It had been five years since my last visit to the Bissinger’s plant on Gratiot, and a whole lot has changed since then. At the time, the company’s new chief chocolatier, Terry Wakefield, had just been hired, that was 130 new products ago! And local organic gurus Dave Owens and Margaret Kelly have since joined the Bissinger’s team as well, helping the company in its new direction: creating treats as healthy as they are delicious.
That is the clear goal of Bissinger’s owner Ken Kellerhals. “First, we want to be the best in each category, whether that’s chocolate creams or gummy bears,” he says. “Next, we are determined to make food that is good for you, so we eliminated corn syrup. We want to make chocolate part of a healthy lifestyle.” That makes perfect sense to chocoholics, and it’s even backed by science.
The right kind of chocolate (the only kind Bissinger’s makes) has more antioxidants than blueberries and high levels of heart-healthy flavonols. While the chocolate bar we all grew up with is 11 percent cocoa, Bissinger’s milk chocolate is 38 percent—and that figure only goes up with the dark chocolates. The company has deliberately created numerous products that incorporate healthful ingredients, like sunflower seeds, goji berries, acai, camu camu and green tea. Added to the fall lineup are some new ‘savory chocolates,’ thanks to the culinary efforts of chefs Owens and Kelly, who were instrumental in the new olive oil truffles and porcini truffles. And yes, they are really good.
Despite the ongoing flurry of activity at the company, including rising catalogue sales, a plant expansion and national partnerships with the likes of Whole Foods, Bloomingdale’s, and Ben & Jerry’s, Bissinger’s is first and foremost a St. Louis company. That sense of place and community is clearly important to Kellerhals. “St. Louis is our home, our roots, and this is where we do everything,” he says. “In fact, only 40 percent of what we make is distributed outside of St. Louis.”
Kellerhals is clearly proud of the product, and for good reason. Bissinger’s is one of the last American small-batch, hand-dipped confectioners, where on the day we visited, 26 pounds of molasses was lovingly turned into a mere 16 boxes of those delectable molasses puffs. We entered the kitchen, hairnets in place, and watched an apprentice with a giant wooden spoon stirring the fragrant, thick confection in a copper kettle. When it reached the right temperature, the chocolate makers flew into action, moving the molasses to a humidity-controlled ‘cooling room,’ where it was dumped onto a cold, marble table to later be cut into the famous pyramidal confections and dipped in high-grade chocolate.
Kellerhals is almost amused by the acclaim Bissinger’s has earned. “You know, when people on the coasts think of the Midwest, they pretty much see that humorous map with the Statue of Liberty on the right, Golden Gate Bridge on the left, and cows in the middle,” he laughs. But he is likely to change that perception, if he hasn’t already. At the 2008 Summer Fancy Foods Show in New York City, Bissinger’s brought home the Best Confection award for its acai gummy pandas, which together with the company’s other gummy bears will sell over $1 million this year. “I hope Karl (founder Karl Bissinger) isn’t turning over in his grave!” says Kellerhals in reference to the company’s venture into non-chocolate confections.
He sees no contradiction in a 400-year-old company embracing continual innovation, the way Bissinger’s keeps doing. In their quest to make chocolate “part of a healthy lifestyle,” Kellerhals and his team have moved toward all-natural and organic ingredients, despite the high cost, some flavorings (wild strawberry and porcini) fetch as much as $300 to $400 per ounce! Also new are 100-calorie gummy snack packs and chocolate bars, “to help people with portion control,” Kellerhals says. And $4 chocolate bark bars are a recent nod to the economy. The new Bissinger’s ice cream is being ‘test-marketed’ at Poptions in Frontenac, and by late fall, the company expects all products to be kosher. Whew!
The Bissinger’s retail store in the Central West End, The Chocolate Experience, is also expanding, since “we’re turning people away on weekends,” Kellerhals says. The enlarged spot will have more tables and a fireplace where chocoholics can sip, nibble and eat their way toward a chocolate nirvana. Despite all the activity and success at Bissinger’s, Kellerhals makes sure to participate in a treasured hometown tradition: charity. “We’re giving back 1 percent of all national catalogue and retail sales to St. John’s Child Development Center.” What a perfect match, two things everyone loves: children and chocolate.