Confectioners Returning to Their Chocolate Roots

Michael Antonorsi and other micro confectionery stars help the industry giants remain chocolatiers, not just candy factories.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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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 Firecracker Chocolate Bar
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.

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