, Newburyport, MA

September 27, 2013

Raising the bar

Salem's Harbor Sweets celebrates 40 years, introduces new line of chocolates


---- — It’s smooth sailing at chocolate candy maker Harbor Sweets.

The Salem company marked its 40th anniversary this month with a celebration at Peabody Essex Museum and is celebrating another milestone — a new line of chocolates.

“It’s been about 12 years since we introduced a whole new line,” said Harbor Sweets owner and CEO Phyllis LeBlanc.

Called Salt and Ayre, the new line marks a departure from the traditional chocolate, toffee, pecan, caramel and orange flavors that Harbor Sweets is known for.

There’s an almond butter crunch with toffee sprinkled with sea salt, a caramel garnished with Himalayan pink salt and a crystallized ginger candy topped with Thai ginger sea salt. The new line has four truffles that include one sprinkled with coffee crisps and another decorated with coffee beans.

The line took two years to develop, said LeBlanc, who said she probably ate more chocolate during this time than she ever has as the company experimented with various flavor combinations.

Harbor Sweets was founded by Marblehead resident Ben Strohecker, who moved the business from his home to its present location on Leavitt Street in Salem not long before LeBlanc answered an ad for a part-time chocolate dipper. At the time, she was studying business at Salem State College. LeBlanc was hired and rose up through the candy factory’s ranks; 14 years ago, she bought the majority stake.

Despite being a small company, Harbor Sweets is internationally known. The company has its own gift shop on Leavitt Street, and buyers can pick up boxes in shops across the region, including WishBasket at The Tannery Marketplace in Newburyport. Its chocolates are sold to the White House and shipped as far away as Switzerland and Japan.

The company produces 50 tons of chocolates a year from its red brick factory, in the former Eaton Pharmacy warehouse, and employs about 50 people year-round. But that number nearly doubles in the months leading into Christmas, said Billie Phillips, vice president of marketing. About 70 percent of the company’s business is done in the fall, as many corporate businesses buy gifts for their clients.

“We are definitely a seasonal-driven company,” Phillips said.

Many of Harbor Sweets’ workers, including seasonal employees, have been with the company 20 years or more.

“I don’t think the workers appreciate how talented they are at what they are doing,” LeBlanc said.

While there are machines involved in the cooling, drying, coating in chocolate and wrapping of the candies (two of its foiling machines are antique), much of the work is done by hand, including Harbor Sweets’ signature chocolate, the Sweet Sloop.

To make the sailboat-shaped almond butter crunch, a worker carefully smooths out the molten butter crunch into a tabletop-sized rectangle formed by metal bars. As the butter crunch hardens, he uses rollers to cut the toffee into triangles. The factory can churn out 28,000 Sweet Sloops a day, Phillips said. It’s the chocolate that started the company.

When a ship bell rings, it’s all hands on deck. About a half-dozen workers come from various stations to help with the creation of sand dollars. A worker quickly forms dollops of hot caramel onto parchment after it is cooked in copper kettles. Before it hardens, workers sort and press pecans into the dollops. These later go to a molding area where the hardened caramel and pecan are placed in a sand-dollar mold and covered in dark chocolate.

LeBlanc said the decision was made long ago not to sacrifice the quality of the chocolates by turning to machines.

“There is a real difference between a mechanized product and one that is handmade,” LeBlanc said.

Strohecker, the founder, said it was his goal to make the best candy in the world regardless of cost. He was the marketing director for Schrafft’s Candies when he came up with the Sweet Sloop. He remains on Harbor Sweets’ board and is the largest minority stakeholder.

“The main thing, it’s been a blessing,” he said of the company’s success, which he said was built on quality, trust and a commitment to making innovative chocolate candies.

“So many things happened that did not have to do with Harvard Business School learning,” Strohecker said.