Eric Bochner’s confectionery gems may look and taste artisan, but this lawyer-turned-chocolatier has an undeniable love of automation.

Eric Bochner drew many lessons from his intensive training at Chicago’s French Pastry School. He mastered various techniques for coloring moulds, discovered how to blend intricate flavors and of course, fine-tuned the art of the truffle.

But his most valuable course may have been in caramels. It wasn’t the actual production that stumped him, but that the class had to hand-wrap each caramel in cellophane.

And while the work may have evoked romantic imagery of past candymakers enveloping their precious confections in the same artisan fashion, the work seemed tedious and painstakingly inefficient to Bochner. He knew there had to be another way.  

As luck would have it, Pack Expo was arriving in Chicago. During a visit to the show, Bochner tapped into the small-scale machinery he had envisioned. He knew he wouldn’t be hand-wrapping a caramel, or any other confection for that matter, ever again.

So upon graduation in 2003, Bochner developed a new outlook on artisanal confections and established Bochner Chocolates in Iowa City, Iowa.

“Essentially, I make artisan-quality products that look like they were made by hand, but they’re more food safe, consistent, use the best techniques and ingredients and are lower in cost,” Bochner says.

Bochner has taken advantage of consumers’ changing perception and acceptance of premium chocolate. And while he understands that people nowadays are willing to pay more for the upscale stuff, his appreciation for automation allows him to keep prices down while still maintaining artisan quality.

From trials to truffles

Though Bochner seems like he’s crafted his entire life around building his sophisticated chocolate operation, that’s not the case at all.

As a young adult, Bochner practiced law in the Silicon Valley for about a decade. Though working internationally was thrilling (“I especially loved the food aspects of my travels,” he adds), he took a break and earned his Ph.D. in physics from Berkeley.

“The change really didn’t work out well because I was in an entrepreneurial-like environment in my law career and then I ended up working for the government,” he notes.

After the September 11th tragedy, Bochner again refocused and moved back to his native Chicago. Recalling his passion for food when he traveled, Bochner enrolled in the French Pastry School.

“When I was in culinary school, there were only the big guys-Hershey’s, Lindt, Mars, Nestlé,” he says. “But the things I made in culinary school were way more interesting than anything I’d seen in America.”

After graduation, Bochner moved to Iowa City, Iowa, to be with his girlfriend (now wife), who was a resident at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. That year, he established Bochner Confections in a 3,500-sq.-ft. kitchen and retail area.

There he developed his signature products-bite-sized bon bons in a range of flavors, such as Razzmatazz (raspberry juice in dark chocolate), Dark Vanilla (dark chocolate cream and Tahitian vanilla), Sambuca and Amaretto truffle balls, and Pear caramels.

Bochner switches between a variety of moulds, including a rounded edge square, a smooth dome and gem-like geometrical shapes. The array of different shapes and colors are presented with aesthetic care and artistic precision in each assortment.

The move to machines

But Bochner knew he needed automation to fulfill his mission of starting a business able to produce high-volume, lower-cost premium chocolate, so he began forming close connections with European machinery suppliers.

“I get all of their experience, all of their R&D,” he says. “I was able to learn a lot by working with them. I got a pastry school education in class and industrial experience in real life.”

Since starting his company four years ago, Bochner has made the annual pilgrimage to Europe to personally meet with his suppliers and visit other companies’ facilities.

“Every year, I get a re-education,” he says. “It’s totally invaluable to have that kind of relationship.”

In addition to his industry relationships, Bochner consults a select group of business advisors-investors, marketing experts, venture capitalists and business owners-on the business aspects of the company.

“Everybody builds their business differently, but to have four or five experts give their advice really helps-I’ve built a synthetic board of advisors,” he says.

And with both groups’ help, the business has made huge progress. Bochner Confections opened its first and only retail location in nearby Coralville, Iowa, which features glass cases filled with trays of Bochner’s signature, color-splashed bon bons, chocolate-covered nuts and boxed assortments.

