By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
CHICAGO -- The smell wafts out among the high-rises, bridges and overpasses like invisible chocolaty tendrils catching passersby in every direction, drawing them toward the source -- an inconspicuous brick building on an industrial corner of downtown Chicago, home of the Blommer chocolate factory. The sometimes syrupy, sometimes burnt, but unmistakable scent from Blommer, North America's largest producer of raw chocolate, is beloved by many residents.
"It's enough to drive you nuts!" says Ken Jones, 45, an electrician for Commonwealth Edison who often works in the area. "It makes you want it. In fact, I went in there today" -- to buy double-dipped chocolate peanuts and pecan patties.
Blommer, Frango Mints, Fannie May, Brach's. These were some of the names that made Chicago the chocolate and candy capital of the nation. But among those companies, only Blommer is still producing in Chicago.
"I like to say Chicago's the capital, but I don't know if we can really say that anymore," said Mark Puch, president of Primrose Candy Co. Primrose, with 79 years in the city, is augmenting its Chicago operations with a plant in China.
Producers of hard candy, such as Primrose and Brach's, which closed its Chicago plant in 2004 to move its operations to Mexico, blame their shifting production strategies on one culprit: U.S. sugar subsidies that keep prices of domestic sugar much higher than prices on the world market. In addition, tight import quotas make it hard to import cheaper foreign-produced sugar.
"We haven't seen a hard-candy company expansion or new factory for many years," said Rob Hoffman, director of business development for World Business Chicago.
Puch noted that Primrose has drastically reduced its production of sugary hard candies at its Chicago factory, shifting instead to sugar-free and chewy treats. The company used to manufacture 8 million pounds of the red-and-white-swirl Starlight mints in Chicago every year; now it makes 400,000 pounds.
For years, the Windy City was strongly identified with Frango Mints, made on the 13th floor of the Marshall Field's store on State Street, and Fannie May, the famous manufacturer of turtles and other confections.
The production of Frango Mints was moved to Pennsylvania in 1999. Fannie May closed its Chicago factory and more than 200 area retail stores in 2004. Alpine Confections, a Utah company, then bought the brand, and about a quarter of the retail stores have been reopened.
Last year, Wrigley Co. stopped making its chewing gum in Chicago, where it had been manufactured since 1911, turning instead to factories in China and Mexico. Ferrara Pan Candy Co. has also opened factories in Canada and Mexico for cheaper production.
But chocolate lovers are counting on the city's strong cultural identification with chocolate, and the craving for sweets and hot cocoa that a cold winter on the shores of Lake Michigan provokes, to keep Chicago's chocolate legacy alive.
That's what entrepreneur and Army reservist Todd Moore was betting on when he co-founded the Chicago Chocolate Co. two years ago in between stints in Iraq. The company buys raw chocolate from Blommer and other producers and turns it into fancy truffles, balls and other confections that are sold in a "chocolate cafe" on a trendy strip west of downtown. Moore and his brother started the business along with a longtime friend who founded the South Bend Chocolate Co. Most of the Chicago cafe's products are manufactured in Moore's native South Bend, Ind., but the owners hope to shift manufacturing to Chicago soon.
"People in the Midwest want to be able to take ownership of a company," said Moore, who grew up eating Fannie May candy at his grandmother's house. "We can bring home that Chicago product to people again."
The city was a natural hub for the chocolate and candy industry, since it was a magnet for European immigrants skilled in the trade -- Brach's was started by the son of German immigrants in 1904, and Ferrara Pan was founded by an Italian immigrant in 1908. Proximity to railroads and the Great Lakes made for easy transport of raw materials and finished products, and before refrigeration the long winters meant a longer producing season than in other parts of the country.
A Chicago area plant for Mars Inc. still produces Milky Ways and Snickers bars and other products, and Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. is still headquartered in the area, though production is spread worldwide. Many small chocolate specialty producers and retailers are also thriving. Margie's Candies, a quaint corner shop squeezed into a busy, gritty intersection on the northwest side, is often packed with couples and families enjoying rich chocolate-syrup-drenched sundaes, turtles and truffles made by the family that has run Margie's since 1921.
"We're very busy with orders, especially since the absence of Fannie May," said Peter Poulos, grandson of the Margie's founder, who has worked there "since I was tall enough to stand behind the soda fountain."
He said that some small specialty producers have closed up shop but that others have entered the market. And they're keeping the traditional favorites while also spicing things up to attract new customers.
"A long time ago, you couldn't even get dark chocolate here because they thought it was too bitter for Americans," Hoffman said. "Now it's all over the place. Now people put chili peppers in chocolate, and God knows what else."