With roots tracing back to at least the ancient Olmecs in what is now Mexico, chocolate is today a more than $113 billion global industry. It has also oozed into the very fabric of popular culture and society, playing a starring role in everything from books and movies, to most of our holidays.
Many Midlands entrepreneurs are enjoying the sweet taste of success, driven by year-round cravings for the decadent stuff.
While it seems a curious origin story at first blush, Bakers Candies Inc. got its start and continues to be supported by a group of engineers.
“My father, Kevin Baker, first saw the opportunity in gourmet chocolate back in the early 1980s,” said CEO Todd Baker. “Dad was a mass production engineer by trade and what he saw in the chocolate industry– particularly the gourmet chocolate industry – at that time, was a segment of manufacturing nearly untouched by the industrial revolution.”
So, his dad got to work, inventing the automated candy equipment that would in 1987 give Bakers Candies a 100% fully automated, totally custom, no-recipe manufacturing process.
“This allowed us to reverse-engineer our chocolate, which meant that all of our recipes have been tailor-made to run on the equipment we invented and created (and not the other way around),” Baker explained. “The money we save in labor and production we spend on ingredients and cost savings to the customer (better chocolate for a cheaper price) is a good business formula for guys who hardly know a doggone thing about business.”
Even as the Baker family has watched the “heart” of the modern candy industry migrate to Mexico and Central America, strong consumer sentiment of buying local, quality and safe foods has offset the competitive advantages gained through the likes of cheaper overseas production, according to Baker.
Chocolate as an industry has also proven to be resilient in the face of economic turmoil; Baker points to how sales of chocolate in the Midwest grew by 20% through the pandemic.
“Chocolate is an affordable indulgence that can allow virtually anyone the opportunity to experience a moment of joy in a world that sometimes seems to offer very few such moments,” he asserted.
“Family,” “Invention” and “Love” are at the center of more than a catchy tagline; Baker indicated these words are what makes the business tick.
As Baker put it: “Family – because this business exists to serve our family (not the other way around). Invention – because it’s at the heart of what we do. And Love – because of our love for chocolate, our love for our customers, our customers’ love for us and then, ultimately, our customers’ love for one another, which results in them giving the chocolate that we love, of course! It all comes full circle.”
A Perennial Favorite
When Erika Jensen got her start in the business in 2006, chocolate had not yet “arrived” in the Midwest – not in the way embodied by the wave of growth in the early 2000s and by renowned chocolatiers like Michael Recchiuti and Larry Burdick on the coasts. She had to hone her craft at “chocolate boot camps” and continuing education opportunities in Canada, Vegas, D.C., and elsewhere.
“Michael Klug of L.A. Burdick Chocolates told me early on I would never fully understand the beauty of chocolate unless I went to Europe,” said Jensen, who now owns The Chocolate Season. “So, I hopped on a plane the following spring and shadowed in Italy, Switzerland and France.”
Since then, change has been marked by everything from the accessibility of information trickling down to more chocolatiers and market saturation, to the huge price increases over the past couple of years, according to Jensen.
“Chocolate demands have increased, and a broken supply chain is unable to produce and keep up with increasing global needs,” she said. “And, if you’re ethically responsible, you’ll only be choosing to work with chocolate manufacturers that are transparent in their pricing and treatment to those at the bottom of the food chain – the farmers and harvesters that actually manually strip the trees of their pods, and dry and ferment the beans for them to use.”
The industry at present is also characterized by chocolatiers who are having fun with everything from hand-painted or airbrushed colored cocoa butter, to inventive flavors that feature the likes of local whiskey and beer.
To the former “trend,” Jensen said: “It’s a nod to the chocolatiers of old Europe, there’s something elegant about letting the true color and satiny mouthfeel of chocolate shine on its own, without all the glitz and glamor of luster dust and bright colors. That being said, at [The Chocolate Season] we do dabble in both worlds, caramels, slabbed ganaches, and molded bonbons – so that the consumer can get a taste of everything, and then find their own favorites.”
To the latter trend, Jensen said long gone are the days of flavors that sound like Hobby Lobby oils, just chocolate ganache or ganaches made with extracts.
And, while chocolate is beautiful, satisfying, and indulgent, she said it’s also “approachable.”
“There’s a chocolate for everyone,” Jensen stated. “Even if you don’t ‘like chocolate,’ we even carry chocolate made completely out of raspberries, strawberries, passionfruit, yuzu and almond. There isn’t a limit to what you can create.”
Chocolate’s Many Charms
“Chocolate” was hands-down Katie Hibbs’ favorite subject while at pastry school in Washington State. However, with chocolatiers being “so rare,” she expected to “observe and learn” when relocating to Omaha – not a job. What she got was a start in packaging and customer service at Chocolat Abeille. Today, she is the store manager and tea hostess.
In the past few years, Hibbs has seen a greater demand for artisanal, natural, “rooted” products – with easily defined connections to both the sourced items and the people who made them.
“There is a desire for a history, not only in the shop and items themselves but also between those things and the customer, building a relationship and having ‘your place,’” she stated.
“Trends” may further be summed up with one word: accessibility.
“Vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free: more and more artisanal shops are catering to these needs,” she explained. “These options were around before, but the flavors and design were often one-dimensional.”
Creativity is broadening palates among those restricted to simple and often bland iterations of typically enjoyable desserts.
“As a mother to a child with severe food allergies, I understand the frustration in searching for safe options and the disappointment in the ones available,” Hibbs added. “It’s a change that is sorely needed, and I’m excited that it’s catching on, especially since major brands are taking notice and starting to provide more options as a result.”
Hibbs also noted how some places that claim quite loudly to have “very cosmopolitan food scenes,” are lucky to have just one good confection shop.
“Omaha has such an abundance of adventurous and creative people doing what they love,” she said, while referring to the volume of chocolate shops in the metro.
Hibbs is joined at Chocolat Abeille by Head Chocolatier Joee Fucinaro, who was drawn to the uniqueness of chocolate work while seeking experience beyond culinary school classes at Metropolitan Community College.
In addition to catering to dietary restrictions, she referenced the pandemic-driven popularity of online orders and in-store pick-ups, as well as the upward spike in TikTok videos promoting certain recipes and businesses.
“It’s pretty genius,” Fucinaro said. “I’ve definitely tried a few of the recipes I’ve seen and written down some businesses’ names to visit when I’m in the area. As long as TikTok is relevant, these videos will be as well.”
Fucinaro underscored the many different types of chocolate.
“Outside of being white, milk and dark chocolate, there are so many flavors within those flavors,” she said. “Depending on where cacao trees grow, the beans they produce will have different notes and undertones. Our Ecuador chocolate is a single-origin chocolate from Ecuador and it tastes fruity and nutty. There are so many different flavor profiles, and that’s what makes chocolate alluring to me.”
Suzi Bonnett had the good fortune of living in Europe for five years. When her family moved back to Omaha, they had a difficult time finding high-quality Belgian chocolate. Today, Bonnett owns the Papillion arm of Chocolaterie Stam, a reference to the Stam family of master chocolatiers who has been in the confectionary business since 1816.
In much more recent times, say in the last 13 years, Bonnett has seen more concern about where food comes from and what’s in it.
“There are more food allergies now and people are always looking for small, locally-produced products,” she said. “We know when each of our chocolates was made, what’s in them, and who made them. We also maintain an allergens folder to help people make informed decisions about their chocolate choices.”
She described chocolate as the “ultimate comfort food.”
“No matter your taste, white, milk or dark chocolate, nuts, fruit fillings [and so on], chocolate delivers,” Bonnett said. “Plus, it always makes a great gift for those who have everything.”
Over Valentine’s Day season alone, Chocolaterie Stam dips more than 1,000 long-stemmed strawberries in Belgian chocolate.
Gaylene Steinbach, owner and chocolatier at LuluBee Artisanal Chocolates, owes her passion for chocolate at least partly to watching her mom’s hand-dipped truffle-making talents every holiday season.
“I guess you could say that chocolate runs through my blood,” Steinbach said. “But my real passion for chocolate bubbled up when I received a gorgeous box of artisanal chocolates more than a decade ago. After one nibble, I knew that I’d caught the chocolate bug. So, I dove in.”
Since then, Steinbach said, she’s found that being a chocolatier marries science with the creativity of making flavors – satisfying both sides of her brain.
In recent years, she has also noted a hunger for clean ingredients and exotic flavor combos.
“Just as clean eating has become a popular lifestyle, many chocolate lovers want the same with their indulgent treats,” she said. “As foodies are exposed to different cultures and flavor profiles, they’ve become hungry for more interesting flavor combinations.”
This means small batches of fresh products, with favorite bonbon flavors ranging from brown butter caramel to strawberry balsamic.
She also referred to inclusivity, as “everyone deserves to nosh on our indulgent morsels.” In turn, a variety of bonbons are dairy- and gluten-free.
And, according to Steinbach, the pandemic has led many folks to crave moments of indulgence. Chocolate fits right in, as she described the allure of “lights dimmed, shoes tossed aside, cozied-up in a favorite chair, with Michael Bublé crooning in the background.”
“ … with its creamy texture, complex notes, different mouthfeels, and flavor profiles, chocolate begs you to shut down distractions and simply savor,” she said.
Favorite Sayings from our Local Chocolatiers
Todd Baker, Bakers Candies Inc.
“Why Chocolate? Because it’s cheaper than therapy.” – A saying used at Bakers Candies
Erika Jensen, The Chocolate Season
“Find something you’re passionate about, and keep tremendously interested in it.” – Julia Child
Katie Hibbs, Chocolat Abeille
“It’s just chocolate.” – A mantra used around the shop
Joee Fucinaro, Chocolat Abeille
“Chocolate is happiness that you can eat.” – Ursula Kohaupt
Suzi Bonnett, Chocolaterie Stam – Papillion
“Save our planet – it’s the only one with chocolate.” – Bonnett’s personal slogan
Gaylene Steinbach, Lulubee Artisanal Chocolates
“A balanced diet is chocolate in both hands.” – Anonymous