A 'Birnn' Desire: An inside look at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont, and the family that runs it
Fourth-generation family member Julia Birnn Fields and her husband Mel take over from famed confectioners Jeff and Bill Birnn, anxious to usher in the famed Vermont-based chocolatier into the next centennial.
It was definitely a “dad" question, she recalls. Her father, Jeff Birnn, co-owner with Uncle Bill Birnn of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont in South Burlington, Vt., posed a simple query back in the summer of 2010.
“What’s your plan?” he asked.
Taken slightly aback, Birnn Fields responded truthfully, “I’m living it.” Having passed her teacher certification exams, she was actively looking for a permanent position in Vermont. Moreover, husband-to-be Mel Fields and Julia were in the midst of planning their lives and future together.
Dads, nonetheless, can be a persistent sort. “Would you be interested in coming into the business?” Jeff asked.
“I never thought it would be my path,” she tells Candy Industry Magazine. Naturally, she had grown up in the business, helping out during summers and school breaks. But that was a family thing; here was a life choice. At the same time, Julia didn’t want to wonder down that “what if” road several years later.
“I wanted to explore it, and see what running the business would mean,” Julia adds. In addition, there was this Mel guy. After all, both of them had promised each other that whatever career they chose, they would do so together. Both had just recently managed a restaurant and earlier had been caretakers of a private island on Lake Champlain. Working side-by-side proved to be a good fit.
Upon being broached on the subject, Mel wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the proposal.
“I didn’t think that this was what we were going to do; I wasn’t exactly in favor of it,” he says. “Moreover, I knew how close she was to her father and uncle. I didn’t want anything [such as working in the business] to spoil that relationship.”
Then there was the issue of Julia and Mel joining the business as a team.
“It was going to be both of us or none of us,” Julia says.
Fortunately, Mel had already scored several kudos with Jeff and Bill by handling a demolition and rebuild project for the two chocolatiers.
“They had acquired an additional section in a nearby building that summer as part of an expansion,” he says. The previous tenants were involved in mixing custom drywall finishes, requiring specialized rooms. All in all, the space was, well, quite messy.
“It definitely wasn’t ready to become a food facility.”
Having received a quote from a local contractor regarding demolition and rebuild, Jeff and Bill turned to Mel — at Julia’s suggestion — for a second opinion.
“I told them that I could do it for half the price and in less time,” he says. As it turned out, Mel finished the project on time and on budget. He did have some help, however; Julia helped him paint the entire facility.
Thus, when Julia announced that for her to join the business, Mel had to be part of the package, neither Jeff nor Bill hesitated. Both were welcomed with open arms.
Nonetheless, determining how to use these two bright and energetic individuals auspiciously would take a little doing. One thing, however, was clear; they would learn the business from the bottom up.
“We started packing boxes in November,” a bearded Mel says with a smile. “We worked day in, day out. And I wore a beard net every day. We were also put on the production line, learned our shipping process, worked in the kitchen, and swept/mopped/took out the trash. Whatever needed to get done!
“And we wanted to learn from the best, the employees who have been there. This seemed to earn us a certain respect among the longtime workforce. We went in as students not as principals.”
He also happened to eat 12 truffles that day, a Lucille Ball kind of moment. Mel skipped dinner that night, a bit full on chocolate. After that, it was a question of where the needs were, and who had the skills to address those needs.
“My dad and uncle were having some computer problems, so I told them that Mel can fix computers,” Julia says. “He’s also good with machines, meaning he can repair them. He’d stay up all night reading a manual about a European machine and then tackle it the next morning.”
Well, as she explains, “I migrated to the office, where I had worked before. I wound up doing customer service. I am a people person and started asking our customers what they were looking for. As a result, we designed a new box. We also began to do more marketing, sending out postcards and e-mailing our customers.”
In short order, Julia took on the front end of the business while Mel’s forte involved the production end.
“Be it human resources, marketing or increasing employee/company moral, I focused on our current processes throughout the company and tried to figure out how we could make them better,” Julia explains.
A year passed and the two decided it was a good time to regroup and reassess their involvement in the business. First, Julia and Mel determined it was critical that they get through the holiday season. And upon having survived the first year, it seemed appropriate to continue the experiment, for at least another year, two, maybe even five.
“Bill and Jeff were taking a step back from the business, doing more skiing,” Julia says. “And we were getting more and more involved. At times, you’d wonder what you did all day. But then you realized that you did whatever had to get done that day.”
That involvement certainly brought some bumps along the way, particularly when the brothers returned from their trips and reinjected their management style alongside Julia’s and Mel’s directives.
“Occasionally, it was a case of having too many chefs in the kitchen,” Julia says. None of those bumps, however, brought about any derailments. The experiment was quickly transforming into a transition.
Thus, in 2013, conversations began about the handover. Were Julia and Mel in or out?
“First, there was a question of whether this was financially feasible?” says Mel. “If so, how can we do this? Should it be a buyout or transitioning the change over time?”
Upon discussing this with a consultant — and finding out there were about 200 different ways to handle the matter — the group simply took their time to assess what would work best.
