The fine art of chocolate

Published on Thu, Feb 13, 2003 by Meg Olson

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The fine art of chocolate

By Meg Olson

Later this week a dozen roses will land on the desk of an Arizona business owner, a Valentine’s day gift from one of her suppliers. The supplier might be located in Detroit, but the roses came from Blaine. They aren’t garden-variety roses either. They’re chocolate, and right now they’re one of the city’s primary exports.

“We’ve been hit by a flood of orders,” said Jeff Robinson, owner of Totally Chocolate. “We will have made several thousand dozen by Valentine’s Day.”

Valentine’s Day is the second busiest time of year for the local chocolate factory, after Christmas. Chocolate roses, foil covered chocolate hearts, heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolate covered espresso beans, chocolate champagne bottles and chocolate bars in groovy disco-heart wrappers stream out the doors of the Pipeline Road warehouse on FedEx trucks, heading for the desks and boardrooms of corporate America.

Totally Chocolate only sells to corporate clients and their employees, their niche in the chocolate market being a unique molding process that can translate hairline details to a chocolate surface. “I used to be a book publisher and for many years I gave ten-pound bars of chocolate to my customers,” Robinson said. “After a while I thought why do I want to give them something with Hershey’s name on it rather than my own?” Robinson used his own printing experience and combined it with new plastics technology to come up with a patented molding system that can reproduce a sharply-detailed company logo on a variety of innovative chocolate gifts. Customized products range from a two-pound milk-chocolate business card replica to a compact disc made of layers of dark and white chocolate.
The company started in Los Angeles but for family reasons Robinson moved it to Blaine in 1993. “We’re coming up on our 10th anniversary here,” he said. “It’s been good but challenging.” Some of those challenges have included city zoning changes that landed his factory next to the only place adult entertainment business can be located in town, and difficulty filling seasonal spikes in his need for workers. “Blaine is a small town and sometimes people don’t want to come from Lynden or Bellingham,” he said.

The 27,000 square-foot Totally Chocolate factory employs between 30 and 80 people depending on the season, and ships half a million pounds of chocolate across the U.S. “We had a few customers in Canada but those have faded with the currency,” Robinson said.
The chocolate itself isn’t made in Blaine, but melted down from five pound bars and molded to suit the client or the season. Today, Robinson imports his chocolate from Belgium, 220,000 pounds at a time. “ It’s the highest quality and they make a special formula for you when you buy in large quantities,” Robinson said. “Chocolate is as varied as wine. I have to eat it constantly to check quality. This year we’ve taken steps to develop a stronger flavor.” The company is courted by chocolate producers around the world, and recently received a sample from a producer in Ghana. “This is too sweet,” Robinson said after a taste test, sticking to the Belgian chocolate.

Robinson said printing on chocolate provides him more grounds for creative expression than printing on paper did. “It’s a lot more fun and I love to think up new products,” he said. He added, there’s the added bonus of living surrounded by chocolate. “I love the smell of the place.”