Summer 2011
Gourmet Sweets Stack Up Sales By Heather Johnson Durocher

How sweet it is! Sweets are among Americans’ premier comfort foods. A touch of the exotic and artisanal creations are adding even more fire to an already hot product category.

The way retailer Jeannine Klee sees it, you just can’t go wrong by handing out chocolate to customers. It puts everyone in a good mood, which translates into some seriously sweet sales of the treats—and other gift items—lining her shelves.

“When you’re sampling chocolate, how can you miss? It’s always a fun time,” says Klee, owner of gift shop, Parkleigh, in Rochester, NY, of the chocolate-and-confectionery “open houses” she hosts at the store.

From rich-and-savory chocolate bars and truffles, to candies, cookies and delectable desserts, gourmet sweets are treats worth stocking in your shop. After all, sweets are America’s favorite comfort food, according to the Center for Culinary Development’s 2009 Generational Comfort Food Survey. The center is a food and beverage product development company “that blends culinary creativity with strategic marketing expertise.” Its definition of sweets includes chocolates, candies and desserts like ice cream, cookies, brownies and cupcakes. “We see more clearly that our sweet cravings are steering us to an exciting new sweetscape: to a world where flavor complexity, artisanship and nostalgia mingle together to create exciting, new and sophisticated—yet comforting—treats,” says Kimberly Egan, CEO/principal for the San Francisco-based center.

The sweet spot

Chocolate alone is one of the most popular indulgences, even in these economic times, the center’s comfort food survey found. Indeed, the U.S. market for chocolate products displayed its recession resiliency, as retail sales increased 3 percent from 2008 to reach a record $17 billion in 2009, according to Chocolate Market in the U.S.: Trends and Opportunities in Premium, Gourmet and Mass Chocolate Products by market research publisher Packaged Facts.

The growth was attributed to the 75 percent of Americans who have purchased chocolate products since 2008 and increases in manufacturer prices, which didn’t discourage budget-conscious households from buying quality chocolate as an affordable indulgence. Global demand for chocolate is expected to rise over the next several years, as the market capitalizes on chocolate’s incredible ability to shape shift into an array of products suitable for the confectionery, beverage, restaurant, hospitality and personal care industries. Packaged Facts forecasts the U.S. chocolate market will exceed $19 billion in 2014.

Dark chocolate, with its higher cocoa content, remains a top choice for consumers thanks in part to findings that the darker version has potential health benefits. Medical research has found that dark chocolate may help decrease blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol, and improve circulation. Raw cocoa contains flavonoids, which are rich in protective antioxidants.

The demand for premium chocolate will persist as a leading growth trend, especially when the economy recovers, according to the Packaged Facts report. The healthy chocolate trend, featuring “better-for-you” ingredients such as lavender and blueberry, is likewise expected to fuel the market.

Also a new trend on this “sweetscape” are cake pops—an offshoot of the popular cupcake phenomenon. Cake pops are essentially crumbled cakes shaped into balls and glazed with frosting. They are served on sticks like lollipops.

The power of chocolate

Chocolate bars sell especially well for Klee, particularly those that feature deliciously unexpected ingredients such as sea salt, Indian curry, coconut, hickory-smoked almonds, even bacon, among countless other variations.

“There are interesting combinations companies are doing with their chocolates,” Klee says. “You get your sweet and savory [tastes] all together, and that’s just a good sensation on your tongue and taste buds.”

It’s true: today’s chocolate isn’t your mother’s chocolate, and shoppers are literally eating it up. Think high-quality milk and dark chocolate that feature ingredients ranging from spices and nuts to meats and beers.

“We’re seeing larger manufacturers pushing the flavor envelope further,” says Kara Nielsen, trendologist for the Center for Culinary Development. As a “trendologist,” Nielsen keeps up with the latest and emerging food and beverage industry trends and interprets what they mean for businesses.

One big sweet-meets-spicy combo Nielsen is seeing more of: chocolate and chili. “It’s been percolating around the specialty food world for a while, and it’s not just a chocolate bar with chili—there’s a lot of chili in different forms, like smoky chipotle,” she says. Savory flavors, a crossover from the culinary scene, started appearing in chocolate several years ago, according to the Packaged Facts chocolate market report. Now, chocolatiers are experimenting with kitchen cabinet ingredients such as olive oil, bacon, cheese, curry and chipotle, in their bonbons and truffles. Nielsen is also seeing herbs and dried spices like black pepper, cardamom and fennel, in chocolate.

U.K.-based Green & Black’s is a chocolate vendor who is cashing in on this trend of exotic ingredients in chocolate. Co-founded by Craig Sams and his wife Jo Fairley, the company makes high-end organic chocolate which features bars of dark and milk chocolate mixed with all-natural ingredients like hazelnuts, brazil nuts, ground espresso, ginger, almonds, raisins and mint.

Another case in point is Mimi Wheeler, owner of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire, MI. Wheeler uses fruits, edible flowers and herbs from her summer garden in crafting her shop’s chocolate. “My love for rich, dark chocolate and a deep connection to my garden inspire my truffles and other chocolate creations,” she says.

The business’ chocolates, which are sold in Wheeler’s shop as well as in numerous specialty stores throughout northern Michigan and online, are all natural and contain organic and other naturally grown ingredients.

Sweet sensation

“For many chocolate-loving Americans it’s more about the experience than it is about mere consumption,” says Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts.

It’s what Klee’s customers are introduced to during her store tastings; they realize it’s more than simply eating great chocolate—it’s [about] awakening the senses, she says. “When you break a piece off, you hear the click. Then you’re supposed to rest it on your tongue, so the flavors sink in,” says Klee, who will suggest to customers they buy the chocolate bars for wine-and-food pairings at a dinner party. “That makes it interactive, and you can get the full sensory experience.”

