February 21, 2014 10:51AM
By Molly Callahan
MERIDEN — With Val-entine’s Day just over and Easter about two months away, it is the busiest time of year at Thompson Candy. This was quickly apparent to U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty during her tour of the factory Tuesday.
Esty, D-5th District, supported a sugar reform amendment attached to the farm bill that failed in congress this past summer. Part of a bigger agriculture reform bill, the sugar amendment would have repealed trade restrictions and reformed domestic supply restrictions on sugar, Esty said. These restrictions promote the purchase of domestic sugar at the expense of foreign sugar, forcing American sugar consumers to pay higher prices.
“We’re sorry we couldn’t get that passed for you,” Esty said to Thompson Chocolate CEO Gene Dunkin. “But let’s see what you’re doing anyway.”
The factory, which has been in Meriden since 1879, is in a 100-year-old building on South Vine Street and has about 100 full-time employees, the vast majority local residents.
They process more than 15,000 pounds of chocolate daily, and the scent permeates the entire 120,000-square-foot building.
“You never get sick of it,” said Technical Director Kirsten Sullivan, an employee for 17 years.
In a storage room surrounded by palates of blocks of chocolate, Esty, a dark chocolate fan, said, “This is intimidating, even for someone who loves chocolate.”
The factory is pumping out chocolate rabbits, eggs, and coins, as well as a bevy of less seasonal items, such as almond bark.
Many of the intricate chocolate creations get their own custom foil and ribbon.
“You just can’t achieve the same level of detail and authenticity when you’re foiling automatically,” said the company’s Chief Operating Officer, Bob Lis. “It’s a point of pride for us.”
The rabbits being made and wrapped Tuesday were on their way to See’s Candies in California.
“Everyone from California knows See’s Candies,” Esty said. “Often you’ll see them in gift baskets from the area.”
Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave a box of See’s Candies to members of Congress at Christmas because the company is located in her home district.
“Wait until she finds out that they’re actually made right here in Meriden, in my district,” said Esty, who is planning to give Pelosi a chocolate rabbit from Thompson Candy.
About 45 percent of Thompson’s sales come from a manufacturing partnership with See’s Candies. A quarter of sales come from Adora calcium supplements, a product spearheaded by Sullivan a few years ago, and 16 percent from novelty Thompson chocolates, such as chocolate eggs. The rest comes from private label and company store sales.
“People want to buy American products, and I think they’re much more attentive to what they’re eating, and that works in your favor,” Esty said.