I decided to republish this post from last year's Easter season describing my visit to Bissinger's "factory." Recently Bissinger's on Maryland Plaza added early morning coffee and pastries, opening everyday at 6 a.m. Tomorrow morning why not dash in for coffee and pick up some Easter candy too? Not sure that the prices on the chocolates are the same on everything in this original post, but I do know that the 12 oz. solid 38% milk and 55% dark chocolate bunnies are on sale, $9 instead of $15.
Continuing my posts on Easter goodies, I was searching for a different angle to cover the premier chocolate shop in St. Louis…Bissinger's on Maryland Plaza. Frankly, I was amazed that my request to tour the Bissinger's plant was enthusiastically accepted, and I'm thrilled to share my experience with you.
Terry Wakefield, Chief Chocolatier at Bissinger's for the past 5 1/2 years was my tour guide. He is a food scientist/engineer who heads Research & Development at Bissinger's production facility located off Vandeventer on Gratiot. My tour began with the photo above showing the original St. Louis "plant" on McPherson, where the chocolates were made by hand in the back room to be sold out front.
The story of the Bissingers, a German chocolate-making family, began in the 1600's. At that time the family lived in Paris and made confections that were the favorite of King Louis XIV, the Sun King. Later, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte bestowed the title: "Candy Maker of the Empire" on the family. The Bissingers left Europe in 1845 and settled in Cincinnati, continuing to make candies there. After Karl Sr. died, his widow Mary became the first female owner of a chocolate company in the United States. Karl Jr. decided to spread his wings and moved to St. Louis. He opened the store on McPherson in 1927, where it remained for the next 80 years until the move to Maryland Plaza in 2007.
This is the kitchen where the candies are made, using recipes that are at least 200 years old. The copper pots, which are as old as the recipes, transfer heat very rapidly and are used when making cremes, truffles, fondants and caramel (see below).
The large tray in front holds blocks of caramel that are cut into squares before being covered in chocolate. The gigantic tray in the background holds bear claws as they are cooling. From the pile of pecans on top of that tray, It was obvious that Bissingers does not skimp on ingredients.
After the caramels (these are vanilla, there are also chocolate, raspberry, etc.) are cut into squares they are put on a cold conveyor belt that coats the bottoms in chocolate as they head to the chocolate "enrober," which is made in Germany.
Here's the part of the process that makes you wish you were a caramel. Bissinger's prides itself on using only the best ingredients and that's what makes their confections stand out.
Donna (above) is signing the vanilla caramels by picking up a corner of wet chocolate and drawing a "v" on top. Each kind of chocolate gets a different signature. Donna is one of several "stripers" and has a distinctive "hand." Everyone in the plant can tell who is striping on a particular day.
Little chocolate bunnies awaiting packaging—boxes of six are $11.
The "ultimate rabbit" had just been unmolded and placed in a box ready to be shipped out. He is solid chocolate and weighs 11 pounds—known around the plant as "Harvey." The dark chocolate pattern is hand-painted in the bunny mold and left to set before milk chocolate is added. This item is in the stores, but call ahead to be sure of availability, $123.
Terry showed me a tray of business cards that a local company ordered for an event. Anything can be written in chocolate, and to illustrate his point he pulled out this white chocolate bar imprinted with a photo of Lauren Bacall. The actress is a big fan and has been a loyal customer for years.
These ladies are assembling chocolate assortments for shipment to the stores or available through Bissinger's internet catalog. The plant produces 200 products at this time of year, there are about 400 products in all.
Ever wonder how a company such as this comes up with new products? Put samples in the employee lunchroom (there are 38 to 40 employees in the production facility) and see what gets eaten. So this year Bissinger's introduced bunny ears in milk or dark chocolate, a set of 4 is $8…why is it that the ears are the best part? Another new product is the 100 calorie chocolate bar.
The tour ended with Eric in shipping. He packages about 600 orders a day right now. At Christmastime there are sometimes 1600 to 1800 packages shipped out of the plant each day. Terry says they will probably be hand-delivering last-minute Easter orders to the three stores around town as late as Saturday…even the Easter bunny sometimes procrastinates!
Bissinger's, 32 Maryland Plaza, Mon. to Weds. 6 a.m. -6 p.m., Thurs. 6 a.m. -10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 6 a.m. -Midnight, Sun. 6 a.m.- 8 p.m. (314) 367-7750. Closed Easter Sunday.