Leah Dunmore has a wealth of CPG experience, but she always returns to the sweet world of confectionery.
After time at CPG powerhouses like Nestlé, Kraft, SC Johnson, Campbell Soup Company, Hain’s Celestial and Mars — where she led marketing for the M&M’S brand — Dunmore became CEO of Delica North America, a division of the Swiss conglomerate Migros, in 2020.
Delica acquired SweetWorks Confections, LLC in 2014, and when Dunmore came to the Buffalo, New York-based company, she faced many challenges, but plenty of opportunity, too.
“The categories — and the fact that we’re an entrepreneurial business backed by a very large company with strong values that you typically see with privately-held companies — was very attractive to me,” she said. “There was a significant need for my expertise because the business was in a downfall — significant declines. I really felt like I could add a lot of value.”
In addition to reworking the team and company culture, Dunmore said she pushed for innovation. That included taking the company’s beloved but largely regional Niagara Chocolates brand and expanding it to national retailers.
“There was a lot of passion for the brand,” Dunmore said. “If you walked outside of Buffalo, people wouldn’t know the brand, but if you’re in Buffalo, the awareness was 100 percent. It was amazing chocolate.”
When Dunmore came on board in 2020, she spent a lot of time getting to know the SweetWorks Confections business and team, many of whom had been with the company for decades.
She noticed they were pulled in different directions.
“We had so many different SKUs and brands, there wasn’t a lot of focus,” she said. “There were so many things you could get involved with because of all the brands and all the different business models. That was part of the problem.”
And despite the variety in the SweetWorks portfolio, true innovation hadn’t been a top priority, Dunmore said.
“The leadership team had a different focus,” she said. “I know that innovation plays a key role in the confectionery space, and there was not a lot of true innovation. When that happens, your big brands tend to start to erode.”
With input from other SweetWorks leaders, Dunmore formed a strategy and vision aimed to inspire the organization, which included streamlining available SKUs, assembling a high-performing team and cultivating a culture that promotes accountability and trust.
Expanding Niagara Chocolates
Dunmore also recognized SweetWorks’ passion for the Niagara Chocolates brand, created by the company’s founders in 1956. For much of its history, it was a fundraising brand, and many SweetWorks employees have sold it for their schools and clubs.
Alongside its history, Dunmore saw the national potential in the indulgent, handcrafted products made with simple ingredients — especially among Millennial and Gen Z consumers. SweetWorks quickly developed Niagara Chocolates offerings and packaging that would suit the retail space.
“A lot of the changes that we made were cosmetic, but the core of the brand hasn’t changed,” she said. “The organization was so excited about seeing their beloved Niagara brand in another state. They were inspired. Employees throughout the company were doing the impossible to make this a reality.”
The core Niagara Chocolates retail portfolio features bars, cups and clusters with classic flavors. Available items include:
- Milk Chocolate Bar
- Milk Chocolate Almond Toffee Bar
- Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar
- Dark 70% Chocolate Bar
- Dark 70% Chocolate Salted Almond Bar
- Milk Chocolate Chocolate Lovers Cups
- Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups
- Dark 70% Chocolate Sea Salt Caramel Cups
- Milk Chocolate Toasted Coconut Clusters
- Milk Chocolate Roasted Peanut Clusters
- Dark 70% Chocolate Salted Almond Clusters
Dunmore said SweetWorks first launched the new Niagara Chocolates products in local retail chains, such as Wegmans and Tops Friendly Markets with the goal of proving the concept. With success in those chains, Niagara Chocolates is now available in 25 retailers in the U.S., Canada and Switzerland, and continues to grow.
“It’s done extremely well,” Dunmore said. “We have distribution all over the country now. The response has been tremendous, and the performance on shelf with consumers has been really strong. The brand is driving incremental growth to the premium chocolate category, attracting younger consumers with an accessible, natural and authentic brand offering.”
Building on the seasonal experience with SweetWorks’ Ovations brand, the company has also introduced fall and winter holiday offerings, including:
- Milk Chocolate Caramel Apple Cider Donut Clusters
- Milk Chocolate Salted Caramel Peanut Clusters
- Dark Chocolate Maple Cream Cups
- Milk Chocolate Sugar Cookie and Toffee Clusters
- Milk Chocolate Gingerbread Cookie Clusters
- Milk Chocolate Peppermint Cookie Crunch Clusters
- Dark Chocolate Double Chocolate Mint Cups
“From a product standpoint, the feedback has been amazing,” Dunmore said. “Consumers love the product. It’s great chocolate. We have a lot of innovation that we’re constantly bringing to the market.”
In August, SweetWorks unveiled the Niagara Chocolates Crafters Café collection, which is inspired by popular coffee beverages and café offerings. The collection includes:
- Milk Chocolate Honey Almond Cold Brew Bar
- Milk Chocolate Strawberry Donut Bar
- Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Mocha Bar
- Milk Chocolate Churros and Hot Chocolate Clusters
- Milk Chocolate Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew Cups
- Milk Chocolate Jasmine Vanilla Matcha Cups
To accommodate the growth of Niagara Chocolates, SweetWorks recently reconfigured its manufacturing plant and installed a new line that can create a variety of chocolate products. The company also plans to invest in a new clusters line, since that format is “rising to the top,” Dunmore said.
Dunmore hopes SweetWorks continues to expand distribution of Niagara Chocolates across the U.S., including in the convenience and ecommerce channels. And with the brand’s positioning of offering indulgent products with simple ingredients, she also pointed to the possibility of moving into adjacent categories.
“I want Niagara Chocolates to become a brand that consumers love around the country,” she said. “I want to see that consumer love. I want to become a well-known brand that’s endeared.”