On the production front, Bochner originally sought out the simplest machines. Today, however, he purchases the latest and most complex models, including a high-volume Awema depositor and an ultra-modern Bosch Doboy Paloma pick ‘n place robotic line that feeds chocolate bars to the packaging line.

To date Bochner says he’s invested between $3-$5 million in automation, prompting a parallel growth in employees and production space. Bochner currently employs 12 production workers and an additional 25 temporary and seasonal candymakers. Although the current, 38,000-sq.ft. facility is more than 10 times larger than the company’s first production space, it’s already growing a bit cramped for Bochner’s taste.  

This surge in production is driven by the sudden flip of the company’s business and sales model. In 2003, 95-99% of sales were in retail and the remaining in wholesale. Today, however, 90% of Bochner’s business is in wholesale, with the remaining 10% in retail.

Chocolate bars constitute the bulk of wholesale offerings.

Automation and tribulations

During Candy Industry’s visit, the facility was running milk chocolate Gingerbread bars for the holiday rush.

The process to make the bars begins in Savage Brothers chocolate melting tanks, which are filled with either Felchlin or Barry Callebaut chocolates. Once properly tempered, the chocolate is transferred to the Awema depositor where the chocolate is deposited into nine-cavity moulds.

The moulds then pass through a 65-ft.-long cooling tunnel. At full capacity, the tunnel can hold up to 2,500 bars at once.

Once cooled, the moulds are turned upside down to reveal the face of the bars. Upon passing through metal detection, the bars are placed four across on a belt where the Bosch Doboy Paloma robot quickly grabs the bars and sets them onto the packaging line.

In addition to growth in the bar line, Bochner has seen an increased push toward nut confections.

Roasted fresh in the production facility with a Probat roaster, nuts and coffee beans are a favorite chocolate-covered “healthy indulgence” with customers.

But while Bochner’s reliance on automation presented some huge benefits, it also posed a few perception problems. For one, consumers often associate high price with high quality. So a company striving to make a cheaper premium product tends to confuse many customers.

“We want to charge less, but we don’t want people to get the wrong indicator of quality,” he says.

Another thorn in Bochner’s side is the question of whether Bochner Confections is an artisan chocolate company. The product looks premium and certainly tastes so, but with artisan’s roots in hand creation, the argument begins to thicken.

“We still develop the recipes, program the machines, pack the boxes,” Bochner says. “Does the fact that we don’t make it by hand diminish that? I don’t think so.”

Down the line

Such confidence and non-traditional mentality has Bochner’s business bursting at the seams. Future plans include possible branded stores in other U.S. cities, notably Denver and Chicago.Bochner also says he doesn’t plan on franchising his stores, but rather produce centrally and distribute out.

While current sales are weighed heavily by wholesale, Bochner also hopes the proposed retail expansion to balance out sales a bit in 2008-with 70% expected from wholesale and retail growing to 30% of sales.

The company is undoubtedly primed for growth-with a healthy wholesale business, room for retail expansion, premium products and an owner who is very thankful he didn’t skip caramel class.

Finding a premium Iowa audience

Paying $5 for a 3-oz. chocolate bar might be common-even downright reasonable-in places like New York or California, but most Iowans find that price point a bit hard to swallow. Deem them sensible or call them cheap, Iowans are among the most cost-sensitive groups in the nation. Iowa City, however, attracts a worldly population because of the university, contributing to its more cosmopolitan feel.  

“We have a diverse population here in Iowa City,” Bochner says. “The hospital is huge, and the university and city in general have many professionals. A luxury food item is not generally something that low income families buy, but I’ve never defined my audience.”

For the most part, despite flavors like Blood Orange, Grey Sea Salt Caramel and Violet Lavender in Dark Chocolate, customers at his Coralville, Iowa, retail store are not turned off by the funkiness of his products, Bochner says.

“The average consumer of chocolate is hard to describe anymore,” he says. “Some like simply a candy bar, while some like to spend more for a quality product. But really, if it’s a good product, it doesn’t matter where you are. Premium chocolate can appeal to anyone, anywhere.”

And even in Iowa, there’s an audience that seeks out the upscale.

“If I can make it work in Iowa, it can work anywhere.”