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Customers warm to locally made hot drinks

| Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Ron Morrone dons a face mask and latex gloves and goes to work.

No, he's not a bank robber, home invader or a safe cracker, Morrone, 45, of Harmar is co-owner of a home-based business, Ron & Frank's, makers of gourmet hot drink mixes.

With gloves and mask in place, Morrone scoops sugar, instant pudding, nonfat dry milk powder, chocolate powder and a myriad other ingredients into a huge aluminum bowl, then tumbles and mixes those ingredients by hand to produce assorted flavors of Ron & Frank's Hot Chocolate, Chai (tea) or Cappuccino.

Morrone and his brother, Frank Morrone of Fawn, didn't start out to establish a cottage industry. "About a year and a half ago, my brother decided to sell hot chocolate made by a guy in Tennessee. Frank needed help and I found out I was good at selling things," Morrone says. "He would go to craft shows and set up and I would help him. We would give out samples."

But the brothers had difficulty getting the product, so Ron Morrone had a brainstorm. "I thought, this is silly. I'm fairly good with cooking, and I looked at the ingredients and thought I could do better. I started tinkering with the recipe and different ingredients to try to make a better hot chocolate.

"The guy sold forty thousand pounds in boxes and made a living at it and I thought there might be something in this. And I knew I could make a better package and product," says Morrone, a former insurance company auditor, who also worked in real estate and has a bachelor's degree in accounting and business.

From October 2001 to May 2002, Morrone worked one or two hours each night on a formula for hot chocolate. "I kept at it and it got a little better, but I still was not happy. Then I came up with a couple of ingredients, instant pudding and real chocolate powder in addition to cocoa powder. When I tasted it, I thought I'd never tasted better than this and I called my brother," says Morrone, who was convinced he had a winner.

Still, Morrone wanted to be sure this chocolate mix recipe was a keeper so he sampled other products. "I went to supermarkets and gourmet stores and bought samples to see what people called 'good,' and I didn't find one that was better than mine, regardless of the price. Some of them are $15 a pound," he says.

All of a sudden, Morrone had a viable product. But he had to have a place to make it —and it had to be close to his Harmar home because Morrone is caretaker for his mother. So the brothers revamped their grandfather's former apartment which was attached to Morrone's home. "It was small, but just big enough -- and the price was right. We painted and put in new flooring and it was inspected by the Allegheny County Health Department for a home-based business," he says.

Soon, Morrone was up and running -- literally and figuratively. As a one-man show, he measures, scoops, mixes, fills, seals markets and delivers his products.

"The days are long, but I am not working for someone else. I have no employees. I mix everything in quantities of twenty cans at a time," he says, noting supplies such as sugar, cocoa powder and powdered milk are purchased from baking supply companies. Other ingredients, such as spices, are shipped.

Morrone wanted a nice professional-looking container for Ron & Frank's Hot Chocolate, unlike the plain unadorned boxes in which the Tennessee product was sold. "I put it in a nice can with a scoop and a resealable top," Morrone says. He also had labels designed by Buhl Brothers Printing in New Kensington.

The brothers began marketing their product at craft shows such as Penn's Colony, near Saxonburg, and quickly sold out of product -- and ran out of cans in which to market it, as well. "The second week, we sold out. We didn't think we would go through a thousand cans so quickly. We had a show set up, so we went to the store and bought Ziploc bags and put our stickers on them and we sold out using those," he says. "I told my brother, 'I think this stuff will sell out in paper bags,'" he says, laughing.

Making the drink mixes has become a full-time job for Morrone. "On a roll, I can make like six cases of, let's say milk chocolate --124 cans -- at a time. Once the batches are made, I manually scoop one pound into each can, then I put a plastic scoop in each can," he says. The can then is put in a 50-year-old can seamer machine "that smooshes the metal rim to the can," he says. For a finished look, Morrone applies a label to each can by hand.

Ron & Frank's Hot chocolate is available in 10 flavors, including milk, white, dark, hazelnut, caramel, raspberry, mint truffle, coffee and cream liqueur, strawberries and cream and in the fall, pumpkin pie spice.

Also available is cappuccino in many of the same flavors, plus French vanilla.

Chai was the third drink mix added to the line. "At Penn's Colony people asked if we had chai," Morrone says. "So, I researched it on the Internet and I started fooling around with spices and came up with a mixture with a creamy base. I bought some of the lead brands and, again, mine tasted better.

"I can't make enough of it," Morrone says. "To go from not knowing what a product is to going within a week to having the product on store shelves is amazing," he says.

Chai comes in just one flavor -- spice, actually a blend of seven spices. Soon raspberry and orange chai will be available, he says.

Morrone also is working on sugar-free products. He wants to get the perfect blend, he says. "I've been working since January on no-sugar-added products. People are begging me. I don't want it to be just OK. It will probably be made with Splenda. I try to use the best ingredients I can find," he says.

The addition of a sugar-free line will be welcome. The chai, for instance, carries a caloric load of 180 calories per 10- to 12-fluid ounce cup. with 3.5 grams of fat. Nutritional analysis for each product was done by a niece, Nicol Morrone of Aspinwall, a registered dietitian.

Those who have tried his products are glad he goes the extra mile to find the perfect ingredients. Jenny Mariani of Springdale Township has sampled both cappuccino and hot chocolate products. "They are very good. The flavor is different. The drink has a different consistency ( from other commercial mixes) and a richer taste,' she says. "I like the strawberries and cream hot chocolate, but there are a lot of flavors I haven't tried."

Magdalen Neal, owner of Herbal Soul in Springdale, savors Morrone's hot chocolate and chai so much she serves them to customers. "I think it is a higher-quality product, not run-of-the-mill stuff you buy at the supermarket. His formulation is put together with his heart and soul. He has a fantastic product. The chai is my favorite and the one I sell the most of," Neal says.

Linda Vorp of Harrison, owner of Cheswick Floral, also sells Morrone's products. "The chai is really rich and creamy. When you hear tea, you expect crisp flavor. But this is more creamy as opposed to crisp. And I love the hot chocolate -- the dark," she says.

But Sue Price of Plum, who has sampled all of the hot chocolate flavors, prefers the milk chocolate. "I think it is really good. It seems to have a better chocolate taste. I've always used hot chocolate packets and this seems a lot better to me," she adds.

Morrone hopes his products become indispensable to consumers, though it will necessitate moving to larger manufacturing quarters with temperature-controlled warehouse storage. "Most of my business is in fall and winter, but chai and cappuccino sell well enough in summer so I can make it year round. You can mix them warm, then blend them with ice or refrigerate. People don't stop drinking tea because it's summer. I hope to have enough business to carry me year round.

"Real soon, maybe within the next year, I can make a modest living at this. The more cans I make, the more money I'll make," he says.

But Morrone still wants to keep it small. "It is simpler without having employees. I can make sure what goes into every can. When you employ a bunch of kids working for minimum wage, it's easy to screw up. If anyone is going to screw up here, it's going to be me." Additional Information:

Where to buy it

Ron & Frank's Hot Chocolate, Chai and Cappuccino sell for $7 per 1-pound can or $18 for three cans. They are available in the Valley at Candy Boutique, Lower Burrell; Cheswick Floral; Herbal Soul, Springdale; Myrna's Brewery, New Kensington; and Risch's Market, Buffalo Township. And also at McGinnis Sisters, Monroeville and South Hills and Shadyside Market. The products also are available by mail at three cans for $18, plus shipping and handling. Call 724-274-8642 to order.

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