A tour of Bissinger’s is all about fine chocolate, from seeing how it’s made by hand on the factory floor to sampling it in the gift shop afterward.
Bissinger’s has been making candy since the 1600s, first in France, then in the United States starting in 1845. The company has been making its award-winning candy in St. Louis since 1927. Last August, it moved to bigger headquarters at 1600 N. Broadway, renovating a historic 220,000-square-foot building that once was home to the MKT Railroad Depot. When you cross the Mississippi River on the new Stan Musial Bridge heading west, you can’t miss the big rooftop sign that announces its new location.
With the relocation came the opportunity to allow visitors free factory tours. They can see how the company makes its products, from classics like Molasses Puffs and chocolate-covered Raspberry Cremes to new confections like Fig Balsamic Truffles and Apple Ghost Chili Salt Caramels.
At 10 a.m. three days a week, visitors arrive, don white lab coats and hair nets (please leave the jewelry behind) and step out onto the factory floor. The tours, which typically last 45 minutes to an hour, are so popular that you should reserve a spot four to five weeks in advance.
On a recent Wednesday, Dave Owens helped tour guide Shaniqua Jones. Originally from Granite City, he is the chief chocolatier, vice president of taste and a chef.
Post-Mother’s Day, the factory was relatively quiet. Workers tied orange ribbons on clear bags holding palm-sized, solid milk-chocolate turkeys. Others guided handfuls of candied apricots onto a conveyor belt that looked like a ferris wheel, taking candy up and over into bags, then sealing them.
“We try to avoid ‘I Love Lucy’ situations,” Dave said, responding to a question about any problems with chocolate moving too quickly down a line for workers to handle. “Everyone here is trained. They put (Lucy and Ethel) on the line with no training.”
In another area, a worker carefully filled different parts of a big Santa mold with liquid white, dark and milk chocolate. She attached it to a “spinner” for 12 minutes, which turned and gently agitated the mold to remove air bubbles and evenly distribute the chocolate. Then it spends 25 minutes in a cool tunnel. The result is a 1.5-pound solid Santa with a white beard, hat trim and belt, dark chocolate hat and toy sack and a milk-chocolate body.
It’s almost never too early to think about certain holidays.
“Christmas and Easter are the biggest” for the company, Dave said. It’s not Valentine’s Day, like many people think.
“Christmas, you buy for everybody and over a longer period of time; Easter it’s for the kids. Valentine’s Day, you’re buying for usually just one person.”
And since fine solid chocolate has a shelf life of one to two years, some candies can be made ahead and shipped to wholesale customers without affecting the quality, he said.
Others can’t. “Chocolate with filling is shelf stable for just three weeks,” he explained. And chocolate-covered strawberries are offered only through May.
All of Bissinger’s chocolate begins life as cacao beans in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. The company holds a Rainforest Alliance Certification for working to help farmers sustain small and socially responsible cacao farms. The beans are processed into chocolate with a proprietary recipe in partnership with a company in Europe. It is then shipped to St. Louis in 5-pound solid blocks every other month.
So far in 2015, the company has used 350,000 pounds of chocolate. Bissinger’s also makes caramels, a gourmet line of Gummy Pandas and a very small amount of licorice. Their candies are sold through catalogs, online, wholesalers (you’ll see them at some Starbucks, for example) and through corporate sales as gift items. Bissinger’s at Maryland Plaza in the Central West End offers chocolates, as well as wine, coffee, chocolate drinks and dessert.
If you look carefully at Bissinger’s boxed chocolate, you’ll find each piece looks different.
“We hand-decorate and each piece has a (specific) design or decoration on it.”
During the tour, you’ll see rooms where caramel is tested in big copper pots and chocolates are given shiny coatings, which not only makes them look more appealing “but durable, too.”
Orders are hand-packed in the warehouse area, with special cool packs added to ensure no melting before arrival.
There’s no sampling allowed on the factory floor, but back in the Chocolate Shoppe, Shaniqua and Dave stepped behind a counter and produced trays with a variety of chocolates, from classic chocolate-covered caramels to ones with a hint of chili in them to Blackberry Hibiscus Gummy Pandas.
Len and Arlene Scaturro, of Millstadt, sat with friends at a high-top table. Minus white coats and hair nets, they enjoyed the treats.
“Really amazing,” said Arlene.
Bissinger’s Chocolate Factory Tours
What: The tour highlights the company’s 350-year history, artisan techniques and chocolate-making process. Chocolate tastings will be available at the end of the tour.
When: 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays
Where: 1600 N. Broadway, St. Louis
Reservations: Required in advance. Contact Margaret Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 314-615-2436.