Morkes Chocolates: A third-generation candy maker works to stay competitive.
Rhonda continues to “mix” old-fashioned quality with the latest food and pop trends to sustain a family business in a competitive climate.
Rhonda Dehn always had a head for figures. Thus, when asked to work Saturdays at the family’s retail candy shop in Palatine, Ill., there were no issues when it came to computing sales taxes on purchases or giving out change.
“We didn’t have any computers back then , so I had to figure out the sales tax in my head,” says the owner of Morkes Chocolates. Instead, what Dehn received — as a sixth grader — was an introduction to the family business.
It was her grandfather, Bill Morkes, a former Nabisco cookie salesman, who founded the business. It was 1920 when he decided to strike out on his own, opening a confectionery shop on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Decades of success turned into a dilemma as urban upheavals in the 1960s transformed a once thriving commercial center into a war zone.
The deterioration that followed quickly dried up business prospects so William Morkes Jr., Bill’s son or Billy as he was known, started searching for another business location. A newspaper colleague told the confectioner that he should go to the northwest suburbs because that’s where the growth was going to be.
“So my dad and my uncle found a building they could afford in Palatine,” Dehn says. “It was surrounded by cow farms, but it was on the road people took to go to the Lakes [Fox Lake, Chain o’ Lakes]. Their idea was to sell caramel apples as a fundraiser.”
Gradually, the business expanded to include other confectionery items, drawing upon grandfather Morkes’ recipes. It was then that Dehn, the youngest of seven children, started working in the family business.
That early introduction into confectionery retailing resurfaced when her oldest brother asked for her help during Christmas in 1988; he having purchased the business from his father and uncle. Shortly thereafter, Rhonda was asked whether she was interested in taking over the reins.
“I had just graduated from college with a dance degree, but as you can imagine, work was spotty in that field,” she says. The dancer now turned entrepreneur found herself following her grandfather and father’s footsteps, learning the craft as well as the business.
“It was a challenge to learn everything,” she admits. “But since I didn’t live large, I really didn’t have any major demands.”
Slowly, the business began to grow, each holiday the volume increasing. It was proving to be successful, but at a cost.
“After 10 years of growing the business profitably, I wanted out,” she says. “I was doing everything and became burnt out. I wanted to run away.”
Despite that urge, Dehn wasn’t really “passionate” about selling the business. Nonetheless, she did realize that it was critical for her to shed some responsibilities.
“But it’s not easy to relinquish roles,” she explains. “You have to delegate with trust. Nonetheless, you still have to watch, to teach.”
It proved fortuitous for Dehn and the business. By 1995, Morkes Chocolates had outgrown its 5,000-sq.-ft. shop and production center. The candy maker turned entrepreneur acquired a 3,000-sq.-ft. facility in Lake Zurich, Ill., in an industrial center.
In doing so, Dehn was able to dedicate chocolate moulding and baking operations in Palatine while having all remaining candy production, such as toffees brittles, nougats, marshmallows and enrobing done in Lake Zurich. In addition, caramel apples were also being produced there.
The move not only allowed Dehn to expand her involvement in baking — the company had produced donuts under her father and brother — it also allowed her to expand her candy-making parties.
“I started doing them 25 years ago,” she says. “Since I’m a hands-on person, I thought children would be interested in making a chocolate pizza, creating a moulded piece of chocolate, dipping a pretzel in chocolate, those kinds of activities.”
That idea has certainly caught on. Last year, the company saw 60,000 children get involved with candy making at Morkes Chocolates. In addition to parties, the company also offers “candy camps,” which are more instructional in nature.
Dehn’s desire to grow the business prompted her to open a second retail store in Algonquin, Ill.
“At the time , the strip mall was 70 percent occupied,” she says. “When we finished our build-out, it was 30 percent occupied.”
As expected, the slow pace of recovery after the Great Recession of 2008 didn’t help matters, and maintaining a second store proved to be a drain on the business.
“It’s been a tough four to five years,” Dehn admits. Fortunately, she’s been able to work out a licensing agreement with the store manager, someone Dehn’s known for a long time, and has transformed the location into a distribution point for Morkes Chocolates.
“We made the best out of a bad situation,” she says.
Moreover, that learning experience hasn’t stopped Dehn from fine-tuning the core business.
“My focus is to keep getting better at what we do,” she says. And what Morkes Chocolates does well are chocolates and confections made with natural, high quality ingredients. Thus, one can find classics such as English toffees and liquor-infused truffles, custom-moulded chocolates, donuts and strudels, and, oh yes, caramel apples.
This summer, the company just launched its new line of Classic Chocolate bars, which feature “true centers,” Dehn says.
“Most chocolate bars today have bits and pieces of ingredients in them, more like barks,” she explains. “Ours are moulded with center fillings.”
The company also looks to expand its presence in the ad specialty industry, where custom-designed chocolate products are often desired, be they corporate logos or symbols. She also sees website sales growing. And although it still represents a small percentage for the company’s overall revenues, Dehn says her website sales grew by 50 percent last year.
“What I’ve found is that people are looking for unique stuff,” she says. “For example, we produce a moulded chocolate hand, an anatomically correct heart, a chocolate snake and an Oscar-like statuette that’s dusted in gold-colored powdered sugar.”
Moreover, there seems to be no end to Dehn’s creativity. For example, on Mother’s Day, Morkes Chocolates offered a wine and chocolate pairing featuring three reds and one white red, all of which were accompanied by the appropriate sweet.
“I started doing wine and chocolate pairing about 15 years ago,” she explains. “There’s something about that ‘aha’ moment when you’re able to blend a wine with a chocolate. What we do is cut our chocolates into little bits, and offer plenty of wine. People love it; we had about 100 people in our store.”
The wine and chocolate pairing also allows Dehn to help a good cause.
“We go through a group called Wines for Humanity, which donates a portion of the proceeds to local charities that help women’s causes,” she adds.
Given the success that Dehn has had with wine pairings, she sees additional opportunities at the retail store, one that involves expanding the shop into a café.
“I’d like to start serving appetizers, which means moving some display cases to open up the area and provide more seating,” she explains. “I also want to open up our rooftop so we could have outdoor seating from Easter through the fall.”
The move would coincide with the expansion of Morkes Chocolates bakery line — “I’d start by adding cakes” — as well as small meals, such as sliders, salads, etc.
All of these projects tie in with Dehn’s underlying theme, which is top-end quality.
“Whatever we make, we want it to be the best that we can make it,” she says.
Now that’s a melody customers will appreciate and even dance to.