My wife and I have a twice-yearly tradition of spending our respective birthdays together traveling to some new place or attraction as a one-day road trip — partly as an excuse to spend time together on those most wondrous days, partly to explore areas of Indiana we’ve never experienced before. My 2016 birthday destination of choice: the northern Indiana city of Elkhart, with a bonus stopover in South Bend, both some 100+ miles north of here. Elkhart was regrettably cut a little short because the weather was miserable and tried to freeze us in our tracks, but we had enough fun to fill out another four-part miniseries starring a candy factory tour, a super-hero roadside attraction, and a selection of the “art” in Elkhart. Also, food.
Part One of Four: a tour through a chocolate factory, conducted without a single child casualty. It can be done, Mr. Wonka, you demented jerk.
Longtime MCC readers who’ve followed us through our annual visits to the Indianapolis Flower & Patio Show or the Christmas Gift & Hobby Show have heard the name of the South Bend Chocolate Company, one of the best vendors to attend all the really good expositions at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. We’re fans of their wares and rarely pass by their booths without buying at least a quarter-pound of chocolatey goodness.
This is their house.
They have a few locations around town, but this one houses their corporate offices and the modest factory that cranks out millions of treats for all locations. Every location has the important basics, by which I mean display cases filled with chocolate in various forms and combinations.
In addition to the mass-produced snacks, they also take special orders from other companies for themed limited editions, also available here for visitors at a price.
South Bend naturally caters to holiday shoppers on Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and any other excuses we can make up to buy each other sugary edibles. Some require more effort to eat than others.
To learn more about chocolate, be sure to visit your local library, or you can check out their free Chocolate Museum, a single backroom with collections of vintage chocolate memorabilia and paraphernalia commemorating great moments in chocolate history.
In a creative act of recycling, their primary supplier recently began saving all their cocoa shells and selling them as garden mulch. I’m not sure if your vegetable garden will absorb any flavors from it, but I’d be open to experimenting with it if we had a vegetable garden.
A few displays in the front lobby show off bits of the chocolate farming process. Our free(!) factory tour began there with a brief lesson in the differences between cocoa pods, cocoa beans, and cocoa nibs — each a different step in the life cycle of the cacao plant that sustains 90% of all human life in America.
Before moving from the lobby to the factory floor, we all had to don hairnets for food safety compliance. As the only bearded person in our tour group, I had to wear twice as many nets as everyone else.
Our gregarious, animated tour guide — who told us his nickname ’round these parts is “Hot Latte” — escorted us to the employees’ areas, where there were zero workers on hand because this was a Saturday. He showed us where the magic actually begins, with a Chicago supplier who provides ten-pound chocolate bricks as their raw materials to melt and reshape into whatever forms come to mind.
That manila vat behind him is filled with milk chocolate, kept heated and constantly stirred. Each of the basic chocolate forms have their own vat. Dark chocolate is kept in this white vat, maybe because it’s the real hero of their story.
A lineup of giant mixers can be used for additional concocting as needed. A nearby table is used for cooling and chopping chocolate into traditional bite-sized units.
This was the machinery Anne and I had come to see: the conveyor belts! One worker places the chocolates at one end and runs them through the machine for their various additions, depending on what specific kind of chocolate candies they’re making that day. Another worker catches and adds the mandatory little wrapper. Repeat times a zillion, and eventually you have classic yummy products for sale.
The machines can turn different colors depending on the candies involved. This one had been used for pumpkin-based confections the day before.
If the conveyors remind anyone over 30 of a certain famous TV show…they’re well aware and fully embracing it.
After cutting but before toppings or insertions, chocolates go on pans to cool and await their true calling.
And it all comes down to this: single chocolates for fun and frivolity. Each of us received one (1) free chocolate as a reward for behaving on the tour.
Those who paid extra for the longer behind-the-scenes tour followed Hot Latte back to other secret rooms while the rest of us were released back to the chocolate shop to spend money on goodies. The longer tour wasn’t expensive, but we were short on time and had to move on. We appreciated the experience and commend Mr. Latte for his informative lecture and his keen live-performance skills. We were also grateful that he didn’t leave any of us behind to die. For that alone the South Bend Chocolate Factory scores bonus points in our book.