A behind-the-scenes look into the Fox Cities’ most famous confectioners and chocolatiers
For many people, the centerpiece of the holiday season is a box (or three) of hand-dipped, old fashioned chocolates and nostalgic candies. No holiday gathering would be complete without the handcrafted delicacies made by local confectioners and chocolatiers. These modern day elves work year round to ensure the next holiday season is the sweetest yet.
“[We are] always talking about this season and thinking about the holidays,” says Marjorie Hitchcock, director of marketing for Seroogy’s Chocolates in De Pere. “Virtually in every conversation we have all year round, somehow the Christmas season comes up.”
Northeast Wisconsin has a long tradition of locally-made chocolates and candy. Seroogy’s Chocolates has been making candy for more than 100 years, opening their doors in 1899. The business operates out of two storefronts – Ashwaubenon and De Pere – with fresh chocolate transported from the De Pere manufacturing site to the Ashwaubenon store daily. Seroogy’s has an e-commerce presence as well as a specific catalog business.
Nearby in Appleton, Wilmar Chocolates first opened its doors in 1956 and is home to over 60 types of products. Wilmar serves the Fox Valley for both walk-in and delivery, in addition to mail order service across the United States. Liz and Paul Garvey, co-owners of Wilmar Chocolates, say “Mail order is especially brisk for people who grew up in Appleton and moved away. Their taste for Wilmar is enduring and robust!”
Vande Walle’s Candies, also in Appleton, was established 1987. Delivery is also available from Vande Walle’s, along with the opportunity to find their products at the wholesale level as well.
The chocolatiers increase production during the holidays, and with that comes the need for additional help. Each of the chocolatiers employ many sets of extra hands during their busiest season of the year, which generally stretches from Thanksgiving through December.
“For us, Christmas is the longest time of year, with seasonal hiring typically starting in August,” says Hitchcock, who adds that the current COVID-19 pandemic has delayed some of that this year.
Lots of time and effort is put into the creation of holiday treats, and each chocolatier explains that their process differs a bit during the holidays. During a typical holiday season, employment at Seroogy’s can almost triple, Hitchcock says. This includes positions in production, sales, shipping and retail stores.
Vande Walle’s employs additional staff to assist each of the candymakers so they can produce as much as they can during a shift. On the busiest days, candymakers will work until midnight to finish the candy for the next day.
“It gets crazy, but it is fun,” owner Steve Vande Walle says. “I look forward to it every year.”
Hitchcock describes the atmosphere on the production floor as high-energy. From the cooks who make the chocolate to the dippers who hand-dip individual nut clusters and other candies, it takes many people to create Seroogy’s chocolate treats. Dedicated equipment operators oversee the enrober, which is the machine that coats candy in chocolate, and the wrapping machines. Maintenance workers ensure all the machines are running smoothly and that the facility is clean and sanitized.
“Everybody is very busy every minute of the day,” Hitchcock says. “We cross train everyone. Everyone does more than one job.”
Wilmar’s busiest month is December. Paul says they sell over 80,000 Wilmarvels in that month alone. Wilmarvels are pecan or cashew clusters covered in handmade caramel and topped with either milk or dark chocolate.
In addition to the Wilmarvels, Paul says that their customers’ favorite products for the holiday season are the Wisconsin butter toffee and oysters. The most complicated product Wilmar makes for the holidays is their oysters, a local specialty that consists of a vanilla center, rolled in dark chocolate and roasted ground peanuts.
“The oysters are time consuming in preparation and process while being very messy to make,” Paul says.
“There is a lot of handwork for the people making them, and the nuts go flying everywhere creating quite a mess,” Liz adds. “For the holidays, not only do we make a lot, but we also make chocolate-centered oysters specifically for Christmas.”
Hitchcock says Seroogy’s uses up to a ton of chocolate a day during holiday season production. When it comes to popular products, any Seroogy’s fan knows of the infamous chocolate meltaways, the company’s most sold product. These chocolate bars come in a variety of flavors, from mint to toffee almond and even peanut butter crisp. They are packaged in three different ways and have plenty of varieties.
Special holiday packaging is where Seroogy’s gets into the holiday spirit, Hitchcock explains. “The chocolate that we make is similar for each part of the year, but the holiday season generally comes down to the decorations on the chocolate and the type of wrappings and boxes for display.”
Vande Walle says a lot of their candy is made in a unique way using specialized ingredients.
“We make some of our most popular candies a little different than most people, and that keeps customers coming back for the unique bites like our angel food candy and our specialized Biltmore Delights.”
Vande Walle’s most popular product for the holiday season is their angel food candy. Customers from all over know the store for their unique take on the old fashioned candy.
“The angel food will melt in your mouth faster than the chocolate can, it is so light and airy,” Vande Walle says.
Another highly requested Vande Walle’s product is the international award-winning Biltmore Delights.
“The Biltmore Delights are a fun piece of candy to make, although a bit more involved,” Vande Walle says.
The process starts with a specific brand of oyster crackers laid in a pan. This brand is tender and lend themselves to a better piece of candy, Vande Walle explains. Next, small circles of caramel are deposited on top of the crackers, on top of which a swirl of peanut butter is added by hand. Once the peanut butter is on, the candies travel down the chocolate line to be coated with milk chocolate. Each piece is sprinkled with a pinch of sea salt and the candy is chilled until it is ready to be sold.
The days are long and the work is intense, but Vande Walle says helping families across the country celebrate the season is what keeps him and his staff going.
“We’re shipping out piles of packages every day, and we need to keep everything flowing,” Vande Walle says. “We ship coast to coast each year and want to keep the customers happy and keep up our end of the bargain so families can enjoy their traditions year after year.”