For Phyllis LeBlanc, hand dipping chocolates at Harbor Sweets meant more than a steady paycheck during her time at Salem State College — it was an exercise in what would become her future.
“I was studying business, so when I started... it was sort of a little microcosm of everything I was studying in business school, and it was interesting to see how those concepts in school translated to the real world,” she says. “I worked in every aspect of the company: in marketing, operations, finance. So, I knew the company very well when I decided to buy it from the founder.”
Thirteen years later, she still relies on her education and business sense. As the current president and ceo of the Salem, Mass. confectioner, LeBlanc oversees the production and development of Harbor Sweets’ nautical treats, including its signature Sweet Sloop, a sailboat-shaped almond butter crunch dipped in white and dark chocolate and chopped pecans.
And while their Sweet Sloops and other handmade, all-natural confections get customers through the door of Harbor Sweets’ waterfront store, LeBlanc knows continuing to provide them with quality reasonably priced sweets is what keeps them coming back.
“People know good value — that’s one of the premises our company was built upon,” LeBlanc says. “When we started out over 35 years ago, chocolates were the kind that you buy in the drug store. We always felt that if you use the best ingredients, packaged it well and presented that product to the consumer at a fair price, they would value the product. That is something that we have continued to do.”
For many premium confectioners like Harbor Sweets, the idea of value — excellence accompanied by fair pricing — is what separates them from an entire range of everyday candy makers. And since 2008’s recession, value has given these confectioners a means to stay afloat in turbulent economic times — and cash-strapped consumers the ability to make worthwhile indulgences.
That strategy seems to be working. The National Association of the Specialty Food Trade’s 2012 report says the specialty candy sector grew 15.5% from 2009 to 2011. Additionally, the sector currently holds 10.6% of the market share with $1.1 billion in sales.
Sales aside, what exactly makes these confections “high quality?” For the chocolate makers at Rogue Confections, their personally designed and hand-printed Belgian chocolate disks and postcards give their customers options that are both delicious and aesthetically pleasing.
“We always strive to use the finest chocolate, and put human attention onto everything,” says Amanda Springer, Rogue’s director of sales and product development. “What we do is not a machine process; everything is done by hand, by human beings, craft people, really. I think that’s the essence of why we are a premium product. We know people are eating this and enjoying it themselves, so we want to put as much care into as we possibly can.”
While Sherri Adler, owner and founder of the New York City-based company, designs the vintage-inspired patterns for Rogues’ chocolates, she also creates the packaging that houses them, which Springer says is crucial to achieving “premium” status.
“Packaging is a huge component of the industry, as we found out through our trials and tribulations,” she says. “It’s really critical to have packaging that’s straightforward, but that also showcases the product and is a beautiful addition to the product that you already have. I think that adds to the luxury factor.”
But to be complete, the product and packaging have to translate to a price that customers can accept, and at $18 for a set of six decorated 0.5-oz.disks or a 7.5-oz. postcard, Springer says Rogue’s creations do just that.
“It’s really an affordable luxury,” she says. “It’s not something you are going to pick up 100,000 of, but it’s a nice little gift or a nice little pick-me-up. I think a lot of people are turning to that rather than buying themselves the flat screen, the new car or the 100,000-sq.-ft. home. I think a lot of people are returning to the littler luxuries, and we’re happy to be a part of that.”
Similar to Rogue Confections, Béquet Confections of Bozeman, Mont., offers handmade, all-natural caramels to customers seeking freshness and flavor innovation.
“That’s always been our goal: to make the best caramel,” says Lyndsey Althans, responsible for Béquet’s manufacturing engineering. “We try to achieve that by holding a high standard in our manufacturing process, how we take care of our customers — just pretty much how we do business.”
Béquet uses real cream and butter and all-natural flavorings to create their butterscotch and apple varieties. But for their espresso and chipotle caramels, Béquet uses powders that could be found among anyone’s kitchen supplies.
And to maintain freshness, Béquet keeps only a week’s supply of caramels in stock. But, some of them are sold in gourmet grocery stores in a section where customers specifically look for convenient, low-cost luxuries — the checkout line.
“The great thing about our product is that it does really well at the cash register,” Althans says. “People buy one caramel for 50 cents on their way out of the grocery store, so even throughout an economic downturn; people are still willing to spend 50 cents for a little piece of heaven.”
Creating confections by hand is only part of the premium equation, however. For chocolatiers such as La Maison du Chocolat, balancing flavor is also an essential element.
“It really is about finding the best flavor in the products, and of course, sourcing the beans is integral,” says Michael Olsen, manager of the Parisian chocolatier’s New York boutique.
La Maison, Olsen says, spends months researching the ingredients it uses and the cocoa beans that will match them. In the Andalousie ganache, for example, La Maison uses criollo cocoa beans from Venezuela and Ecuador to complement a light lemon flavor. The Cannelle ganache, meanwhile, requires stronger cacao to balance the cinnamon flavor.
“The understanding of each chocolate having a different personality, a different realization — that separates a premium or luxury company from an everyday chocolatier,” Olsen says.
Unsurprisingly, La Maison’s intense research and attention to flavor mean premium prices: a half-pound box of either dark of mixed chocolates costs $57. Nevertheless, Olsen says many customers looking for a little pampering visit the store once or twice a week just to buy one chocolate for $2.25.
“It’s important to have the public understand that chocolate is not just something you buy in a drugstore. A lot of our role is as an educator to the public and to make them understand they are paying a little more for our chocolate, but the tradeoff is significant in understanding what it can be.”
Regardless of what it costs, how it’s made or who consumes it, chocolate is something that everyone can appreciate.
“The good thing about chocolate is that it’s one of the things people can enjoy at any level,” Olsen says.
If these confectioners have a say, it will certainly be premium.