Chocolate Manufacturers Satisfy Those Cravings

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – One of the secrets of successful chocolate manufacturing in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys is finding that sweet spot – that balance between automation and the handcrafted production that preserves the flavor and local identity.

“Technology has improved, but there’s still that handmade, homemade process,” says Angela Miller, vice president of marketing and business development at Gorant Chocolatier Inc. in Boardman. “We want to maintain the integrity of the Gorant recipe.”

Gorant Chocolatier, Daffin’s Candies in Sharon, Pa., and PMG Chocolatier in Niles, all satisfy the region’s sweet tooth by processing thousands of pounds of chocolate into hundreds of products every day, and then packaging a large variety of candies and treats for all occasions.

Production lines hum as manufacturers gear up for their busiest seasons: Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter.

At the Gorant production plant along Market Street in Boardman, workers are busy coating and creating several products simultaneously – some for the Gorant brand, others for private labels that contract with the factory to produce their chocolates.

The growing business in the private label segment convinced Gorant to invest in a new, higher speed molding line to meet demand among clients such as Trader Joe’s, Skinny Me and other contract customers, Miller says. The production complex manufactures candy for about a dozen private-brand names.

“We have three main private labels that are national,” Miller says, while the others are regional customers who want to break into the national market. “We’re seeing on the private label end the need to step up the production process. They want it fast,” she says. “So we’re introducing new equipment to keep up with that trend.”

Among the private labels that have really taken off is Skinny Me, a dark chocolate confection flavored with the natural sweetener Stevia instead of sugar, Miller says. “There’s a trend gravitating toward snacks that are more healthy for you,” she says. “It’s very good for those who are concerned about weight loss or diabetes.”

Gorant’s production plant operates two enrobing lines – one that produces its brand of chocolates and the other used to manufacture chocolates for private labels, Miller says. The enrobing lines are essentially long conveyor systems in which chocolate is automatically coated on snacks such as pretzels, nuts or graham crackers.

At Gorant, line workers place Oreo Mini cookies through the process. As the bite-sized snacks move down the line, they pass beneath the enrober, which automatically dispenses chocolate atop each while simultaneously pumping chocolate from the bottom through a wire mesh, so the entire product is coated.

Throughout the process, the chocolate must be maintained at a constant temperature to maintain consistency, Miller explains. “That’s super important. It has to be closely monitored at all times,” she says.

Then, the candies move through a long cooling line are coated once more, and then cooled again so they can be prepared for packaging.

Chocolate for the Gorant brand is pumped into the enrobing lines directly from tanks in another room – chocolate for its private brands is purchased specifically for those products and is melted and stored in smaller tanks, Miller says.

Still, Miller says there is plenty of handwork done with the Gorant brand, including some manually added décor, inspection and packaging.

Pictured: Kathy Beaudis packages Gorant’s chocolates, including those destined to be gifts.

Meanwhile, other chocolate manufacturers across the region also are gearing up for the coming holiday season.

“We’re in full Christmas production right now,” reports Connie Leon, retail manager at Daffin’s Candies, based in Sharon, Pa. The chocolatier also operates a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Farrell, Pa. The company has retail outlets in Sharon, Greenville, and Franklin, Pa., and another in the Eastwood Mall in Niles.

Leon says production usually ramps up at the end of August and continues through Easter before it starts to slow down during the summer months. “We do a huge volume of box chocolates during the holidays,” she says. “There’s such a wide variety.”

The Daffin’s Candies production factory consists of two enrobing lines, a molding line and a newly installed line devoted entirely to manufacturing candy bars, Leon says. “The molding line is for bunnies [during the Easter season],” she says. “We manufacture a lot of chocolate bunnies.”

And, the company produces popular treats such as chocolate-covered pretzels, pecan tootles and melt-away chocolates, Leon says. “We’re selling a lot of chocolate-covered pretzels, both small and large.”

Among the newest additions to Daffin’s line is a pretzel candy bar, which Leon says has become a favorite in this region. “It’s become really popular,” she says. Other big sellers are sea salt caramel candies, and this Easter, Daffin’s sea-salt caramel egg will make its debut.

Dark chocolate products are also gaining ground in the market, Leon says, as more customers gravitate toward more healthful options for their snacks. “We stay true to our chocolate,” she says.

What is unique about this industry is that every manufacturer has its own chocolate recipes that are registered and trademarked, observes Ed Ridenbaugh, executive vice president at PMG Chocolatier in Niles.

Compared to Gorant and Daffin’s, PMG is a small manufacturer. The company operates one 16-foot enrobing line in Niles where it employs three. Its process is pretty much the same, just on a smaller scale, as the major chocolate factories in the area.

“These are our own recipes,” Ridenbaugh says. The chocolate is mixed from a supplier in California and sent to PMG in 50-pound cases of five 10-pound blocks. The chocolate is then melted in a small vat at the base of the enrober, then fed through a chain into the unit. All the while, the chocolate is tempered (maintained) at 87 degrees while the products – in this case, graham crackers – move slowly down the line and are coated.

“If it’s not tempered properly, coconut oil will rise to the top and give it a white color,” Ridenbaugh explains.

Once the chocolate is coated, the line automatically shakes off any excess and reduces the chocolate to its desired thickness, he continues. As at the larger factories, the chocolate-covered graham crackers move through a cooling tunnel so the chocolate can solidify before the grahams are packaged.

“We usually produce about 500 pounds of chocolate a day,” he says, but has on certain occasions processed more than 1,000 pounds. “If we get a big order for Valentine’s Day or Sweetest Day, we’ll be running all day,” Ridenbaugh says.

Orders are already trickling in for Easter, and PMG’s Christmas production is more than 75% finished. “After the first of the year, we’ll be getting ready for Valentine’s Day and Easter,” he says.

Pictured at top: Gorant Chocolatier starts making holiday candies, shown by Amy Pinkle, in August.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.