“It took well over a year,” Mel says. Although Julia and her husband didn’t share details with Candy Industry about the transition, the two did reveal that Jeff and Bill have remained on as consultants to the business. Their official “retirement” happened at the Philly Candy Show last September, a fitting closure to the company’s centennial celebration.
And while most customers haven’t noticed any perceptible changes, it’s definitely a “Julia and Mel” run operation at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont. Though all still miss Jeff and Bill’s presence, Julia points out that everyone realized that the brothers were committed to making their exit. In fact, they had been talking about it for several years now.
“In the end, the company has been in the business for 100 years, and customers really appreciate the fact that the fourth generation is taking over,” Julia says. As far as those special customer relationships that were forged by her father and uncle over the years, Julia says technology helps in situations whereby customers refer to “special handling” provided by Jeff or Bill.
“I can text them to find out what exactly was involved,” she says. “In the end, they’re all very respectful, knowing it is staying in the family. They feel safe. People miss their interaction with Jeff and Bill, but when it comes to business transactions, there have been no major issues or miscommunication.”
And that remains a key goal for the new owners. Both look to maintain that same high level of service and quality that Birnn Chocolates of Vermont is known for.
“We’re very tried and true,” Julia says.
“Call us classic and dependable,” adds Mel.
Thus, the company continues to offer truffles in bite and dessert sizes (0.5 and 1.5 oz.) in milk, dark and white chocolates with 20 different centers. Customers can also select 12 different flavors amongst the Artisan Truffle line, which features standard as well as customized designs. Truffles are also available in twist- and foil-wrapped applications. In all, customers can choose from more than 150 varieties of truffles.
And while the truffle production process has not changed dramatically since Candy Industry’s last visit more than 10 years ago, ongoing improvements have continued to improve quality while boosting efficiencies and cost savings.
Thanks to two expansions, one in 2005 and the second one in 2010, Birnn Chocolates occupies 22,000 sq. ft. of space in a South Burlington, Vt. industrial park. Twenty employees — working one 8-hour daytime shift — turn out hundreds of thousands of truffles yearly.
The ganaches and centers for the truffles are made in a Stephan vacuum mixer, using heavy cream from Monument Farms dairy in nearby Weybridge, Vt. Two one-shot Awema depositors create the filled truffles, which undergo a curing process that helps complete the tempering cycle in a cold room before they’re moved to a holding area to await enrobing and hand decorating.
Three dedicated A.E. Nielsen (now Aasted) enrobers handle the enrobing of dark, milk and white chocolate. As Mel explains, the luxury of having dedicated lines enables the company to cut down on cleanup and product changeovers.
Reducing costs and improving efficiencies remains top of mind for Julia and Mel, particularly since the company has held back from raising prices, despite the double-digit increases in ingredients as well as price jumps in packaging and other materials.
“We’re focused on keeping our bottom line healthy so we can ensure the business is sustainable,” asserts Mel. Part of that effort revolves around maximizing efficiencies and reducing costs.
“We’re finding cost savings in the oddest places,” he says. Take the company’s famed cow-spot cartons, which featured a white cardboard background and black cow spots. Today, the company uses recyclable brown cardboard stock and soy ink instead of chemical inks. The result: a 20 percent reduction in carton costs.
Add a switch from virgin to recycled polystyrene foam, which is used in insulating the chocolates during shipping, and the savings quickly add up. As Mel points out, “Using post-consumer Styrofoam, which again cut our costs, is also more environmentally friendly, and even provides better protection for our product — a win on every side.”
The couple also looked for savings from their suppliers.
“For example, I asked one of our suppliers, ‘How can we be your best customer?’” Mel explains. The answer, it turns out, was to order in truckloads, which would streamline deliveries to the company and subsequently lower transportation costs.
“By looking at volume discounts, we can negotiate with vendors to save on shipping,” he says. “It’s all about finding those little things.”
But it’s not just about cutting costs; there’s also the challenge of growing the business. For the past four years, the company has posted steady and solid sales gains. However, Julia and Mel would like to amplify that growth rate.
“We’re excited about working aggressively with our existing customer base,” Mel says. We’ve seen growth in our Artisan Line, specifically within the seasonal and custom segments.”
And the couple hopes to expand their customer base.
“We’ve definitely seen an interest in more natural, organic products,” Mel adds. “And we’re moving in that direction.
Julia and Mel’s plan for the future involves reinvesting in new production equipment, which would allow them to use their existing equipment as a pilot line for an all-natural or organic launch. This would enable them to test the market and verify how large the demand is for such products.
In the interim, they’re going to zero in on improving a legacy that customers know and appreciate. Part of that effort involves updating the back office and the computer systems on hand.
“We will always have a person answering our phones,” Mel says. “But in today’s world, many people do their ordering late at night over the internet. We want to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for them to do so on our website.”
It’s a matter of streamlining the workflow so orders and scheduling mesh as seamlessly as possible, a process Mel believes will be completed before November. It’s all part of the plan, one that Jeff asked Julia about five years ago.
For Julia and Mel, it’s pretty simple; their plan is to simply make Birnn Chocolates of Vermont even better than it is.