Even at its inception Ethel M Chocolates was a brand steeped in tradition.
Forrest Mars Sr. launched Mars, Inc.’s premium chocolate division in Henderson, Nev. in 1981, inspired by the fresh, small-batch chocolates his mother, Ethel, made in her own kitchen. Known for its satin crèmes and crème liqueurs, Ethel M built a following of devotees in Henderson, located about 10 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and in the U.S. Southwest.
But hand-made, preservative-free chocolates aren’t Ethel M’s only draw. Taking advantage of its desert clime, Ethel M also developed a 3-acre cactus garden — Nevada’s largest — on the company grounds, attracting visitors to observe its more than 300 unique species and to take part in annual Christmas lighting ceremonies. The company’s 24th garden lighting is set for later this month, and undoubtedly, will be attended by customers who witnessed the first 23.
“That’s passion,” said Stu Haack, Ethel M’s marketing and public relations manager. “That’s people who have fallen in love with this brand, not just for the chocolate — obviously they love the chocolate — but they also love our traditions.”
Nonetheless, it was time for a change, Haack said. He noted the brand, while still premium, had seen “ups and downs” over its three-decade history and, as a result, needed to redefine itself.
“We needed a way to find to communicate that through our factory experience, through our packaging,” Haack said. “Our chocolate has always been top notch. How do we bring it to life in all the different touch points for customers?”
At-a-Glance: Ethel M Chocolates
Headquarters: Henderson, Nev.
Products: Chocolates, chocolate bars, chocolate-covered nuts, caramels, pecan brittle.
Management team: Oren Young, general manager; Mark Mackey, head chocolatier; Stu Haack, marketing manager and public relations manager; Viviana Dickeson, store director; Damien Weaver, plant manager; Dagmar Musilova, cfo; and Annette Burger, operations specialist.
Ethel M’s 7,500-sq.-ft. factory store was the perfect place to start. Haack, who joined the company in 2014, said the original layout and decor, while delivering the messages of “premium” and “quality,” didn’t quite match the company’s products.
“It had almost an older feel of traditional premium. But we’re a fresh brand in the sense that we’re preservative-free; we’re made using solar energy,” he said, referring to the 4.4-acre solar garden that generates the factory’s daytime electricity supply. “We wanted to bring that freshness to life.”
After a couple years of planning and design, Ethel M began the multimillion-dollar facelift in July 2016. During the three months the factory store was under renovation, Ethel M put up a 2,400-sq.-ft. tent that had access to a full retail line and a private tasting room. Two air conditioning units kept the tent at 68 degrees, cool enough to keep chocolate from melting in the 110-degree temperatures brought on by the Nevada desert.
Renovations wrapped in October 2016, and so far, the response has been positive, said Store Director Viviana Dickieson, who joined Ethel M a year ago with 30 years of experience-based retail at theme parks and casinos under her belt.
“Retail these days is all about interactive guest experiences, really engaging the guest in a brick-and-mortar store and really living the experience for the brand there,” she said.
And that’s exactly what Ethel M has created. Pairing light green with chocolate brown and using light wood throughout, the store has an open, fresh atmosphere. Visitors first encounter a demonstration station where employees hand-dip pretzels, marshmallows and strawberries.
Ethel M also incorporated a tasting room, where visitors learn the company’s history, as well as how cocoa is grown and harvested and how that affects its flavor. Before heading into the retail store, visitors walk by the production area, visible through glass panels.
The experience has proved popular among tour companies, with multiple buses pulling up to the factory store each day. As soon as Candy Industry arrived in late September, two buses unloaded dozens of visitors looking to stretch their legs and find something sweet to eat.
Dickieson said Ethel M, which sees 750,000 visitors annually, has had “no direct influence” on the bus companies adding the free factory store tour to their itineraries, but word has apparently spread.
“This is a destination to thousands of tourists who come from the Strip,” she said. “They may be on the way to Lake Mead or the Grand Canyon or maybe just making a special trip out here. This really enriches their experience and gives them a 30-minute education.”
Not surprisingly, the steady traffic has been beneficial to Ethel M’s bottom line. Overall sales and the average daily purchase have grown year over year.
