Dark news about a once sweet treat

The Hershey Company announced this week that it will be moving production of Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt chocolates to its main plant in Robinson, Illinois. As is the case with many company closures, the news makes one’s heart go out to the 150 people who will now be out of a job when the Bay Area plants shut down and move across the country.

When Hershey acquired Scharffen Berger in 2005, they talked a good game about staying true to the Scharffen Berger ethic, particularly their commitment to using quality ingredients and practicing small-batch production in their tiny factory, ironically located on Heinz Ave. in Berkeley. The Scharffen Berger factory tour is one of the few such outings that emphasized informing visitors about cacao beans and the processes used to coax the decadent treat we know of as chocolate out of the football-shaped pod from which it is derived. The presentation was a multi-media affair, involving lots of photos and plenty of samples for the tour group to smell and taste, with the result seeming less a mere Unwrapped-style commercial for Scharffen Berger’s product and more an honest to goodness attempt at involving and informing the audience.

The Scharffen Berger website no longer has a schedule for the factory tour, presumably a precursor to the plant’s upcoming closure, meaning that residents and chocolate-loving visitors to the Bay Area can begin mourning the loss of a unique, fun, and interesting day full of chocolate sampling and close-up observation of chocolate making. But even those who won’t be affected on a local level by the factory’s demise should mourn what the move signifies.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle article about the closure, Hershey “earned $82.2 million, or 36 cents a share, in the quarter ending in December, compared with $54.3 million, or 24 cents a share, it earned for the same period last year.” These earnings were beyond what Hershey expected, making them one of the few companies in our ever-imploding economy to be doing well.

This is the essence of capitalism, of course. Hershey is moving the Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt operations to Illinois because it is more cost-effective for them to do so. When you make a product that people like, you want to produce it as cheaply as possible and get it into the hands of as many admirers as possible. That’s fair, and indeed it’s to be expected for products such as Hershey’s kisses and peanut M & M’s–items that people are familiar with finding in virtually any gas station vending machine across the country. We know these products are mass-produced, and their ingredient lists indicate that they are full of preservatives to ensure that, whether a customer gets the first or the last package in the machine, the taste of its contents will be pretty much the same.

But there is something a bit perverse about the idea of “artisan” chocolates being produced in an assembly-line fashion. When one thinks of an “artisan” product, one immediately conjures up images of a small staff working in a small space to produce something truly sublime. Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger began their company with this very ethos in mind: that true quality control could only be achieved by making their product in smaller batches. Even once their chocolate grew in acclaim and popularity, they kept the operation intimate, meeting demand by producing more batches rather than larger batches of their famously fragrant bars.

It is hard to believe that Hershey will continue to honor their initial pledge of using quality products and lower-scale production methods, particularly when one takes into account that they have already disregarded their pledge to keep the company in the Bay Area. Their official press release Re: their acquiring of Scharffen Berger was careful to indicate to readers that the plans stated in the document were what Hershey termed “subject to risk and uncertainty,” meaning, “If it’s more profitable for us to disregard what we’ve said here, then that is what we will do.”

The fashion industry has strict rules for designers wishing to adopt the label “haute couture” for their clothing lines. These rules help to keep those designs that have earned the “haute couture” designation relegated to a level of artistry not achieved by those who produce “ready to wear” fashions. Perhaps it is time for the food industry to have a similar distinction. Products that are mass-produced in large batches at a factory that makes hundreds of other products should not be labeling themselves as “artisan.” The Scharffen Berger reputation has allowed Hershey to continue to price the “artisan” products at small-batch prices (that is to say, they’ve been able to sell a bar of Scharffen Berger chocolate for three to four times as much as a regular Hershey bar). But why should people to continue to pay this price when Hershey has made a move to make the production methods more efficient, thereby cutting the cost they spend to produce the bars? Haute couture designers bring in thousands for one garment, in part because these garments are special and unique and can take months to be completed. By contrast, a pair of jeans at Wal-Mart might cost a shopper fifteen dollars because the item is not special in the true sense of that word: it’s been mass produced using cheap materials. The same can be said for food: there’s a reason a Hostess cupcake, wrapped in plastic and packed with preservatives, costs significantly less than a higher quality treat being sold at one’s local corner bakery.

What is most saddening about the Scharffen Berger and Josheph Schmidt plant moves, then, extends beyond the job losses and the possible deterioration of once incredible products. What is most distressing about the changes is that they seem to signify a continuing drift toward the value of money above all else. There is something special about an artist’s commitment to his or her craft: the old adage that “the secret ingredient is love” isn’t just a cute expression. Devoted cooks and food lovers everywhere appreciate a singular devotion to creating a top-notch product. Once that product is moved to an assembly line, something truly special is lost.

That “something,” in addition to the “secret ingredient,” is the idea that we are now, more than ever, a society that takes less delight in the making of something unique than in the money that we can make. True food artisans should take note: there is still a market–albeit a smaller one–that will pay good money for top quality, provided, of course, that the product bears the “artisan” label as a true description, not as a useful marketing ploy.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
This entry was posted in Foodstuffs, My SF and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dark news about a once sweet treat

  1. sdreader says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve loved Scharffen Berger chocolates for years-happy to pay the high price because the flavor and quality were incomparable! Eating their chocolate was an actual experience in and of itself. One could tell time, talent and knowledge went into producing it. I hope that will still be the case, though it seems highly unlikely given the move to the big factory with the mindless, assembly-line atmosphere.

  2. H.Peter says:

    So strange. A Canadian distributor ahs dumped tehir inventory at a Dollar store chain.
    yes, I am buying Scharffen Berger for a buck. I am in shock

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