Saturday, April 1, 2023

Sweet, Sweet Love from Gardners’ Tyrone factory

Nothing says, “I love you” like an iconic, heart-shaped box of chocolates. But nothing says, “I am really, super-duper, madly in love with you” like a satin, heart-shaped box full of fresh, locally made, flawless Gardners Candies (hint, hint, guys!).

“Our product is a gift-giving product,” says Gardners president Joe DeStadio. “I think it just expresses the gifter’s respect for the giftee, that you want to give a nice quality piece of chocolate, and that’s what we have here.”

There’s an expression about “seeing how the sausage is made” that denotes something distasteful. But seeing how Gardners Candies are made in the company’s Tyrone factory is downright tasty

If you ever have the chance to take a tour, be prepared to show some self-restraint, as hundreds of molds full of creamy, chocolatey, peanut buttery goodness appear at every turn; ribbons of silky smooth chocolate cascade over pretzels, nuts, and novelties; and you must pass by a giant kettle full of warm, pure Peanut Butter Meltaway filling, mixing away. 

“You could stick a hunk of celery in there,” DeStadio jokes as we walk by. 

Gardners employs about 60 people at the factory and another 50 or so at their seven stores. DeStadio says his favorite part of the candy-making process is “just watching it being made. It’s fascinating with some of the machinery. We still do a lot of hand labor here, and we also have automation.”

The kitchen is where prep takes place for the caramel, peanut brittle, and anything that is cooked in the kettles and needs to be poured on huge, heavy marble tables. 

“The marble pulls away the heat quickly so it sets up and we can do whatever we need to do—cut it into small pieces if it gets chocolate-covered, break it up. The peanut brittle gets broken up by hand,” explains DeStadio. 

The day I visited Gardners, a group of men was working on a batch of broken-salted-pretzel eggs (a new flavor) for Easter. They poured the filling into plastic molds and put the molds in a cold room to set up. Eventually, “We’ll stick ’em upside down, pop ’em out, and they’ll get covered in chocolate,” Jim, an employee in the kitchen, told me. 

Does Jim still like chocolate, having worked with it for 13 years now? 

“Oh yeah! I don’t eat as much as I used to,” he says. “Actually, I like all the centers we make here in the kitchen. I like it before it gets the chocolate on it. I like any kind of center—nougat, or the creams that we make. I will eat the chocolate, but I’m more of a fan before it gets the chocolate on it. 

“Now and then you’ll [have a mold that comes up short] and you’ll have to test it to make sure it’s alright,” Jim continues. “That’s a problem you have to deal with,” he says with a laugh. “I used to be about 98 pounds when I started working here.”

DeStadio says Gardners’ new recipes are developed by its sister company, Sarris Candies, based in the Pittsburgh area, which acquired Gardners in 1997. 

When asked what his favorite Gardners product is, DeStadio shares, “I’m hooked on the chocolate meltaway. It’s our chocolate that we add coconut oil to, and a secret ingredient, and it has the same consistency as a center, with dark chocolate.”

What products the employees make can change by the day. A batch of creams, for example, requires 100 to 120 pounds of center, so they’ll make a bunch at once. Sometimes though, depending on what’s needed, they’ll cut the recipe in half, just as you would at home. Gardners does a lot of private label work, too, although DeStadio confirms that Peanut Butter Meltaways are Gardners’ biggest seller—“by far.” 

How many Peanut Butter Meltaways does Gardners sell, exactly? 

“Oh goodness,” DeStadio answers. “It really doesn’t matter which shape—we buy over a million pounds of chocolate every year, so piece-wise, that’s a tough one to answer.”

Moving on with our tour, we observe workers placing pretzel rods onto an enrobing machine, where they’re covered in peanut butter first, then chocolate. DeStadio says these are “very popular with fundraisers.” An older enrobing machine works beside the new one. “It still does the same thing, but obviously, the width of the belt is a lot smaller.” (A bigger belt means more chocolate/peanut butter pretzels, more fundraising, and more delicious happiness all around!)

Gardners has gotten in on the hot cocoa bomb craze, offering a milk chocolate shell filled with sweet cocoa powder and mini marshmallows that can be added to hot milk for an instant mug of warm winter joy. 

Another specialty item Gardners sells is the party “bash cake.” In the next spacious room, employees fill hollow milk chocolate “pinatas” by hand with chocolate-covered pretzels, Peanut Butter Meltaways, and other treasures and fit the top and bottom together with more chocolate. A little hammer is included in the cake kit.

