St. Louis chocolate companies offer gateway to bliss, local brands
Chocolate footprint in St. Louis encompasses a range of offerings, operation sizes.
The sleek Gateway Arch, stately Busch Stadium and the muddy Mississippi River snaking along the city’s eastern edge are among the most recognizable symbols of St. Louis.
But there’s one more thing the city is known for, says Dan Abel Jr., v.p. of operations for Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Co.: Fierce loyalty to local brands and establishments.
“It’s hard to find Miller or Coors products at a bar or restaurant because we’re in Budweiser land, and St. Louis Cardinals for baseball — there is no other baseball team,” he said.
That regional dedication extends to chocolate, and there’s plenty of it in The Lou. Whether it’s a hyper-local shop with the flexibility to experiment with flavors and ingredients, or major operations with the capacity and the chutzpah to go nationwide, St. Louis has it all.
And that’s a beautiful thing, says Brian Pelletier, founder and owner of Kakao Chocolate in Maplewood, Mo., immediately west of the city.
“There’s always room for more chocolate,” he said. “It’s great that there is kind of a concentration of it here in St. Louis because people like it and people deserve it. There’s stuff for everyone.”
In October, Candy Industry hit the road to observe St. Louis’ chocolate footprint, visiting (and tasting) what the city has to offer. The results were undeniably sweet.
Bittersweet Kitchen, St. Louis
Audrey Scherrer has always loved serving up sweets and smiles.
In high school, she took a cake decorating class that gave her an appreciation for cake balls, which we she’d make for local events. And, building on her experience of working for restaurants and catering companies since age 15, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in food science and nutrition at the University of Illinois with a concentration in hospitality management.
Scherrer landed an account executive job at Marriott International, but in her free time, she took classes on chocolate and candy making, even earning a certificate from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Eventually she began making truffles to give to clients as thank-you gifts.
“The business organically grew from my clients’ interest in the product,” Scherrer said. “Then it got to the point where I was juggling it part-time for several years, doing it nights and weekends and selling orders as I could.”
Demand for Scherrer’s products became so great she made the leap to producing sweets full-time. Scherrer launched Bittersweet Artisan Truffles in 2011, working from a church’s commercial kitchen.
“It just felt like the right decision,” she said. “I knew I had enough of a following, a small-but-mighty base of people who were really passionate about my product, and it gave me a lot of hope that the business could grow.”
Grow it did. In addition to truffles, Bittersweet also began offering small desserts, including brownies, lava cakes, and at one point, macarons. But one of Bittersweet’s signature items — dessert sauces — sprang from a happy accident.
While mixing up a batch of chocolate salted caramel ganache in 2009, Scherrer poured in too much cream, making it too thin to roll into balls. She brought the mixture over to a few girlfriends, who gladly dipped pretzels and strawberries into the ganache. They urged Scherrer to jar and sell it.
“It was a beautiful thing that happened from a failure,” Scherrer said.
After a few years of bringing on seasonal help, Scherrer connected with Amanda Calvert through a family friend in 2013. Calvert, a “reformed academic” who also loved to prepare gourmet food for her family, began working for Bittersweet part-time. Soon after, Calvert took on a greater role in developing new products — including new dessert sauces.
“She’s been a huge part of the expansion of our product line and is very instrumental in growing our offerings,” Scherrer said.
When Candy Industry caught up with Calvert in October, she was experimenting with infusing Cast Iron Brown Ale, an American pale ale produced by St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing Co., in ganache. She hoped the results would end up in Bittersweet’s St. Louis collection, which also includes a red velvet truffle to represent the Cardinals and a truffle made with Fitz’s Root Beer.
“I love this town,” Calvert said. “I think we have a really fantastic food culture, from restaurants to producers. There are lots of people who are thinking about great food. It’s important to pay homage to that.”
Sherrer agreed, noting that while the bulk of Bittersweet’s business comes from custom orders for special events, the company’s product line also appears at small, independent retailers in the St. Louis area. Bittersweet also regularly attends the Tower Grove Farmers Market, which draws thousands of visitors to one of St. Louis’ best-known parks each Saturday.
“The people who choose to be entrepreneurs have to have a lot of grit, and I think we really value that,” Scherrer said. “We really want to support people who are trying to make it and trying to bring something authentic, new and different to their communities. We love that we’re a part of that.”
Last year, Bittersweet Artisan Truffles rebranded as Bittersweet Kitchen to reflect its expansion beyond truffles and provide a more accurate picture of itself to customers. It also leaves the company room to grow.
“Bittersweet has a prosperous future, and I know we’ll continue to evolve,” Scherrer said.
Kakao Chocolate, Maplewood, Mo.
After 20 years in corporate communications and public relations in Minneapolis, Chicago and St. Louis, Brian Pelletier had had enough.