But Ethel M isn’t stopping there. The company is remodeling its four stores in McCarran International Airport, with two set to be complete by the end of 2017 and the remaining two complete in the first quarter of 2018.
Oren Young, Ethel M’s general manager, said having a strong foothold in Las Vegas will expose more of the city’s 40 million annual tourists to the brand.
“We hope that introducing these new guests to the brand will give them the same micro experience of the factory store, ultimately becoming a loyal customer when they come back to Las Vegas or buy online,” he said.
This isn’t the first push Ethel M has made to present a different experience to customers. The company had café-style stores in Chicago and Maryland in the early 2000s, but the concept apparently didn’t resonate with customers then as well as it does now, Young said. Those stores closed around 2007.
“Retail trends from 2000 to now have changed, especially with the impact of the rise of e-commerce. Thus retail is being reinvented with smaller spaces with a cool experience,” he said. “We believe we can provide that.”
Ethel M plans to open two to three more stores a year, focusing primarily in the Southwest. They’ve also set their sights on younger customers — Gen Xers and Millennials — who may not know the brand or have the disposable income to make frequent large purchases.
“We’re premium chocolate, and we have a price point that reflects that,” Haack said. “We’re not expecting a 25-year-old to come out and buy a $30 box of chocolates every week. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to introduce Millennials to our quality of chocolate.”
Building off the trend of preserving and reintroducing nostalgic products, Ethel M this year resurrected the original recipes for the Mars bar — which until now had only been available outside the United States — and the Forever Yours bar. The Mars bar recipe, featuring honey nougat, almonds and milk chocolate, originated in 1932. The Forever Yours bar with vanilla nougat, buttery caramel and dark chocolate was launched four years later.
Retailing at $2.99, the bars offer an easy entry point, both through price and the Mars name recognition. In September, Ethel M partnered with the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas to celebrate the launch. The company provided free samples of the candy bar and captured visitor’s reactions to the product. Patrons passing by showed their “Mars bar Face,” paying homage to vintage Mars bar ads. The world’s largest digital Mars bar, measuring 1,500 ft. in length, was also displayed on the prominent Fremont Street canopy.
Head Chocolatier Mark Mackey agreed Ethel M serves as an ideal platform for relaunching the bars.
“Each bar is truly hand-crafted and hand-cut,” he said. “It’s a perfect brand to launch those under, especially as we look to potentially leverage some other nostalgic brands under the Mars portfolio. It’s a great fit.”
Mackey, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, joined Ethel M in 2015 after working on Mars’ DOVE products at the company’s location in Hackettstown, N.J. While the development team is smaller, Mackey said he appreciates the shorter product development timelines Ethel M experiences, compared to the years-long development process for a mega-brand like DOVE.
“It’s really neat that being our team is so small, we’re able to do a lot and move very quickly,” he said.
Last year, Ethel M released the Dark Chocolate Cherry Cordial — Mackey’s favorite piece to develop, so far — which features a Marasca cherry from Italy and Marasca cherry juice blended with sugar and brandy, all in a dark chocolate shell and hand-airbrushed with red cocoa butter.
“It’s kind of an updated take on a classic cherry cordial, and it’s a really nice modernized execution of that piece,” he said.
Mackey also pointed to the Milk Chocolate Champagne Truffle, introduced in time for Valentine’s Day 2017. It featured a Brut champagne-infused center enrobed in milk chocolate and airbrushed with white and yellow cocoa butter to give the appearance of bubbles.
Mackey said he’s working on updating Ethel M’s classic pecan brittle with locally-inspired and “trendy” ingredients such as macadamia nuts, guajillo chiles and small-batch bourbon — all while holding on to tradition, of course.
“It’s kind of a nice balance of the two. Hopefully our customers respond well to it,” he said.
While Ethel M prides itself on its hand-made confections, rising retail need means scaling up production in the 44,000-sq.-ft. plant, Plant Manager Damien Weaver said. Mars has invested in new shell moulding equipment, and both Mars and Ethel M will develop a strategy for meeting production needs through 2019 and beyond.
“We’re investing in this site for the long-term,” Weaver said. “We’re here to stay, and we want to make sure that the Ethel M brand continues to grow not only regionally here in the Southwest but has the opportunity to grow even broader than that.”