Meet our Maker of the Month: Harbor Sweets

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Doug ad Phyllis.jpg
Doug Burritt, National Representative and Phyllis B. LeBlanc, Owner and CEO of the most wonderful
Chocolate factory in New England, Harbor Sweets.

Over the past 27 years Manhattan Fruitier has been passionately seeking the best products to fill our gift baskets – the freshest of fruit, the most fragrant of flowers, and of course, the most phenomenal chocolate we can find.  Since Day One, we’ve proudly placed Harbor Sweets chocolates in our baskets and we are eager to send our thanks and appreciation as this Salem, Massachusetts company celebrates its 40th year. We think they are wonderful– not just for their chocolates but also for their commitment to charitable giving.

Harbor Sweets has a few sweet stories we’d like to share with you.  After all these years of partnering with Harbor Sweets, we decided spring is just the right time for a personal visit up the coast to Salem. We got to see first-hand how their Sweet Sloops chocolates and the Easter Rabbits we feature are created and to meet the chocolatiers we’ve admired over our many years together.

Come with us as we recap our on-site tour and interview with Phyllis B. LeBlanc, Owner and CEO and Doug Burritt, National Representative (and Phyllis’s twin brother!) during our recent visit to Harbor Sweets – just in time to herald spring and remind ourselves of one of our favorite seasonal sights and tastes – a nostalgic Easter Rabbit – an R. L. Strohecker Easter Rabbit to be exact.

A sloop, a shamrock and a warm welcome for Manhattan Fruitier’s  St. Patrick’s Day visit to Harbor Sweets.

Harbor Sweet’s signature Sweet Sloops production

 Doug Burritt: Welcome to our chocolate factory.

Here we are in the kitchen where the heart of our signature sweet sloops are produced. We use these copper kettles to cook the butter, brown sugar and cream to make the interior of our sloops- the almond butter crunch. We get about 2100 triangles out of our copper pot batch. Quite a few.

From October to Christmas we are running two pots full time, every day, all day long. Creating and creating.

Copper Kettle.jpgAn antique copper kettle and burner is still used in production at Harbor Sweets.

Once the almond butter crunch or toffee is finished cooking it is poured onto this temperature-controlled table. It needs to be a certain warmth as it hardens very quickly. These special cutters were created to score the toffee into triangles.

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A custom cutter awaits to score a fresh batch of almond butter crunch.

The scored toffee is then broken up into individual pieces, bagged and taken to our enrober to be covered in chocolate.

Here you see the toffee triangles loaded onto this first conveyor belt. The chain is bringing up white chocolate from underneath and coating the bottoms of the triangles. Then the triangles go onto the next belt which cools and sets the chocolate.

enrober first.jpgA steady flow of Belgian white chocolate coats the almond butter crunch on the enrobing machine at Harbor Sweets.

Now the white chocolate will wash over the toffee to give a nice bit of coating on the top and sides of the triangles. Isabelle creates a mast on each one with a swipe of a silver spoon to transform them into sloops before they make their way through another cooling tunnel.

Isabelle.jpg Harbor Sweets employee Isabel has been with the company for over 18 years.
She works with a deft hand and a swipe of a silver spoon creating the masts on the Sweet Sloops chocolates.

As the sloops come through the cooling tunnel, Angie hand dips them into dark chocolate then dabs them into a bowl of crushed pecans for what we call a “spindrift” finish.

Angie.jpgHarbor Sweets employee Angie “double-dipping” Sweet Sloops into dark chocolate and crushed pecans.
Angie has been crafting chocolates at the company for over 12 years.

She then puts the sweet sloops on a tray and sends them through the top cooling tunnel in the reverse direction, back to Isabelle, who places the trays on a rack and rolls them to the foiling room.

reverse enrober.jpgSweet Sloops journeying in and out of the cooling tunnels of the chocolate enrober, before and after their dark chocolate and pecan coatings.

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Finished sweet sloops, racked and ready to be foiled.

