They say one shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, but the Seroogy family does it every day-and has for the past 109 years-because for them, business begets pleasure.
Having emigrated from Lebanon in 1893, the Seroogy family landed in the Green Bay, Wis. area to take advantage of job opportunities at the paper mills. In 1899, brothers Jim, Joe and Sol earned enough money to open their own ice cream shop, which soon turned into a candy store featuring fudges, caramels and other Seroogy originals.
Grandsons of co-founder Joe Seroogy, Jim and Joe spent their childhoods around chocolate. Today, the brothers are the co-owners of the company; however, they weren’t always part of the industry. When Jim and Joe graduated from college, they decided to pursue different careers. Joe became a music teacher in Milwaukee, while Jim worked as a social worker in Brown County. But when the brothers’ father wanted to retire, Jim and Joe gave the family business a second thought.
“Jim and I talked about it and we both decided we would leave our careers and come into the family business,” says Joe.
Today, Seroogy’s Homemade Chocolates stores are among the largest in the Midwest with their primary focus on chocolates. In 1992, Seroogy’s moved its manufacturing and retail operations to its current space, located just outside of Green Bay in De Pere, Wis. The 25,000-sq.-ft. facility is a remodeled supermarket, making it spacious for candy operations and providing plenty of outdoor space for parking. And just across the Fox River, Seroogy’s Chocolates has another retail store. The second store, located in Ashwaubenon, was recently opened in June 2008.
Among the variety of chocolates made in the main facility are meltaways, caramels, snappers, holiday chocolate moulds, boxed chocolates, caramel corn, chocolate bars and fudge. And what better a place to make homemade fudge than in the dairy state? Seroogy’s candy makers use Wisconsin creamery butter and fresh marshmallow to make their chocolate butter fudge.
Additionally, Seroogy’s energizes its chocolate stores with its own roasted coffees. Offered in 17 flavored and unflavored varieties, the coffees are fresh roasted at the De Pere location and brought over to the Ashwaubenon store daily.
Both Seroogy’s retail stores offer a wide variety of gifting options from greeting cards to hard candies to gourmet food items. While retail sales make up more than half of the company’s business, the rest goes to its catalog, Web site and fundraising sales.
Available for any size organization looking to raise money, Seroogy’s offers a minimum 50% profit on its fundraising chocolates and 40% profit on its fundraising coffees.
In addition to helping out the community, “Fundraising has evolved with our business as sort of a strategic move for staffing,” Joe explains. “It has allowed us to keep our experienced production staff busy throughout the year.”
Usually in the confectionery industry, candy makers work about nine months out of the year because there is less of a demand in the summer months. In order to keep workers employed for the entire year, the Seroogy brothers created a third season. “Fundraising season” starts in September, when kids head back to school.
“We decided to create a market for chocolate bars so we can keep the same crew on in the summer months and they will be with us to start Christmas,” Joe says. The idea to focus on homemade chocolate bars for “fundraising season” proved to be a good one.
“We started out with about 5,000 chocolate meltaway bars on an experimental basis more than 20 years ago and we peaked at about 3 million bars,” Joe says. Currently, there are eight different candy bar varieties: Chocolate Meltaway, Chocolate Crisp, Peanut Butter Crisp, Mint Meltaway, Almond Meltaway, Mocha Meltaway, Pure Milk Chocolate and Pure Dark Chocolate.
Although the candy bars’ main purpose is for fundraising, Seroogy’s refuses to sacrifice quality.
“We use the very same chocolate for fundraising items as we do for top-of-the-line gift boxes,” says Marjorie Hitchcock, sales and marketing manager.
And although only one of the bars is made with dark chocolate, Seroogy’s is producing many more dark chocolate products than in the past.
“We offer at least twice as many dark products than we did two years ago,” says Dan Jauquet, plant manager.
“We try to keep up as much as we can with the national trends,” adds Hitchcock.
An ongoing trend, sugar-free, plays a large role in Seroogy’s product portfolio.
“As far as the industry goes, sugar-free is very popular and we have a very good product,” Hitchcock says. Included in the sugar-free category are Seroogy’s homemade sugar-free meltaways and nut clusters, as well as toffee, snappers, creams, caramels, truffles, cherries and jellies from other manufacturers.
Seroogy’s also offers many different holiday chocolates, such as solid chocolate bunnies for Easter and solid chocolate snowmen for the winter holidays. One of the company’s fastest growing products are its ginger thins cookies (purchased from a Swedish cookie manufacturer) dipped in white chocolate. While the combination might seem unusual for many consumers, it’s taken off in the past three years.
“The ginger thins cookies actually did not sell very well until we started sampling them because so many people like milk chocolate more than white,” Jauquet explains. “But when we made the combination and they tried it, they found out it’s just an amazing combination.”