As DeStadio mentioned, Gardners still does a fair amount of work by hand, which explains why every piece of chocolate that leaves the facility is impeccable. It isn’t until one enters the automated section of factory, “the rock ’n’ roll room,” as DeStadio calls it, shouting above the Electric Light Orchestra’s Don’t Bring Me Down blasting overhead, that there is an assembly-line, I Love Lucy-at-the-chocolate-factory feeling.

Mixing with the upbeat music is a syncopated beat of pistons creating beautiful Peanut Butter Meltaways—the signature “cloud-like squares of whipped peanut butter covered in a thick and rich coating of Gardners’ milk chocolate” (can’t you just taste it?). 

Coating pretzel rods with creamy Gardners chocolate (Photo by Syed Karimushan)

“The peanut butter is already inside that chocolate,” says DeStadio. “The machine deposits chocolate, peanut butter, and chocolate that fast. This is an old piece of equipment that runs every day. When this breaks down, we’re in trouble. We’ve got to keep this thing running.”

Gardners employs one full-time mechanic who services and maintains all the machinery. Workers also clean every piece of equipment thoroughly at the end of each day—no simple task, considering the number of parts and the nature of the chunky/sticky/gooey products that pass through them. 

Rock music, pumping pistons, and a hissing air release mix with a rhythmic banging noise supplied by a hammer that knocks the meltaways from their molds (after they’ve passed through a series of cooling tunnels) and onto a belt. DeStadio admires the sheen of the hundreds of identical little cubes. 

“See that shine to it?” he says. “That’s properly tempered chocolate—it’s perfect.” 

The chocolates pass through a metal detector that would stop the assembly line if anything dangerous were detected. Then on to John, who moves energetically in hot red sneakers to usher the meltaways to their packaging. Beyond John and a handful of other employees helping to get the treats wrapped and boxed properly are two women loading 10-pound blocks of chocolate—in tablet form, like the Ten Commandments—into another huge kettle. 

The machine that wraps the chocolate pieces in a foil sleeve and then in paper operates like a fine Swiss timepiece, moving rapidly with precise movements and nary room for a hair’s-width margin of error. 

“The engineering to make this piece of equipment fascinates me because everything has to work exactly according to the way it’s supposed to work—it’s really cool,” DeStadio remarks. “When this breaks down, it gets a little messy.” 

Gardners celebrated its 125th birthday last year. So, what sets this company’s chocolates apart from the immense competition, I ask DeStadio, after watching thousands of exquisite, carefully crafted works of edible art move through the factory. 

“Quality, I think, by far,” he says. “Our ingredients are high-quality, they’re not cheap, and they’ve been that way since day one.

“We’re into capturing all the generational customers,” DeStadio goes on. “My grandparents ate Gardners chocolate, my parents did, I am, and you want your kids to come along and eat it, too. So that’s what we’re building here. Kids still like the gummy, crappy stuff, but chocolate is obviously something they can enjoy, too.”

Zoe Esperseth, Gardners’ new digital media specialist, uses social media to promote brand awareness and to reach a broader audience but says, “Overall, we have a very loyal customer base. We have one lady who comments all the time from Arizona, and she talks about how she wishes she could come back to the Tyrone store and shop for all her Gardeners products.”

Esperseth uses a lot of imagery in marketing Gardners, “because not only do our products taste really good, but they look really good, too. A lot of our social media is promoting the products we have with eye-catching shots of what they look like inside and out, with photos of the process of how it’s made from beginning to end, how it gets from our factory to people’s doors, if they buy it online and have it shipped, or if they buy it in one of our stores.” 

Alexandra Cervini-Mull (my sister-in-law) is a Michigan native who lives in Washington, D.C., now. She fell for Gardners fast and hard. When she receives a box of Gardners chocolates (which she now expects every Christmas), she has a strategy for working her way through the box. 

“I’m excited to see what is inside and I know every piece will be delicious,” she says. “I use the map provided with the one-pound deluxe chocolate box. I prioritize the caramels first [because they are my favorite]. Then the peanut butter ones. Then nuts and the different meltaways. Then I move to the creams.

“Gardners chocolate offers little tastes of luxury,” Cervini-Mull concludes. “They bring joy to ordinary days, and the chocolates have a timeless flavor, no matter what type you try.”

Amen to that! T&G

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer who lives in Philipsburg.