Foiling the Chocolate

The foiling room is really special because all our machines date back to the 1890’s. We have motors that drive the main apparatus but they still run on old style leather belts. We bring over a service rep once a year from England to keep them all in good shape.

Here you see a custom die built especially for the sweet sloops. Each sloop is hand loaded into the die, then the die moves in a circular motion.

foiler for sloops.jpgA foiling machine used today at Harbor Sweets that dates back to the 1890’s.

A little pin launches to kick the sweet sloop up, foil it, clench it, cut and brush the foil smooth. Then the foiled sloop drops and goes down the belt into a bucket to be taken to packaging.

foiler 2.jpgHarbor Sweet chocolates are wrapped in custom gold foil from Italy with an antique foiling machine from the 1890’s.

You know, not much has changed in the process of creating chocolate.  It’s not like the world of iPhones or iPads where things change all the time. We use pretty much the same technology and systems that have been in place for the last 50 years. We may get fancier wheels on our equipment or a new belt, but essentially it’s pretty much the same as what we were producing 40 or 50 years ago.

Molded Chocolate and Easter Rabbits

Another type of chocolate we produce is molded chocolate. This room is where we create our citrus sweet shells and also our Easter rabbits. Here is one of our tempering machines. This one is for milk chocolate.

Tempering kettles.jpgMilk chocolate tempering at Harbor Sweets.

We don’t create our chocolate from bean but we do all the tempering, forming and molding by hand.

We also have a nutting station here where everyone is on call when we make caramel. We have a ship’s bell and when it rings everybody comes running out, gathers around the table and puts the nuts in the caramel. We need to work very fast. It’s kind of like concrete, you have to do it quickly before it dries.  My first day here 15 years ago they told me to go help out in production for a while. The manager said “When you hear the bell, run over to the nutting table.” By the time I had gotten my gloves on everybody else had already finished!

There are usually about eight people working here filling the molds. Besides milk and dark chocolate, our Easter rabbit molds are filled with almond butter crunch, caramel and pecans. We do this by pouring a layer of chocolate, placing all those goodies into the chocolate to set, then we cover them up with more chocolate.

Rabbits on rack close up.jpgManhattan Fruitier’s Easter rabbits from Harbor Sweets in Salem, MA.

The rabbits will now cool and set up in our refrigerated room before going on to the foiling room to be dressed.

Rabbits on rack.jpgThe R.L. Strohecker Easter Rabbits for Manhattan Fruitier’s Easter baskets.

That’s pretty much how we do things here at Harbor Sweets.

Let’s take a hike upstairs and talk to Phyllis, the owner of Harbor Sweets.

Interview with Phyllis B. LeBlanc, Owner and CEO of Harbor Sweets.

Phyllis.jpgPhyllis B. LeBlanc, President and C.E.O. and former part-time candy dipper of Harbor Sweets.

Manhattan Fruitier: Last year Harbor Sweets celebrated its 40th anniversary. Congratulations! Any special events or products to commemorate that achievement?

Phyllis B. LeBlanc:  Oh, absolutely. We introduced a whole new line of chocolates called Salt and Ayre. It’s a collection of salted chocolate caramels and truffles with spices. The concept for this line began out of a desire to tie-in our chocolates with the trade that built Salem’s heritage. This whole community was built on bringing spices imported from the West Indies and all over the world and I wanted to play on that.

There were a lot of items brought into Salem, but it was primarily spices. One of the 1st millionaires in the U.S. was in Salem and he built his fortune importing pepper.

It’s an interesting story of how you started at Harbor Sweets and the eventual reversal of roles between the founding candy-maker, Bennville Strohecker and you, the young college student, who is now president.  Tell us about that journey.

I never intended to own my own business. Both my parents did and they worked all the time like crazy.  I thought, why would anyone want to do that?  I started at Harbor Sweets just in a little part-time job to help me get through college. I saw an ad for chocolate dippers and it sounded like fun.