Once the ginger thins cookies in white chocolate began to sell, the company decided to put the broken pieces of the cookies to use as well. The cookie pieces are completely covered in white chocolate and are packaged in 8-oz. containers.
But out of all of these different chocolates, which seems to be local consumers’ favorite? Although there are many, the best seller appears to be snappers.
These more aggressive “turtles,” called “snappers,” offer variety and gourmet appeal in their designs. The snappers are made with dark or milk chocolate, with Seroogy’s homemade caramel and either pecans or cashews. But what makes the snappers different from turtles is that they aren’t completely enrobed in chocolate. The treats are topped off with a chocolate shell to enhance the turtle’s true form.
Seroogy’s also offers homemade snappers totally covered in chocolate at its candy counter, in its catalogs and on its Web site.
Both types of snappers, along with Seroogy’s many varieties of meltaways and other chocolates, are merchandized as boxed chocolates for chocolate lovers and corporations to give as gifts or just to indulge in. Moreover, the packaging for the boxes is a spectacle itself.
Just like the state’s football team, the Green Bay Packers, the main color of Seroogy’s boxes is green, while the company logo (a man riding a bicycle) is gold.
“[Our signature product] is not so much one item, as much as it is the whole thing-the packaging,” Joe says. “When you see the green box with the logo, that’s been our trademark and our signature.”
But the green and gold colors haven’t always appeared on the packaging.
“We’ve always had the man on the bike,” Joe explains. “We did a makeover about 20 years ago where we went with green and gold-when the Packers were starting to look good,” he jokes. But the colors stuck and now the green and gold boxed chocolates are Seroogy’s signature pieces.
In conjunction with the start of professional football, Seroogy’s “kicks off” its fall season with solid fudge footballs covered in milk chocolate. A ball of Seroogy’s homemade fudge is rolled into a football shape and hand-dipped in milk chocolate supplied by Blommer. (Seroogy’s also uses dark chocolate for its products from Wilbur and white chocolate from Clasen Quality Coatings.) Once the “football” has dried, it is double-dipped in milk chocolate. Then a candy maker draws football strings with white chocolate onto the top of the chocolate for a football season treat.
With about 150 employees, Seroogy’s has the power to produce a great amount of candy in a short amount of time. Producing about 500,000 pounds (250 tons) of chocolates annually, the company’s equipment has improved the speed of production while keeping consistent, quality products.
And as for rising commodity prices, “[All you can do is] try to be more efficient in what you’re doing if you can be,” Jauquet says.
“And yet, doing all that without sacrificing the quality of the product, which has made us who we are,” Joe adds.
To make Seroogy’s quality products more efficiently, the brothers brought in an extra Hilliard enrober, a National Equipment Company one-ton chocolate melter, a Campbell (formerly SASIB) candy wrapping machine and a Unifiller one-shot depositor.
“We never use substandard ingredients in our products,” says Brian Mikkelson, controller. “We won’t sacrifice the quality of the product to save a penny.”
In business together for almost thirty years, brothers Jim and Joe have successfully kept the family business alive-and growing.
“When the two of us came into the business, we made it a point to make it grow as much as we could,” says Jim. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Just four short months ago, the Seroogy brothers opened up the aforementioned second retail store in Ashwaubenon, Wis.-about a ten-minute drive from their first location. Situated across from the largest mall in the area and about one mile from the Packers’ Lambeau Field, the new store gets a great amount of retail traffic. Seroogy’s new store, open as of June 2, 2008, carries the same chocolate, coffee and other food products as the main location, but in a slightly smaller space. The De Pere retail store is 4,700-sq.-ft. while the new store is just 200-sq.-ft. short-4,500 sq. ft.
“We make a point that we do our production, our sales and our shipping from the same location,” says Hitchcock. “There’s not a distributor; there’s not a warehouse; there’s nothing in between, so our customer is going to get fresh product that is coming directly from us.”
In addition to bringing in a wider variety of customers in the area, the new location has increased the company’s retail sales 56%. Within the next five to ten years, the company expects sales to keep increasing anywhere between 25-30%.
The brothers also plan to retire in the next few years, which begs the question: Who will take over the business? Although Jim’s son Pete works at the Ashwaubenon store, there is no formal plan for family succession. At this time, the brothers plan to focus on the new store’s growth and go from there.
In doing so, Jim and Joe continue to enjoy their confectionery careers in much the same way their father did.
“My dad never considered people as customers,” Jim says. “They were guests and when they came in there was a welcoming-a social experience.” The current Seroogy brothers keep the business “social” by connecting with customers while keeping the family bond strong.
“[My favorite part about working at Seroogy’s is] working with my brother,” Jim says.
When Joe responded about his favorite part about the job, he laughed, “Besides working with my brother? The crew we have is just excellent and we are reaching the point where we are able to have good people with us so we can step back a little bit. It gives me a good feeling.”
And with a new retail store, experienced employees and quality products, plan on Seroogy’s making that good feeling last.