With the Christmas season now just sweet memories dancing in our heads, the kitchen at Bissinger's Handcrafted Chocolatier continues to hum with activity—robing, coating and panning delicious confection centers, fruits and nuts—as the next big ‘chocolate’ holiday approaches: Valentine’s Day.
But the flurry of activity at Bissinger’s isn’t just in the kitchen, according to VP of taste and chief chocolatier Dave Owens, who joined the company more than six years ago after closing his Central West End restaurant, Terrene, to oversee Bissinger’s day-to-day operations and to upgrade its food safety program. With new ownership taking the reins in 2013, Owens says that Bissinger’s is preparing to move its operations downtown later this year to a newly renovated 220,000-square-foot building, which also will feature a distinctive event space. “It will be a premiere event space like no other,” Owens notes. “We should be able to seat about 350—with a patio—all on top of a chocolate factory!”
Owens also points out that the new location will allow for fresh possibilities for green practices. “Our new ownership is very open-minded about where we should position ourselves as a company, and there are a lot of exciting opportunities ahead of us,” he says. “I think we're going to see more green initiatives when we move into our new building later in 2014, like with packaging and waste reduction.”
Another positive program at Bissinger’s that works to take better care of Mother Earth is its certified Rainforest Alliance product line, sourcing cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, which is the largest growing region of beans in the world, according to Owens. “A few years ago, we saw the need to develop this program when our customers started asking about it,” he explains. “We felt that we needed to take a stand on responsibly sourced cocoa. We chose to partner with the Rainforest Alliance because of its presence in the fields with the farmers, helping them to be better stewards of the forest, to grow cocoa more profitably and to take better care of their families. And we really feel that this is a partnership: We learn from them, and hopefully, they learn from us.”
Currently, Bissinger’s offers Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa in its panned items like chocolate-covered almonds, cranberries, blueberries and wine grapes, and in its bar lines, including milk and dark chocolates, as well as its Quinoa Agave Crunch, Dulce de Leche Bar, Banana Pecan Caramel Peruvian Pink Salt and Coconut Caramel with Red Hawaiian Sea Salt. “Our goal is to continue advancing with the Rainforest Alliance certification with our other products, as well,” Owens notes.
Owens also says that Bissinger’s popular Chocolate and Wine Pairings, which take place the third Thursday of each month, will start back up on Feb. 20 at Bissinger’s at Maryland Plaza. “We offer these as an educational experience and as an opportunity to slow down, relax and enjoy,” he explains. “You know, folks talk about the health benefits of wine and chocolate, but I feel that the real health benefit is to just stop and have a very nice piece of chocolate with a good glass of wine, and basically pause, reflect and enjoy yourself. Also, there is a lot to compare and contrast with chocolate and wine. We don't just pair with our solid chocolates—we use pieces with centers because those other components add to the experience. Our goal is to show how one plus one equals three, meaning that the chocolate and the wine together are not just the some of the parts but are actually better together than they would be separately. Or if not better, then they are certainly different with their unique flavors enhanced.” Along with chocolate and wine, Owens points out that Bissinger’s also offers chocolate pairings with beer, spirits, coffee and tea that are produced both locally and around the world.
Bissinger’s long, prolific history dates back to France in 1668. A few centuries later, in 1927, Karl Bissinger moved the company from Cincinnati to St. Louis. Owens notes that a number of the old, original recipes are still in use today by the company. “The vanilla caramel, for one, is the base recipe that goes back all those hundreds of years ago. It’s the starting point for any caramel that we make—it's tried and it's true, and it works,” he says. “Certainly, we have made some adjustments when making all of our different flavors because we are using natural ingredients, while trying to get the most intense flavors.” Owens adds it is now the responsibility of Bissinger’s current leadership to keep the company going. “I really feel that the folks who are here now have a responsibility to the folks who came before us, who worked very hard to produce confections under the Bissinger name. I think we have successfully evolved in producing great confections.”
(Green Gourmet note: Can you guess Bissinger’s best-selling item for Valentine’s Day? If you guessed its hand-packed, heart-shaped boxes with assorted chocolates, you would be correct!)