Ben, the founding owner, had some concepts about management–at the time, 40 years ago–which were pretty unusual. Trusting his employees, opening the financial records so we knew how the company was doing, and really having no secrets. It was very interesting to me because I was studying business, and to see this little microcosm of business–I think I learned more about profit and loss and balance sheets than I ever did at business school. I worked my way up as the company grew and accepted a full-time job while finishing my degree on nights and weekends.

In the early 80’s Ben decided to take a sabbatical. He wanted to do something to help the community and the world so he decided to work building awareness about AIDS, which at that time was really becoming a crisis.  So while he left for a year I took over running the company.

When he came back we had discussions about how to reward my involvement if he should ever decide to sell the company. It was then that I decided I didn’t ever want to do anything else. I ended up using my degree to figure out a way to finance the purchase the company.

benneville.jpgBennville Strohecker, founder of Harbor Sweets and author of the 2013 children’s book  The Day the Ocean Changed to Chocolate.

Is Ben still involved with Harbor Sweets?

Yes. Ben’s still on the board, still very much supportive.  I have the utmost respect for Ben and I have been so fortunate to have him as my mentor all these years. He is now 88 years old.  He primarily writes and illustrates children’s books about chocolate and the sea. Writing, painting, playing tennis. He’s amazing. It goes to show the power of chocolate!

For Easter Manhattan Fruitier is featuring your wonderful chocolate rabbit whose interior is composed of some of the best individual Harbor Sweets. It has a rather peculiar name though. The R.L. Strohecker Rabbit.   Who is he?

Robert L. Strohecker was Ben’s grandfather. He was one of the first  people to introduce chocolate rabbits to the commercial market, so there is quite a history there. The mold is based on a carved sculpture his grandfather made.  It’s an amazing history. That’s why we felt it important to name it after Robert.

Why did he introduce a rabbit onto the market?

We’re not sure. And we aren’t sure he can claim the full rights as sole originator but we were just talking the other day about eggs, rabbits and Easter and how these things go together.  Is it perhaps because it’s a time of renewal and birth and rebirth? Bigger theological questions than I can answer.

  Chocolate-Bunny-Rabbit-460x400.jpgThe R.L. Strohecker Easter Rabbit from Harbor Sweets is a solid milk and dark chocolate bunny filled with almonds, toffee, caramel and pecans.
You can find it in our Pantry and our Easter Gifts.

You welcome tourists to your candy factory here in Salem. How does that visibility affect your daily operations?

It’s sometimes amazing to me that people can even find us because we are off the beaten path. We started offering tours because so many people received our catalog all over the country and would stop here heading to Maine or the Cape making it a destination on their way to a vacation. We decided to make it a fun stop for them so they can see how the chocolates are actually made. It gives people a real connection to the company.

I think another thing that comes out of the tour is that people are amazed at how much handwork is done; even though they know the chocolates are handmade, they have no idea what’s involved in making chocolate.

How big would you like Harbor Sweets to be while still keeping the small town vibe and being known for a specialized, handcrafted product?

That’s the magical question – such a difficult balance. We want to retain what makes us special and unique, and of course we want to grow and share our chocolates with more people. We think we’ve managed to grow organically and that has helped us maintain what is special about Harbor Sweets. It’s hard because often companies don’t know they’ve reached the tipping point until they’re past it.  Thats a scary thing we always have to be on the watch for. We’re very committed to keeping our product special.

Where does your inspiration come for new product lines?  What brought you to the equestrian line?

Often our inspiration comes from our customer’s requests. One of the things I enjoy doing is going to retail shows where we sell directly to our consumers like the flower show in Boston or shows in the equestrian world because you learn so much having that direct feedback from customers.

The equestrian line came about when I was in grad school and had to write a business plan for a course I was taking in entrepreneurship.  I ride horses so it was in the fall and I was looking for gifts for my trainer and some people in the barn.  I really couldn’t think of what to get them.  Most people who are into the sport already have the equipment they need.  So what do you get? Something that’s fun that’s not yet another mug. That’s when I came up with the concept of putting equestrian designs on chocolate.

dark horse better.jpgDark Horse Chocolates, a line of equestrian chocolates by Harbor Sweets.

