Opening a chocolate factory is no small feat. Whether you’re passionate about making delicious bean-to-bar chocolate, artisanal confections, or just familiar favorites like almond butter toffee - it can be done. In this blog post, we’ll go over the steps necessary to open our state-of-the-art chocolate factory in the heart of the Texas wine industry in Fredericksburg, Texas. From idea to creating a product for sale - keep reading to learn more!
First, plan what type of chocolate you want to make
There are so many ways to go in developing a chocolate factory so decide first on the mission and vision for the business. Most people decide on a niche or at most two distinct lines of products and put their energy there. In our case at Hill Country Chocolate, we wanted to create a chocolate experience. A place where guests could be immersed in all that chocolate has to offer.
We wanted to create a destination environment and that required becoming experts in all things chocolate. We have three different divisions within the company including bean-to-bar where we source cacao from around the world and manufacture chocolate here in Fredericksburg, to crafting artisanal bonbons and classic European confections, and finally making traditional American-style brittles, caramels, and toffees that reminded customers of their childhood.
This meant we needed a manufacturing space as well a retail storefront.
Finding a Building
This may be the most difficult step. It certainly was for us. In our geography, as is the case in many parts of the world - real estate is expensive. And for an open factory concept with large windows where people can see our processes live as if they were in a studio, customers expect Willy Wonka.
Building a chocolate factory is not easy, especially when it comes to meeting local, state, and federal regulations. Facilities for food manufacturing are heavily regulated by various bodies at all levels of government to ensure the safety of consumers. Everything from having a grease trap and wipable walls to having food-grade air for machines must be factored into your decision and budget.
We managed much of the construction ourselves including coordinating our contractors and equipment vendors. We also leveraged online resources such as Upwork to find electrical engineers, designers, and even an artist to do a 3D rendering we needed for approval of our winery application.
We also wanted a retail store as part of our factory and this is a completely separate planning process. Different finishes including our tasting or chocolate room all had to be designed to be customer friendly and to be consistent with our brand image.
What is your Golden Ticket? Be Distinctive
Sure, you can open a chocolate shop - and if this is your passion then by all means do it. But the food manufacturing space is competitive and today consumers have instant access to all things creative. Find your distinctive niche that will drive customers to your product.
At Hill Country Chocolate we wanted to aim for the highest quality, have multiple products where customers are immersed in chocolate, and offer a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. Our Premiere Wine & Chocolate Experience which has been featured in Texas Monthly and D Magazine embodies our vision of what we were trying to create. This is an ultra-luxury tasting that includes wines from our own winery DKM Cellars and pairs them with a variety of European and American chocolates and confections. This was our distinctive golden ticket in our business plan and fits nicely with the wine tour opportunities in the Texas Hill Country.
People and Machines
Sourcing equipment can be one of the most fun and frustrating parts of building a chocolate factory. With so many different options on the market, from vintage machines to modern equipment with all the bells and whistles, finding the right combination for your needs is essential.
Today's chocolate equipment manufacturers are largely headquartered in Europe, with some major companies located in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. This is due to the centuries-old history of craftsmanship and attention to detail that comes with producing high-quality chocolate products. You can also source amazing equipment from Asia.
Buying new equipment is expensive and requires extremely long lead times. Chocolate and confectionery machines rarely lose their value. I recently sold a machine that I had owned for almost two decades (and I bought it used off of eBay!) for 30% more than I paid for it. And if you want a new machine you can expect on average a 6-month wait for it to be manufactured and shipped to the U.S.
In the past, eBay was a great source of used equipment, but you will rarely find specialized chocolate equipment there today. There is such a demand that most machines are sold by dedicated chocolate and confectionery auction houses like Union Machinery in New York.
Reach out and form relationships with manufacturers such as Tomic in Buffalo, New York which represents Selmi Chocolate Systems, and Savage Brothers in Chicago which still manufactures confectionery equipment. Tell them what your vision is and they will help you figure out the best machines to buy.
In our area finding trained chocolatiers would be a surprise. So we engineered our chocolate factory to leverage our workforce with technology. You can't buy a machine and have it just make chocolate confections - it doesn't work that way - but you can train employees easier with good machines and they can create higher-quality products more efficiently.
Use Equipment to Boost Efficiency
We recently added a One-Shot Depositor that will create chocolate shells and fill them with one step greatly increasing our efficiency and lowering our cost of creating artisanal bonbons. And, it can be operated by a single employee.
Your Products Must Taste and Look Delicious
This is the deal breaker in your business plan. Taste is probably the most important, but looks matter too. We live in a very visual world where details of your products will be shared with everyone via social media and online reviews and forums. Focus on quality, taste, and details.
In our factory, we have a chocolate room or tasting room that overlooks our factory floor. When we do our live interactive wine and chocolate tastings we get to sit across the table from our customers who are sampling our products so we get immediate feedback. This is an amazing opportunity in our business to continually refine our recipes and the visual appeal of our chocolates and confections.
I can't stress this enough: get feedback from your customers and use it to make your products better. No one wants an average rating!
Packaging Business or Chocolate Business?
Creating amazing confections that look and taste good might be the easy part. Finding ways to display and package them for sale is incredibly complicated, especially in this challenging post-Covid era. Most product packaging for chocolate was made in China which all but stopped during the pandemic. So expect to pay more and have much longer lead times, especially for custom products.
One part of your overall design process will include your logo, website, and e-commerce platform. It was important to us that the brand image of our product, factory and retail store, and website all aligned to be a part of a single soundtrack of quality.
A Word about Regulations
Chocolate manufacturing in the United States is heavily regulated by local and state governments, as well as the federal government. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plays an important role in keeping food safe, by issuing regulations and enforcing them through inspections and recalls. These regulations cover everything from how food is packaged and labeled to the sanitary conditions of your factory.
In addition to the FDA, most facilities are also regulated by state and local city health authorities as well. These health authorities are in charge of regularly inspecting, monitoring, and enforcing rules related to food safety and sanitation.
Start early - very early - on your journey through food regulations and incorporate them into your business plan. You will likely need to take some classes and online education to become an expert in these issues but it will pay off in the end. You will make a higher quality and safer product that will only enhance your brand identity.
Opening a chocolate factory requires careful planning and dedication but it's possible if done right! And you can be golden ticket winners and be your own Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!