Hot chocolate

Gourmet candies are transforming the confectionery aisle.

Don’t call it the “candy aisle” anymore. The term “bonbonnière” is much more apropos.
That’s because the supermarket confectionery department is in the midst of a major upscale transformation. As consumer tastes evolve and retailers seek niches to set themselves apart from increasingly fierce competition, the mainstream products that have dominated the aisle for generations are being pushed aside by fancy truffles, gourmet bars and elegant boxes filled with single-source and gourmet offerings rivaling those found in Europe’s finest chocolatiers.

Many upscale confections will be on display at the Winter Fancy Food Show, which is slated for Jan. 15-17 in San Francisco.

“Supermarkets have definitely recognized that the growth in the confectionery market in general is happening in the more premium and gourmet segments,” says Allyson Myers, director of sales, at Lake Champlain Chocolates , based in Burlington, Vt.

According to manufacturers, the growth is being driven by more refined taste buds.
“The larger chocolate companies have a real problem because the youth of today don’t like the historic flavor of low-quality chocolate,” says Art Pollard, president of Orem, Utah-based Amano Artisan Chocolate. “The whole market is shifting, but the interesting thing is there really isn’t that much fine quality cacao in the world, so the large companies couldn’t offer artisan chocolate even if they wanted to.”

In recent years brands once exclusive to specialty and department stores, such as Godiva and Lindt, have made their way into supermarkets. For example, in November, Stratham, N.H.-based Lindt USA introduced its Lindt Excellence Cranberry bar in Target, and is now making it available to supermarkets.

While the large gourmet brands have become candy aisle mainstays, many retailers are turning to small niche brands to set themselves apart from the competition. Retailers looking to seek out a unique chocolate might want to reach out to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (www.FineChocolateIndustry.org), a Seattle-based trade group representing more than 250 small chocolate manufacturers.

“We are only five years old and started with 15 members and are up over 250 now,” says Mary Jo Stojak, executive director. Most of the association’s members source ingredients locally, offering retailers a chance to provide product with a local connection, she says.
In New York, for example, that might mean stocking bars from Astoria, N.Y.-based Gnosis, a raw, vegan, organic, low-glycemic sustainable chocolate billed as “the world’s most nutritious chocolate.”

“All of our chocolates are sweetened with agave nectar instead of sugar, so they are actually diabetic friendly,” says Vanessa Barg, founder and owner. “They are all infused with medicinal herbs and super-foods so they have functionality. Super Choc has gogi berries, raspberries and herbs for cognitive function and mental clarity for your immune system. Our Aphrodisia Chocolate has six aphrodisiac herbs, including horny goat weed.”
Another unique selling proposition is that all Gnosis chocolate is “raw.” “None of our ingredients have ever been heated over 118 degrees,” Barg says.

At Washington, D.C.-based Divine Chocolate, Inc. the USP is that all of its ingredients are certified Fair Trade. “What makes us totally different from any other company is that we are 45% owned by Kuapa Kokoo, the 50,000-member farmer’s cooperative in Ghana that produces the cacao,” says Alan Slimming, general manager.

French chocolatier Valrhona, which has U.S. offices in Brooklyn, N.Y., was the first company to differentiate the cacao content in its confections, a now common practice, and its bars are origin specific. However, Valrhona is also doing a booming business with its disc-shaped bulk chocolates.

“More consumers are buying our chocolates in bulk for baking,” says Anthony Valla, chief operating officer, Valrhona North America. “They like to do what they see the TV chefs doing, so they come home and do a molten chocolate cake or a chocolate mousse,” he says, noting that retailers, such as Fresh Market, will repackage the discs into 1-pound bags. “With that one pound you can do two or three recipes and feed 10 people.”

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