“I was done,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Pelletier wasn’t sure what his next step would be, but he knew he wanted to own his own business and work with food. He “opened himself up to the universe,” and it answered while Pelletier was at a dinner party in 2008.
A friend announced plans to sell a tempering machine, and Pelletier knew then he was going to start a chocolate business. He bought the equipment, rented a space and then learned how to make sweets.
“I didn’t do a lot of research,” he said. “I didn’t go to school and figure out how to make chocolate. I didn’t go to other candy stores, check them out and see how they did it. I had an image in my mind. I had a vision for what I wanted to do, and then said ‘this is how we’re going to do it.’ I figured if I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t have to worry about breaking them.”
Pelletier started by producing confections in a windowless basement without heat or air conditioning. He filled orders and sold his handmade, preservative-free sweets at farmers’ and pop-up markets.
His efforts prevailed. After a year of “saving his pennies,” Pelletier opened Kakao’s — pronounced “Kah-kay-oh” — his first production space and retail store in the south part of St. Louis in 2009.
Two years later, Pelletier opened a 2,400-sq.-ft. store and production area in up-and-coming Maplewood, home to several unique restaurants and artisan and specialty shops. Kakao fit right in.
“We were among the first to kind of get that going,” he said. “That was very purposeful. The City of Maplewood wanted to do that.”
In 2014, Pelletier expanded further, opening a 1,200-sq.-ft. retail store in Clayton, Mo., about eight miles west of St. Louis. But having three locations with production at two of them became too much to juggle, Pelletier said.
“It was really a challenge because getting the supplies there, making stuff in two different places, bringing them between three places — I was spending days just driving between stores to deliver stuff,” he said.
In 2016, Pelletier closed the South City location, shuffling employees and equipment to the Maplewood store. The move paid off, allowing Kakao to become more efficient and continue to nurture a following in and around St. Louis.
Upon entering the Maplewood store, customers are greeted with an open kitchen, where they can watch employees create truffles or prepare a batch of marshmallows. That’s a crucial component of Kakao’s mission, Pelletier said.
“People feel like they’re a part of it,” he said. “They feel like this is their chocolate shop because they can come in and watch.”
Kakao’s signature orange cocoa trees stretch across the walls, and display tables are stocked with moulded chocolate pieces,“Big Squeal” bacon peanut brittle and marshmallow pies.
Kakao’s chocolate-dipped sea salt honey caramels — produced batch by batch in an 8-qt. stock pot — are among the company’s best sellers. Kakao also offers a variety of pates de fruit and unique, often seasonal items. During Candy Industry’s visit, Kakao had just developed Brown Butter Sage Truffles and Sweet Potato Marshmallows.
Pelletier said he encourages his employees to experiment with ingredients. They’ll either request specific items or Pelletier will supply them with an ingredient and ask them to create something with it.
“Because we’re doing things in small batches, we can have a lot of fun,” he said. “People know that when they come in here, they can get something they probably haven’t had before.”
Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Co., St. Louis
Over the last three decades, Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Co. (CCC) has earned a strong reputation — and a dedicated following — for producing high-quality chocolate truffles, caramels and other sweets.
The company’s private label, co-manufacturing and branded business boomed, prompting the need for additional space. In 2012, founder Dan Abel Sr. and his wife, Rosalie, and their three children, Dan Abel Jr., Christina and Chris, moved operations to a 30,000-sq.-ft. facility on The Hill, an Italian neighborhood on the St. Louis’ southwest side.
With more elbow room, the Abels invested in equipment, purchasing a 100-ft.-long Hilliard enrober with a 16-inch-wide belt — the largest unit Hilliard has ever made — in 2012. They followed it with a W.C. Smith enrober in 2014 and two Knobel Alpha Compact depositors in 2016.
Doubling up on depositors offered CCC efficiency in creating one-shot and seasonal items, such as truffle balls, caramel snowmen and peanut butter hearts. It also opened the door for something CCC had never done: chocolate bars.
On Halloween 2016, CCC launched a line of eight 3.5-oz. chocolate bars, featuring unique flavors such as Milk Chocolate Waffle Cone Caramel and Dark Chocolate Strawberry Champagne Truffle.
The line took off, gaining popularity and distribution beyond what the Abels had anticipated. The bars appear in all 50 states and in more than 1,000 independent specialty stores.
“We hoped that it was going to go well because we really put a lot of love into it, invested in the packaging and the photography, but we had no idea,” Abel Jr. said.
More than half the chocolate CCC uses now goes toward the bars, and after purchasing additional moulds, the company can produce 12,000 bars in an eight-hour shift. Abel Jr. also noted production of branded items has surpassed contract manufacturing, though CCC’s contract manufacturing business has grown as well.
