BURTON, Ohio — Pecan turtles, the gooey caramel and nut confections dunked in dark or milk chocolate, are piled in the showcase.
Decadent truffles drizzled with thin wisps of pink chocolate rest nearby, bordered by golden trays of peanut butter buckeyes almost as big as grapefruits.
It’s every chocoholic‘s dream to be surrounded by pound after pound of the candies. But for Eric Hart and his family, operators of Buckeye Chocolate Company in Geauga County, their sweet surroundings are everyday life.
Even before you step inside the chocolate factory housed in the Newbury Business Park, you’re aware there’s something sweet and fun going on inside.
Instead of being labeled as “employees only,” the door leading to the chocolate factory’s warehouse bears a simple three-word sign: “Oompa Loompa entrance.”
Inside, however, you won’t find any orange-skinned, green-haired workers, nor is there a chocolate river or fizzy lifting drinks. Here, Hart family members and a select few employees are busy coating Pringles and pecans with milk chocolate and putting the final touches on their sweet wares.
The Harts — Dennis and his sons, Brian, Craig and Eric — haven’t always been chocolatemakers. In fact, before they turned to chocolate, the sweet stuff that bore the family name was maple syrup.
On their Claridon-area farm, the Harts tapped some 100 acres of maple trees as a sideline to their veal operation. Eric Hart, 27, vividly recalls spending all day, every day, of his summer vacation in the early 1990s working next to his father and brothers to clip grapevines and thread rubber tubing from the trees to the sugarhouse.
They peddled their syrup to area Giant Eagle groceries and at arts and craft shows.
At one of those shows, Dennis picked up a bag of cinnamon roasted almonds for a snack. He liked them so much he decided to invest in the recipe and a nut roaster. The sweet-and-salty nuts soon held their own alongside the syrup, then were joined by purchased prewrapped fudge, beef jerky and honey sticks.
The family used snacks to fill the rest of their vendor tables at each show and, before long, Eric Hart recounts, their popular turtles and chocolates completely displaced the syrup.
“We were doing more traveling to the shows and the winter months became our busy time, the same as [running syrup taps],” he said. “The chocolate was more lucrative, so we stopped the veal and syrup.
“There was this excitement. Woo-hoo! There were no more holes to drill for taps, no more buckets of milk to feed. We broke out the chain saws, cut out the stalls and celebrated,” Hart recalls.
From farm to factory
Today, Eric and his brother Craig run the 4,000-square-foot factory and retail store, while Brian heads up the show crews and Dennis runs the office.
The demand for chocolate from retail customers and other vendors they supply is strong enough to keep the four men on their toes and the factory running daily.
Their Buckeye Chocolate label is known for its tasty contributions to trade shows from Tampa to Des Moines, a circuit that keeps four to five crews busy year-round.
Closer to home, the label is recognized in more than 40 Giant Eagle stores, plus other grocers like Heinen’s and Buehler’s.
Some of the most popular confections to pump from the factory’s machines are chocolate-covered Oreos and Pringles, pecan turtles, red chocolate covered dried cherries, peanut and cashew brittles and the old standby, cinnamon nuts.
Hart said the nuts are still growing in popularity — the family distributes half a ton of them every two weeks through wholesale distributors. On the input end, the Harts use more than an entire semi-load of peanuts, almonds and cashews per year.
To keep the factory running, it also takes about 30,000 pounds of raw chocolate per year — enough to turn out 30 tons of finished bite-size goodies — plus 5,000 pounds of sugar per month.
“The good thing is, we’re only 4 years old and we’re still looking to grow a lot,” Hart said.
If indications are spot on, the business has lots of growth waiting ahead.
“People are still finding us through word of mouth, the Internet, or if they see us at a store or show,” Hart said. “We’ve been here, but even local people still tell us they never knew about us.”
The family’s short-term goal is to open another retail store this year, perhaps in the Solon or Chardon area, to get their sweets more storefront exposure. They’ve also got a full line of fundraiser chocolate bars in the works, along with a number of corporate gifting programs.
Their growth — past, present and projected — has allowed them to continually update their equipment, including the recent addition of a new chocolate pump.
“Getting new equipment is really rewarding. I’d take a bigger chocolate melter before I took a bigger paycheck,” Hart admitted. “Anything to make the job easier on all of us.”
The greatest recipe
Hart said he believes his father’s greatest pride is developing the veal, syrup and chocolate businesses and bringing his three sons into all of them.
There’s plenty of pride, too, in watching as the third generation of Harts takes an interest in chocolates and sugary treats.
“The kids are our greatest taste testers. And half the time we don’t even know they’re tasting,” he joked.
The Harts’ new version of a sugar shack — one whose rubber hoses pump liquid chocolate instead of maple syrup — is proving very popular with consumers everywhere.
“We can’t make the stuff fast enough. We’re always out of something.”
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