The Gem City’s Cherished Chocolate Experts
By Annie Bowers
Oh, how sweet it is to walk into a locally owned company and realize exactly why they have become one of the top ten gift box chocolate companies in the country. From the moment I entered the Wayne Avenue Esther Price facility, I felt as though I had stepped back in time to a place where family, quality and service were the most important cornerstones. It quickly became clear to me why Esther Price Candies continues to be a wildly successful business and a household name not just in Dayton but also across the United States. Let me assure you, with the coming of Valentine’s Day, one of the most popular candy-buying holidays, your fate will be in good hands. Simply put — Esther Price knows chocolate.
I felt like a kid in a candy store as I toured the Wayne Avenue facility: my senses were overwhelmed by the scent of caramel, chocolate and cream melting and blending together to become the “enrobed” chocolates Esther Price is so famously known for. (Enrobing is the process of coating an item with chocolate, whether it’s a potato chip, peanut butter cream or a cluster of pecans and caramel). If there is one thing that sets Esther Price Candies apart from the rest, it’s the tradition of old-fashioned quality that is prevalent in the candy recipes that Ester Price herself perfected as a young woman in the early 1920s.
Esther Price learned to make fudge in her home economics class, and was so enthralled by the process that she began making candy at home. Esther believed that only the finest cream and butter ingredients were essential to making premium chocolate candy. Nearly fifty years and countless happy customers later, Esther sold her company to four businessmen from Cincinnati, Ohio. One of those men, Jim Day, is now the sole owner of the company and continues to run the famous candy company with the help of his three daughters, sons-in-law and granddaughter.
Lynne Revelos, Esther Price Sales Associate and one of my tour guides for the day commented, “I’ve only been working at Esther Price for about five years, which is very short compared to most here, some of whom are second generation family. I personally enjoy working alongside those who work so hard to make each product the best and each customer ecstatic. It’s also rewarding to work for a business where downtown Daytonians can walk to work. Local families are helped today, [staying true to] Esther’s original inspiration to work and help her own family.”
Contrary to popular belief, Esther Price doesn’t actually manufacture chocolate — they buy premium chocolate from the oldest chocolate company in the United States, Peter’s Chocolate, which is known for its founder, Daniel Peter, inventing milk chocolate in 1875. Esther Price melts approximately 6000 pounds of Peter’s chocolate bricks each day, putting the chocolate through a tempering process that heats and cools the chocolate in order to use it for coating or dipping. After being tempered, the chocolate can then be used to coat or “enrobe” various fillings and incorporated into numerous other confections.
Revelos and my other informative and gracious tour guide, Doug Dressman, Vice President of Operations, showed me the ins and outs of their daily production line which featured dual enrobing lines (one each for milk and dark chocolate), chocolate melting and cream churning vats, assembly lines, various boxing and packing zones and a shipping area.
With my hairnet firmly in place, I watched as Mike Sells potato chips were given a bottom coat of chocolate by hand. The chips were placed on an enrobing line where they passed through a “chocolate curtain” that coated the top and sides, and then traveled under a fan that blew off the excess chocolate, and finally moved onto a cooling belt before being packaged. The same process occurs with all of their enrobed chocolates, ensuring that all sides of the delicious center are coated in chocolate. Dressman pointed out with pride that much of the assembly process at the family-owned facility is done by hand, including making almond bark, hand-rolling cherries and peanut butter candies, and adding almond toppers to chocolates and chocolate bottoms to potato chips.
I was lucky enough to try samples of many of their confections as we walked through the facility and chatted about their procedures and products. They even put me to work for a minute, giving me the chance to feed a large sheet of caramel through a cutting machine that divided it into rectangles prior to being coated with chocolate on the enrobing line.
