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The sweet smell of success

For 70 years the Blommer Chocolate Co. has been putting smiles on the faces of chocolate lovers both young and young at heart.

And for nearly 30 years of its history, the Blommer family business has filled the air at its East Greenville plant - one of the company's three plants nationwide - with the sweet smell of the delicious chocolate they create every day.

Although you won't find chocolate bars stamped with the Blommer name on candy store shelves, as they aren't a retailer of chocolate, the odds are, if you love chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, or pretty much anything that has chocolate in its recipe, you've enjoyed some Blommer's chocolate.

"We, as a total company, are the largest processor of cocoa beans in the country," said Stephen Blommer, vice president of operations at the East Greenville facility.

The East Greenville facility brings 100 trucks of cocoa beans in each week, which is about the equivalent of 4.5 million pounds of cocoa. Blommer said 50 percent of the cocoa beans in the U.S. are processed at the Blommer Chocolate Co. plants.

Blommer said the business, which continues to be family owned, is something his family takes pride in.

"It was pretty neat to be a kid in grammar school and be able to have my class go for a field trip to my grandfather's chocolate factory," he said.

Blommer said his father, who also worked in the family business, instilled in him a strong work ethic, as he spent many a summer working in the factory.

"My father had high expectations for us," Blommer said.

And although he loved being a part of a family that has become a staple in the industry, Blommer said he initially had ambitions to become a doctor and had even started medical school when he decided to dive back into the chocolate business.

"Chocolate's way more fun than anything else," he said.

The facility in East Greenville, which employs 225 people, manufactures the chocolate from start to finish. Steps such as roasting, removing the shells from the roasted beans called nibs, grinding the nibs into cocoa liquor, and then pressing the liquor before the chocolate products are completed are all performed at the facility.

Blommer said the business has its roots in Chicago, where one of its plants still operates. The company branched out and opened a facility in California in 1948.

But, "we did not have an East Coast presence," Blommer said, noting that the company often had to ship chocolate to the East Coast from its Chicago plant. "My uncle and my father just came out and canvassed the area," he said, noting that Pennsylvania was a possible choice because it's a large candy and confections manufacturing state.

Ultimately, Blommer said, the property in East Greenville was purchased and the smell of chocolate has permeated the air there ever since.

Christopher Milligan, the plant operations manager, said although the business is still a business with a bottom line, he is often brought back to the reality that he is working in an industry that people love even during stressful times.

Having worked at the plant for 14 years, he said, "I don't smell it so much anymore," of the chocolately aroma.

But even routine trips to the bank serve as a reminder of how much his industry means to people as he hears them saying 'I was down at Wal-Mart the other day and could smell the chocolate,' he explained. "It gives you a real sense of pride in what you do," he said.

"'Chocolate' is the same word that puts a smile on my son's face," Milligan said.

And while Blommer Chocolate Co. has continued to produce a quality product for 70 years, Blommer said the industry and the product have changed over the years.

"Over the last 10 years there's been a lot of change," he said. "We're a business that's constantly improving the way we do things."

This idea includes the chocolate recipe itself, Blommer said.

"I'd say the American palate has changed," he said. He noted that chocolate is very similar to wine in the way that cocoa beans from different regions around the world produce very different tasting chocolates and chocolates with very "different flavor nuances."

He said new research is constantly conducted into which products from different parts of the world are going to produce the best product.

"There's some art to what we do," he said. "It's not just brown and sweet."

From dark chocolates that are rich in antioxidants, to single-origin chocolates such as those that use raw materials from places like Venezuela, to organic chocolates, the industry is changing.

"We stay really in tune with the consumer market and so our product line is definitely changing," Blommer said.

Blommer explained that chocolate manufacturing is "a very capital-intensive business," in which the cost of equipment and raw materials is often high. With recent changes in the economy, many of the other players in chocolate manufacturing have outsourced portions of the manufacturing process, such as roasting.

These changes have actually turned out to be a boost to Blommer Chocolate's business because the company is capable of taking on all aspects of production.

Blommer said a number of large manufacturers' equipment has become outdated over the years and instead of putting money into updating their equipment, they put the money it would have cost them into outsourcing one aspect of their production to Blommer's.

At the East Greenville plant, Blommer said "as we grew and grew we started taking up warehouse space for manufacturing" and took on more business from outside companies, they had to expand. So, in 2007, the company added an 85,000-square-foot warehouse space.

While equipment is important in getting the job done, Blommer and Milligan agreed that the most important resource at Blommer Chocolate Co. is their employees.

"We can buy the same raw materials and equipment (as other chocolate manufacturers) but what's going to differentiate us is the people who are employed here," Milligan said. "How do we go about engaging out employees?"

Of the 225 people who are employed at the East Greenville facility, nearly 30 of them have been there for 20 years or more. And many are second-generation workers.

"So, it's a family business in that respect also," Blommer said.

Recognizing that the employees are integral to the success of the company, Blommer noted that each employee is given a chocolate bonus of 10 pounds of chocolate each quarter, or 40 pounds a year.

Despite the fact that trying economic times are challenging many businesses - even those that have been around for decades - Blommer said his company is fortunate.

"We're in the food industry, and people still want to eat," he said. "While we're not recession-proof, I think we're still isolated."

Blommer and Milligan said the company is looking forward to a bright future overall - including at their plant in East Greenville.

"Our hope is to grow and innovate and continue to be a great employer and a great supplier of chocolate. That's really the desire for the future," Blommer said.

Source: Pottstown Mercury

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