efficiency, a way they can make their business more profitable." He cites the perennial need to control weight tolerances in order to minimize product giveaway -- "which is significant; any time you can that, it's money in the bank."
For the next big wave, he suggests paying attention to the trade show floor at the upcoming Interpack next May in Düsseldorf, Germany. That triennial trade fair traditionally defines technology development cycles, but Limburg says that cycle isn't set in stone due to the ad-hoc nature of large processors with problems to solve and opportunities to automate.
But Sollich's small customers, like Chuao Chocolatier, "aren't thinking about how to take 10,000 pieces up to 10 million pieces." They just want to keep their artisan businesses running efficiently and growing, which requires the occasional capital expenditure.