It took me a long time to convince Ben we could stray beyond our nautical heritage. That heritage is our point of differentiation. It’s what makes us special. He finally agreed that we could test it and it was so successful that it paid for all the development costs the first four weeks it was on the market.

It’s an interesting market. Not a huge one but very targeted so you can get at it directly. It’s been fun and that paved the way for our launch of Perennial Sweets with gardening designs.  We’re looking at things that people enjoy doing, particularly in the outdoors.

real sloop.jpgFriendship of Salem, a replica of a sailing vessel docked at the Salem Maritime National Historic Museum that represents Salem’s part as a center of global trade in 18th century America.

 How does the historic area of Salem and New England play into your business and product development?

Quite a bit. Salem is a great place to be. Most people know Salem for the witch history. Which is very much a part of it. We have not felt we needed to build upon that history. There is fabulous architecture, the whole spice trade history and certainly being on the coast. We prefer to build on that.

I suppose some people over the years have wanted you to do a witch line. It’s nice that you have stayed away from that and had your own identity.

Yes. It’s really not who we are. I think you need to know that pretty carefully and care for your brand as Manhattan Fruitier does. You have beautiful products. What did Ben always say? “We use the best ingredients regardless of cost.” and we still stand by that. We’re not going to cut back on the ingredients because they are expensive.

What sets H.S. apart from other chocolatiers?

I think the unique designs and shapes. The fact that we make chocolate by hand here at our own factory and that there is a real story and history to the company.

Also, before it was a big marketing tool, we’ve been donating a minimum of 5% of our profits to community organizations. We don’t talk about that a lot because I don’t believe in doing that in order to market your product. I believe in doing it because it’s the right thing to do. Everybody tells me I’m crazy and I should be promoting it more. It’s in our catalog but it’s something I have very mixed emotions about publicizing. However it’s something we believe in strongly. We say we donate 5% of our profits; that’s our cash donation but we do far more than that. We support many organizations.

 What kind of community outreach?

We work with the Salem C.D.C. which provides housing for this neighborhood. We work with the Salem Boys and Girls Club. The local food bank. I’m also on the board of the House of Seven Gables which most people recognize as a historic property but they also use the proceeds to fund community service outreach. It started as an organization that helped immigrants acclimate to the U.S. and that’s still a big part of what they are doing, helping people who are new to the U.S. acclimate to the community and learn English.

house of seven.jpgThe House of the Seven Gables built in 1668 is the oldest surviving wooden mansion in New England.
The property inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his beloved novel of the same name. 

Harbor Sweets used to divide its community service work between the arts, human outreach and land resources. Now we’ve found we have mostly gone to just helping people because there is such a huge need.

What’s a great day at Harbor Sweets?

Wow, so many. A great day would be anything from having a fabulous tour with a group of Girl Scouts to getting and filling a big order. When the new catalog comes out it’s a really great day. Anytime we have to taste something.

You’re considered one of New England’s best chocolatiers. That distinction sets a high standard. What’s your secret to achieving and maintaining that standard?

All that we’ve talked about but it’s also our people, our employees. Many have been here  20+ years. They have great pride in their work and what they do. Sometimes at the height of the season we think about ways to cut corners and sometimes we’ll say, “Okay, don’t spend a half an hour on the bows. Get the product out the door!” But they’ll say, “But it has to look good!” Our employees are sometimes stricter about the quality than we are. It’s always a balance. But it’s better to have employees who care. The people who take great pride in their work is an important and valued part of our business.

Often, people will buy our chocolates because someone has an affinity for sailing, for instance, so it’s a cute product, but what’s kept us in business for 40 years is that it’s not just a fun theme, it’s that it’s really good and that there are people that care behind the products.

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A passion for handcrafted foods and love for their natural, aesthetic beauty brought Sarah Palmer to Manhattan Fruitier over 15 years ago where she has helped shape the art of gifting, designing fresh fruit baskets and fine food gifts of unequaled beauty and quality.

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