Among the chocolate bars she offers for tastings at her store are those made by The Praim Group. The Salem, MA company distributes and manages many chocolate bars including those from Bloomsberry & Co. and Bubble Chocolate.”We offer tasting samples at a deep discount for our retailers,” says CEO Paul Pruett, who figures the company has sent out “tens of thousands of free samples over the years.”

The Praim Group’s all-natural milk and dark chocolate bars are known as much for their ingredients as they are for their 60+ seasonal and event-focused packaging designs, Pruett says. The 3.5-ounce bars, retailing for $5 or less, have wrapping that creates what Pruett calls “an emotional connection” for customers. “It’s a very visual experience,” he says. “With Mother’s Day, we have one called ‘Mother’s Little Helper.'” The top-seller? A bar wrapped in white paper with the words “Emergency Chocolate.”

“It’s appropriate for any occasion whatsoever,” Pruett says.

Honing in on handcrafted

Consumers care more about how and where their gourmet treats are made, says Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development. Understanding the story behind the product—whether fair-trade chocolate is being used and how the sweet treats are made, for example—is increasingly important to buyers, she says.

Manufacturers, in turn, are responding to this. “The artisan confection trend is very strong right now. There are a lot of independent micro entrepreneurs who are producing high-quality confections in innovative flavors,” Nielsen says. “These manufacturers are breaking new ground when it comes to confections.”

Sweet Shop USA, of Mount Pleasant, TX, handcrafts its chocolates—a practice that “is preserving the time consuming craft created locally by Martha Washington Chocolates some 75 years ago,” says president Krista Webb. Sweet Shop’s signature piece, Fudge Love, is a creamy fudge center rolled in pecan pieces then hand-dipped in milk or dark chocolate. The .75-ounce pieces, which also are made in a truffle with no nuts, retail for $1.70 a piece.

How artisanal items are packaged also is changing.

“There’s higher quality packaging, with ribbons, pretty labels,” Nielsen says. “Entrepreneurs are paying more attention to their logos and brand, having nice-looking graphics. There’s a lot more creative and personal expression in some of these new artisan confections.”

For Mimi Wheeler, adding an eco-friendly component was integral to her business model. “We package the chocolates in compostable bags and recyclable materials when possible,” she says, adding that some of these eco-friendly products are made by artisans in remote villages around the world, creating jobs and fair wages for these communities. “It is a sustainable model that supports real people in many ways.”

At Sisters Gourmet, packaging is important because it’s how customers literally see what they’re about to eat. The Dacula, GA company’s pre-made cookie mixes are sold in 32-ounce glass Mason jars. “It’s really giftable as it is,” says co-owner Lisa Sorensen says of the see-through jars. “When it comes to finding something for that hard-to-purchase-for person, this is a great gift for them. People like to see what’s in there. And it’s all done by hand here in the U.S.”

The 16-year-old company’s mixes include some family recipes, and others that have been developed over the years. Sisters Gourmet goes a step further and personalizes jars for holidays and other occasions.

As for the mixes themselves, Sorensen says the company’s Cookies for Santa—an oatmeal chocolate cookie with cornflakes and coconut; Million Dollar Cookies—chocolate oatmeal with chocolate chips; and an oatmeal butterscotch cookie all are big sellers.

For Lammes Candies of Austin, TX, quality coupled with company longevity equals customer loyalty, says wholesale supervisor Eileen Hyland. “Our signature product, which we’ve made for over 100 years, is our cherry pecan praline,” Hyland says. “It’s just a fantastic piece of candy.”

The company sticks with what works, but is also innovative in its offerings, she says. For example, Lammes Candies created its Habanero praline by adding the spicy flavor to its signature product.

The company also sells a line of chocolates, mints and toffees, including its version of the “turtle” called the Longhorn. It comes in milk and dark chocolate, ranging in retail price of $3.50 to $3.99, depending upon box size.

Vendors in the gourmet foods category are not limiting themselves to just foods either. The company My Little Cupcake, based in Osterville, MA, for example, wholesales small molds to create the increasingly popular cake pops.

Keeping ’em fresh

Ensuring your edible products remain fresh is important, so talk with your manufacturers about the shelf life of the chocolates and sweet treats you plan to sell.

Manufacturers know shelf life is an issue, though not likely a big problem because items typically sell quickly when they’re high quality and positioned well in your shop.

“Shelf life has never been an issue for us,” says Pruett, of The Praim Group. “Everything we ship out has a 12-month shelf life, but it’s chocolate at a price point that moves. It’s always pretty much merchandised at or around the counter. It’s a great impulse purchase.”

Robert Timofai, owner of Madison & Marcela Organic Confections of Murrells Inlet, SC, also finds the “point of sale” nature of candies and chocolates entice buyers. Keeping samples up front also helps, he adds. “[Our retailers] put samples out and people buy it like crazy. They taste it, they buy it,” he says of the company’s toffee treats.

Madison & Marcela’s flagship toffee is Madison Crunch, with its chocolate pecan toffee also selling well. The candies come in 8-ounce packages and retail between $8 and $12.

Aside from candies and chocolates being a smart gift choice given their customer-friendly price points, Timofai believes they speak to everyone’s desire to indulge in something simple.

“It’s a comfort factor, it’s a release,” he says. “It’s that time of the day when you sit back and relax and everything is heaven. I know that at the end of my day, at 8 or 9 o’clock, I’ll just take a bag for myself and go home and devour that whole bag of dark pecan chocolate toffee.”

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Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman's Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at

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