One Sweet Tour

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

 

I’m kidding, of course, but I’m positively giddy as I stand in the middle of the production room at Harbor Sweets, one of Salem’s oldest, award winning, and most beloved chocolate companies—a fitting place to be with Valentine’s Day approaching. Our photographer, Mary Shea, and I are fortunate to receive a tour of the factory from owner and CEO, Phyllis LeBlanc.

The historic red brick building on Leavitt Street, home of Harbor Sweets since its 1973 founding, is ‘old Salem’ quaint and seems perfect for this thriving, successful company. The intoxicating smell of sweetness and chocolate hits me squarely when I walk through the front door of the gift shop, beautifully decorated for Valentine’s Day.

Eileen Shambaugh, supervisor of the shop, greets us and begins our tour. An employee for nearly 30 years, Eileen says she’s never bored since all employees jump from task to task. She’s done it all—making and mixing the almond butter crunch, supervising the shop—even finance. What makes Harbor Sweets unique is the chocolates are still handmade. Those who work there hand mold, fill, wrap, and pack all the chocolates, so there are plenty of jobs to choose from. For these reasons alone, Harbor Sweets is one sweet place to work. It probably doesn’t hurt that the employees can also eat all the chocolate they want.

We watch Bruno stir a batch of famous almond butter crunch with a wooden paddle in a huge copper kettle over one low, single burner, the long neck of a thermometer stuck into the liquid candy. The temperature reads out on a wall monitor at 279 degrees. It takes approximately one hour to make the first batch of almond butter crunch of the day and then, with the pot warmed, only 35 to 40 minutes for every subsequent batch. This is the first stage of the famous Sweet Sloops, adorable little white chocolate sailboats, their bottoms dipped in dark chocolate, then decorated with chopped pecans. Sweet Sloops are their biggest seller and are so popular, two million are made each year.

At this point, Phyllis LeBlanc joins us and continues our tour. She is pleasant, friendly and knowledgeable, and carries herself gracefully like the avid horsewoman she is.  Under the original owner, Ben Strohecker, who lives locally and is still her mentor today, Phyllis worked part-time at Harbor Sweets as a chocolate dipper, starting when she was a 19-year-old Salem State business student. Occasionally, while sitting in class, she would look down to notice a big streak of chocolate on her sleeve—perhaps a sign of what was to come since more than 20 years later when she bought the business.

Thanks to an ambitious and entrepreneurial spirit—part of which may have been influence from her parents, who both owned businesses—Phyllis earned her MBA by attending Boston University at night, and worked her way up through the ranks, contributing significantly to the growth of the company in the process. It was during an entrepreneurship class that she got the idea for a new line of chocolates, Dark Horse Chocolates®, inspired by her black horse, Able, which combined her love of horses and dressage with her chocolate career. It also filled a personal need since she had been having trouble finding gifts for horse trainers. The elegant chocolate line has stood the test of time and is sold at gourmet shops and upscale equestrian outlets around the United States.

Phyllis was already president and Chief Operating Officer  when she bought majority control of the company. Her purchase of the business provided continuity and set Mr. Strohecker’s mind at ease that someone he trusted would carry on his dream.

As Bruno continues to stir, he adds a tablespoon of this and that, and last, in go the almonds. The moment arrives when the almond butter crunch reaches the perfect temperature. Bruno scrapes it from the copper kettle onto a large table into a rectangular mold with removable sides. Then, with offset spatula in hand, he spreads it quickly into the corners of the mold, smoothing it before the candy hardens, but removing the sides when it’s just hard enough to hold its shape.

Then he paces, waiting. We are at the cutting stage, and Phyllis says the candy must again be the perfect temperature. Too soft, and the scored lines disappear. Too hard, and the candy cracks.

I hold my breath as Bruno reaches for a rolling pin-like tool with sharp blades. He starts at the short end, slowly rolls the blades away from him up the length of the slab, and repeats the procedure until the entire slab is scored. Then he begins at the diagonal, scoring the squares into the triangular Sweet Sloops shape.  Each batch of candy yields 2,100 Sweet Sloops.

Our next stop is the ‘enrobing’ room. One of Harbor Sweet’s devoted employees stands before a pile of perfect, but as yet naked, almond butter crunch triangles. The woman dips the backs of each triangle in white chocolate and places them on a conveyer belt, all facing in the same direction. They go on their merry way through an air conditioned tunnel before they take a dip under a white chocolate waterfall—something I like the sound of immensely. They emerge white and glistening.  Another employee then takes a silver teaspoon and runs it from the base to the tip, creating the mast of the sailboat. At the other end of the conveyer belt, two more employees dip the bottoms of each sailboat in dark chocolate and chopped pecans before lovingly laying them on a tray that goes back onto the conveyor belt for cooling. The tray eventually makes its way to the foil machine, which gently tucks each of the chocolates in a gold foil wrapper. They are then packaged and shipped by hand.

The result is beautiful. But, as Phyllis says, if your product is simply beautiful, people will only buy it once; your product must be both beautiful and delicious.  That forms loyal customers—something Harbor Sweets has lots of.

I ask Phyllis the inevitable: does she eat chocolate while working? She laughs. Yes, but her secret for not overdoing it is to eat her first and only piece of the day as she turns off the lights and locks the door for the night. Her favorite varies from day to day but is currently the Grand Prix Jumpers, a creamy butter caramel.

Although Phyllis says there is never enough time in the day for everything she enjoys, with a love of horses that spans a lifetime (she received her first pony, Sequoia, when she was 13), she still finds time to ride her horse three or four times a week and to compete in dressage three or four times a year. Phyllis says people light up when they find out what she does. In fact, when a neighbor’s 11-year-old daughter discovered Phyllis owns a chocolate company, she reported to her mother, “She owns a chocolate factory AND a horse!”

 

As Phyllis says, “What could be more fortunate than that?”

Visit Harbor Sweets’ website at www.harborsweets.com to order online, request a catalog, or join their mailing list, and be sure to enter their Valentine’s Day Poem Contest for a chance to win a $100 gift basket for your sweetheart. For more information, contact harborsweets@mkpr.net

Robbin Lynn Crandall is a Food & Travel Web Copywriter, Certified Social Media Consultant, and Freelance Writer at Crandall Copywriting. She works with small- to mid-sized business owners to improve their marketing strategy and social media presence, along with a slew of marketing materials. A self-proclaimed foodie and lover of All Things Italian, she loves living in New England and snow, and never more than when someone else is shoveling it.  You can contact her at robbin.lynn.crandall@gmail.com

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2 Responses to “One Sweet Tour”

  1. Lynne Francis-Lunn says:

    So great to see Art Throb featuring Harbor Sweets. They make make scrumptious chocolates! It was fun to get a peak inside their facility.

  2. Bev says:

    great sweets, great company, did the tour while visiting from South Africa and was amazed at the simplicity of their operation

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