Gourmet candy shops taking downtown Chicago by storm – Consumer News

on Sep24

23 September 2017 | 8:00 am

Blommer Chocolate’s factory in the West Loop isn’t the only thing making downtown Chicago smell so sweet. Dessert shops are opening up all over, as owners and landlords zero in on tourists willing to splurge on unique treats.

Take L.A. Burdick, a gourmet chocolatier that’s gained cult status around Boston for its handmade bonbons in the shape of mice, penguins and elephants. It debuted a 1,000-square-foot shop on State Street in River North this month. It joins a handful of other artisanal sweet shops such as Vosges Chocolate that cater to a high-end clientele even as traditional brick-and-mortar retail continues an agonizing decline.

These stores, which tend to be tiny jewel boxes with exacting displays of carefully crafted desserts, “are a subset of an overall trend where retail really needs to be an experience,” says John Vance, a principal at Chicago’s Stone Real Estate. They’re a step up, too, from the Fannie May shops, the Frango displays in Macy’s and the Hershey emporium on North Michigan Avenue, which closed early this year.

The State Street Burdick shop is the 30-year-old company’s first store outside the East Coast—and the first that requires flying in confections from Burdick’s factory in Walpole, N.H.—but head chocolatier Michael Klug says it makes sense. “The reception has been wonderful,” he says, noting that the area’s shoppers appreciate the quality and artistic flourish that go into Burdick’s chocolates and pastries. “We don’t use any kind of essences or flavorings; we use beautiful fresh mint for mint ganache and 12-year-old Macallan in our Macallan bonbon,” says Klug, who’s been with the company for 15 years. “Cocoa is a raw ingredient, like wine or cheese. That means as soon as you go to a superior source, you go to a different range of what you can charge.”

Indeed, a Burdick chocolate bar will set you back between $10 and $13, or about five times the cost of a Hershey bar, but customers happily shell out for the quality and the ambiance. The small store at 609 N. State St. features seating for 25, a menu filled with coffee, drinking chocolate and croissants, and warm wood accents that evoke a quaint European patisserie.

Two doors down is Alliance Patisserie, where chef Peter Rios has spent the past three years turning out macarons and petite gateaux that resemble tiny works of art. He notes that stores like Alliance and Burdick, with an emphasis on impeccable quality and old-world techniques, “offer families and tourists a treat you’re not supposed to have every day, but one that should be savored.”

The same appeal can be found at Kilwins, a chocolate, fudge and ice cream shop that just opened its sixth Illinois location at 310 S. Michigan Ave. The company, which today is franchised and has nearly 110 locations in 23states, started with a single store in Petoskey, Mich., that began selling Mackinac Island fudge in 1947. Each store uses equipment that dates to the 1940s through ’60s, including traditional copper kettles. Candy is hand-dipped.

Ironically, slow-batch retailers must do brisk business to pay their downtown rents. Vance estimates River North rents are in the $100- to $200-per-square-foot range. Burdick occupies the former home of Bang & Olufsen, a high-end Danish consumer electronics company. It couldn’t sell enough $2,500 speakers to keep the lights on, just as Haberdash, the luxe menswear retailer that previously occupied two storefronts on the same block, couldn’t peddle enough bespoke jackets and $600 Alden oxfords to stay in business.

Though it may seem implausible that sweets and coffee shops can sell enough to pay the rent, experts say these retailers have just as good or better a shot at surviving as their higher-ticket cousins. “The food category offers the best experience to the customer these days,” Vance points out.

At the same time, industry consultants warn the high-end sweet sector, which they count as part of the snacking world, isn’t growing particularly fast. “There’s a market for indulgence, but at the end of the day you’re building your business around a treat—something that by definition is not an everyday purchase,” says David Henkes, a consultant at Chicago-based food researcher Technomic.

His firm’s data show that a third of consumers say they eat desserts twice a week or more, which could mean plenty of revenue, but there’s also plenty of competition. Chicago’s high-end bakeries and chocolatiers must do battle to win each of those customers from midmarket players—including Dylan’s Candy Bar in Tribune Tower; the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, which has two locations in a four-block range on Michigan Avenue; and the Nutella Cafe, which enjoyed a line that stretched around the corner for months after its May opening on Michigan Avenue south of the Chicago River.

Henkes points to the cupcake boom of the aughts and the ensuing crash. Today, a doughnut boom is still going strong: Stan’s Donuts, a 54-year-old Los Angeles business, has opened seven shops in Chicago and the suburbs in three years; an eighth, on the same block as the Nutella Cafe, is opening later this year.

Nonetheless, Burdick’s Klug says the risk is worth taking. “In my experience, success comes when you commit yourselves to the quality standards you’ve always held,” he says. In a mass-produced, made-in-China world, “a product that is exceptional will always find large support.”

And for those willing to detour a few blocks from River North or Fulton Market, there’s Blommer Chocolate. The factory’s retail shop is open weekdays and Saturdays.



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