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Local chocolate makers mold successful businesses

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 12:02 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Michelle Clark places raisin clusters into their retail box after a fresh batch comes off the conveyor belt at Clark Candies Inc. in Tarentum on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Clark Candies Inc. owner Bob Clark arranges a bow on a large chocolate Santa that is on display among other Christmas candies at Clark Candies Inc. in Tarentum on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
A number of different dark chocolate candies including, but not limited to, cordial cherries and a chocolate covered nut assortment are available at Clark Candies, Inc. in Tarentum on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

If you could produce a product that never loses its luster, is recession-proof and makes everybody happy, you'd be a chocolate candy maker.

This holiday season, Alle-Kiski Valley candy businesses report brisk sales.

Shelves of chocolate-covered Oreo cookies are being stocked on local shelves as well as other delectable items sheathed in chocolate, such as pretzels, potato chips and even bacon.

Bob Clark, owner of Joe Clark's Candies, was sold out of peanut butter meltaways earlier this week, but his operation was busy making more. Clark's Candies has been a family business in Tarentum for 75 years.

Clark has been squeezing in last-minute orders between deliveries and picking up fresh strawberries to dunk in chocolate while assuring customers on the phone that they can still buy stars made of white chocolate.

Clark was momentarily out of raisin clusters and chocolate-covered potato chips on Thursday, but more were made later in the night.

Forever chocolate

With receipts of about $10 billion in candy in 2012 so far in the U.S. — 60 percent of which is chocolate — sales have been sweet for years, powering through the dour economy, according to Susan Smith, senior vice president of communications and outreach for the National Confectioners Association in Washington, D.C.

“Sometimes the products change in what people purchase depending on economics, but our overall enjoyment and love of chocolate remains strong,” she said.

Confectionery sales have increased by 3 percent over the past year, just a smidge down from 2010's bump of 4 percent and 2009's 4.3 percent increase, she said.

“Regional companies do well in the holidays, and confections and chocolate are such a part of our tradition and what we remember during our childhood,” Smith said.

“There's a lot of regional loyalty, and the holidays are big time of year for the regional companies and for good reason.”

The constant demand for chocolate candy is matched by the number of independent candy makers, according to Denise Alvarez, marketing manager for the Retail Confectioners International in Springfield, Mo.

Membership in the trade association has been growing by 3 percent to 4 percent in numbers of chocolate and candy-making retailers over the past year, she said.

Members are family businesses still going since the 1930s and upstarts entering the market.

“In the last few years, you heard: ‘I lost my job'; or, ‘I always wanted to make candy,' ” she said.

Modern chocolate

Why just limit yourself to just pecan clusters when chipotle chocolate candy could be just as interesting to the palate?

With controlled excess, the possibilities of what can be coated and marketed with chocolate seems endless.

Salty and sweet combinations such as chocolate-covered pretzels and potato chips are the trend now.

More dark chocolate confections are filling shelves.

Some candy makers are going more natural, using organic ingredients and additives such as natural juices to use for color instead of chemicals, according to Alvarez.

With concerns about health and the medicinal benefits of dark chocolate, more people are asking for it.

According to an NPD market research “snack track” study in 2010, milk chocolate is consumed at a higher percentage than dark chocolate; however adults 35 or older prefer dark chocolate and that number is growing.

But tradition has its place as well.

“A lot of older people come in they got to have their cordial cherries, pecan turtles and yule log,” said Clark.

“They got to have it.

“But the younger generation looks at it a little differently,” he said.

“Maybe they like the dark chocolate and they're looking for a better presentation. Us older guys, just give me the box of turtles.”

Boutique candy stores have been banking on presentation and new twists on traditions.

Sure Bella Christie & Lil' Z's Sweet Boutique in Aspinwall, which is barely 2-years-old, makes and sells gourmet chocolate.

But the shop does more: They hand paint their raspberry Chambord truffles and other candies.

They dust their bon bons with edible glitter. And they custom monogram their chocolate-covered Oreos.

They cast a lot of their candy into whimsical shapes: Violins, the Eiffel Tower, a Christmas sleigh and then hand-paint them.

“We create very personalized gourmet baked goods and candy,” said Jennie Vidt'elliott, one of Bella Christie's managers.

“Chocolate is a great medium to create something personalized,” she said. “and it's not limited when we use chocolate.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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