Chocolate bunnies keep 136-year-old factory alive

thompson brand gene dunkin
Gene Dunkin, CEO of Thompson Chocolate

In a small town in the heart of Connecticut, a factory is cranking out millions of foiled-wrapped chocolate Santas for Christmas.

For Thompson Chocolate, the holiday season and the run up to Easter is its busiest time of the year.

"We produce 2.5 million pounds of chocolate annually," said CEO Gene Dunkin. "That's equivalent to the weight of eight Carnival Dream cruise ships."

More than half of that is made between Halloween and Easter and sold in national retailers like Whole Foods (WFM) and in smaller gourmet food stores.

The chocolate maker is best known for its chocolates shaped like gold coins, bunnies and eggs. It has been making them in Meriden, Connecticut for the past 136 years.

"We're probably the oldest maker of molded chocolate in the United States," said Dunkin. "And we're a completely made in America product , right down to our foil wraps."

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The Thompson Chocolate factory, housed in a 120,000-square-foot building that's over a century old, is a fixture in the town of 60,000 residents.

"We've been around for so long that we're woven into the community," said Dunkin.

It currently employs more than 100 people, half of whom live in Meriden.

"We have people who've worked for us for 40 years," said Dunkin. "There are multiple generations of a single family working in our plant."

thompson brand chocolate mold
136-year-old Thompson Chocolate is America's oldest maker of molded chocolate.

William Thompson, one of America's first chocolatiers, founded Thompson Chocolate in 1879.

To learn the craft, he apprenticed with a chocolate maker in Philadelphia where his fellow apprentice was another famous American chocolatier: Milton Hershey.

"Milton was a lot more successful, but we're still here," said Dunkin.

From the beginning, Dunkin said the business has stayed true to its "Made in America" promise.

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"All of our ingredients are sourced in the U.S. We don't use any artificial ingredients, and some of our chocolates are certified organic," he said.

But this commitment also makes the novelty chocolates a little bit pricey, between $2 and $15.

It's a competitive disadvantage that doesn't frazzle Dunkin.

thompson brands santa
Christmas and Easter are the busiest holidays for Thompson Chocolate.

"We realize we're not going to be the biggest chocolate brand in the market," said Dunkin. "That's fine for us."

Dunkin said the business logged close to $20 million in sales last year but is still looking for ways to grow.

"Thompson Chocolate has survived the Great Depression, two world wars, 25 American presidents," he said. "We want to make sure we become even more relevant to consumers today."

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