Every bite of candy I tasted was mouthwateringly fresh and I could taste the quality in every morsel, from the caramels to the peanut butter creams, chocolate mints and fudge cherries. I also learned that one of their best sellers during the Christmas holiday season is the famous bourbon cherry, which Doug assured me is best when warmed up for three seconds just before eating. “It’s just long enough to warm up the inside of the cherry without melting the chocolate. It’s the only way to eat them.” Doug was generous enough to send me on my way after the tour with an entire goodie bag full of Esther Price treats: chocolate pretzel twists, sweetheart mints, peppermint bark, dark chocolate cherries, and my hands-down personal favorite — dark chocolate salted caramels.
Amazingly, Esther Price manages to pack an entire year of work into a mere 30-week production season, using 600,000 pounds of chocolate each year, which equates to a whopping 800,000 to 1 million boxes of chocolate candies for consumers to enjoy annually. They kick off their production season in September to prepare for Sweetest Day and work through March in order to get 50,000 chocolate rabbits ready for Easter. Thanksgiving and Christmas are major contributing factors to fourth quarter being the busiest for the team at Esther Price, requiring them to ship out more than 40,000 mail order packages throughout the United States and Canada during the months of November and December alone.
Such an incredibly high demand for their products serves as a huge compliment to the approximately 100-member staff that keeps Esther Price Candies running smoothly, even during their busiest times. “Esther Price is proud of the affordable, premium quality of its products, which makes us a part of so many families’ traditions throughout the years. We get letters from customers who may have moved across the country, but still write to tell us that their box arrived with the same great taste they remembered from growing up in the Dayton area. They also tell us they can’t find another chocolate like ours anywhere! This is what gets us through those busy holidays — our wonderful customers,” says Revelos.
Each day, hundreds of pounds of only the finest ingredients are blended together and melted chocolate is literally piped throughout the building into the various production areas (The Daily Sweet Statistics: 2500 pounds of sugar, 140 gallons of cream and 6000 pounds of chocolate!) Once the candies are enrobed or hand-assembled, they’re packed into large boxes that are sent through a metal detector, then carried upstairs where workers place them into the instantly-recognizable Esther Price gold boxes, finishing off the process with a hand-tied red bow on every box.
With a demanding production schedule and an impeccable emphasis on quality, Esther Price, like most locally owned companies, faces unique challenges. “The economy has challenged us, along with all businesses for increasing sales. We try to keep our prices competitive, while adhering to Esther’s original recipes and the best local ingredients we can find. We count on our quality and personal customer service to keep our customers coming back for the same great taste they always enjoyed.”
Another potential challenge lies in the attention that has been given over the past decade to the cocoa industry and the issues with child slavery and trafficking that are present primarily on Africa’s Ivory Coast, which supplies approximately forty percent of the world’s supply of cocoa. According to a recent report by CNN, UNICEF estimates that close to a half million children work on cocoa farms across the Cote d’Ivoire.
Consistent with their commitment to quality products and ethical business practices, Esther Price has taken a proactive stance regarding these issues by ensuring their chocolate only comes from suppliers who are not involved in the child slavery or trafficking that is prevalent in certain areas of the world market. Revelos states, “Our supplier is Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately held companies. They have for many years channeled resources into the right hands for this relief. Cargill has educated farmers and enforced contracts respecting child labor laws. Esther Price wants to be part of positive change, and we believe Cargill is the best source for our chocolate. They are investing in a better future.”
Since 1926, the dedicated Esther Price family has prided themselves on turning only the finest ingredients into one of America’s favorite everyday gourmet chocolates. Their six retail stores are open year-round, and orders can be placed online 24 hours a day for their remarkable candies, including best-sellers such as light and dark cherries, caramel pecans and assorted chocolates. Whether you’re a loyal life-long Esther Price customer, or just hearing about this local Dayton favorite, stop by any one of their locations or any number of local supermarkets for a treat that will leave a lasting impression. I think you’ll agree, “This is the candy by which all others are measured.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Annie Bowers at AnnieBowers@DaytonCityPaper.com.