For 2018, CCC has introduced two new bar flavors: Milk Chocolate Happy Birthday Truffle, featuring a truffle center with birthday cake icing and sprinkles, and Milk Chocolate Cannoli Truffle.
Made with a ganache filling reminiscent of cannoli filling, cannoli shell pieces and chocolate chips, the bar pays homage to CCC’s neighborhood.
“We wanted to do an Italian-themed one, and we thought (cannoli) was the best, most exciting dessert,” Abel Jr. said.
The Abels have also revamped their Valentine’s Day and Easter offerings, in addition to developing items to be sold in resealable pouches, including 12-gram Salted Caramel Balls.
Abel Jr. also noted CCC has reworked its ganache to include fresh whipping cream instead of dairy butter — and they’ve gotten it to last 12 months instead of 10 or 12 days.
“Everyone I talked to thought I was crazy,” he said. “A year and a half later, we have created a fresh whipping cream ganache-based center that lasts a year.”
With the new items and growing production, CCC has installed two, 1,250-.lb liquid chocolate tanks from Savage Bros., but that’s still not enough. Abel said CCC’s considering adding two 2,000-.lb tanks that would feed into the original ones.
CCC has also installed an additional metal detector, as well as automated its packaging and warehousing processes. The company has also hired 10 more full-time employees, bringing its full-time staff to 45.
Abel Jr. admitted space in the factory is getting tight, but CCC has a plan for further growth, he said.
“We’re really excited about the trend we’re on,” he said. “We definitely don’t want to slow down because we’re running out of space or productivity.”
Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier, St. Louis
Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier has been in St. Louis for 90 years, but its roots go back much further — more than 350 years, in fact.
Bissinger family accounts suggest their confections were enjoyed by nobles in 17th century France, so much so that King Louis the XIV granted the Bissingers the title “Confiseur Imperial,” or Confectioner of the Empire.
Karl Frederick Bissinger brought the family’s trade and confectionery secrets to the United States in 1845, settling just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. His son, also named Karl, relocated Bissinger’s to St. Louis in 1927.
While Bissinger’s history began with producing confections such as sugared nuts and marzipan, it later applied its quality-based approach to chocolate, caramel and one of its other signature items — gummy pandas. Natives of St. Louis and sweets-lovers across the country have taken notice.
“We have very loyal clientele,” said Dave Owens, Bissinger’s v.p. of taste. “We like to say we get customers for life. It becomes a tradition for many families.”
In 2012, Bissinger’s purchased Bochner Chocolates of Iowa City, giving the company access to a variety of new equipment, but fitting it all into one facility proved difficult.
Two years later, Bissinger’s moved from St. Louis’ central-west side to a century-old, 223,000-sq.-ft. building near the city’s riverfront. A former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad freight depot, the building also served the now-defunct Switzer Candy Co.
Left largely untouched for two decades, the building was a “little worse for wear,” Owens said. Still, Bissinger’s CEO Tim Fogerty saw potential in its location, its spaciousness and potential to spur other revitalization in an otherwise depressed area, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2014.
The newspaper noted Bissinger’s poured $11 million into the building, developing 85,000 sq. ft. of pristine production and warehousing space and 38,000 sq. ft. for offices and the luxuriously-decorated, fourth-floor event space, The Caramel Room. Bissinger’s also offers daily tours.
“We’re fortunate to have this space,” Owens said. “It allows us to spread out and grow.”
Bissinger’s has also expanded its product offerings. Soon after acquiring Bochner, Bissinger’s introduced a line of 3-oz. chocolate bars featuring classic flavors, such as Dark Chocolate and Dark Chocolate and Almonds, as well as more unique flavors, such as Dark Chocolate Strawberry Caramel Peanut, Dark Chocolate Caramelized Blood Orange and Honey Pepita Caramel.
That’s on purpose, Owens said.
“We look for unexpected flavor combinations that include an aromatic, exotic, super-fruit taste,” he said.
Flavors include Blueberry Acai, Pink Grapefruit Grapeseed, Pomegranate White Tea, Blackberry Hibiscus, Strawberry Mango and Tart Cherry and Lime.
Bissinger’s has also developed the Signature Truffle Collection, featuring:
- Earl Grey Blood Orange: Dark chocolate ganache infused with blood orange and Earl Grey Tea, with notes of lemon lime and a hint of grapefruit.
- Hazelnut Praline: A 38% milk center crafted with finely-ground Oregon hazelnuts and small bits of buttery praline.
- Double Chocolate: A rich, fudgy 75% dark chocolate center wrapped in 60% dark chocolate.
- Strawberry Merlot: Full-bodied Merlot juice mingles with strawberry puree in a 60% dark chocolate ganache.
No matter what the treats are — or which company makes them — St. Louis’ sweets connoisseurs love them, and will continue to do so.
“There’s room for all of us,” Owens said.