Tucked into the rolling hills of Litchfield County in central Connecticut, in the tiny town of Bridgewater, (pop. 1800-plus), there’s a village store.. with a story.
Back in the 1890’s the building housed Charles B. Thompson’s thriving mail order toiletries business. His perfumed soaps made the post office next door one of the busiest in the United States.
About one hundred years later, in the mid-1990’s, another business was born there: Bridgewater Chocolate.
Chocolate was the “Bright Idea” of Erik Landegren. At the time he was the personal chef for financier Peter May, who’d bought the store to keep it from going out of business in the late 1980’s, but hadn’t really found a way to make it profitable. Landegren, a European trained chef, thought top quality chocolate could be a difference maker. Not the fancy European-style pieces and truffles found in the finest urban chocolate shops but, rather, the American-style peanut butter patties, caramels, törtels and toffees he found in America. The kind most European chefs would “sniff” at.
“We love to come here and tell the American public what they should like. Americans love peanuts and peanut butter. Well if 300 million Americans would like to eat peanuts, I’m gonna work with peanuts.”
First in the attic, then in the basement where it was cooler in the summer, Landegren would tinker with the finest ingredients he could find, using pure cocoa butter, the way a European chef would, but satisfying a chef, with a finicky product like chocolate, is no easy task. Especially a chef with no special training in chocolate, “it is a whole different animal than almost anything in the food business,” he says, almost haunted by the experience, “it behaves differently. It’s temperature sensitive. It’s humidity sensitive and it was a long hard ride. I have to say that because people also don’t really share. I had a very tough time finding information.”
He first came to the United States in 1981 to study at the University of Denver. After graduating he went home to Stockholm where he admittedly lucked into an apprenticeship at the legendary Opera Kallaren (Opera Cellar). In 1987 he jumped at an opportunity to help open New York’s Scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit. In his few spare moments, he often hung out with the pastry chefs and found he had a passion for pastries, though confection was decidedly not his profession.
Two years later, tiring of 100 hour work weeks, Landegren, who’d begun to spend his free time in Connecticut, decided to move there. He’d married, had triplet daughters and was later introduced to May. He began to make high quality breads and a few other things for The Village Store. At the time fresh baked goods were becoming more and more popular in America and while his breads were popular they weren’t unique.
So he thought, why not chocolate? Americans used to eating commercially produced chocolate weren’t used to the kind of sensation pure cocoa butter could produce. Why? Well, large shipments would have melted on trucks in the days before refrigeration so American producers made chocolate with less cocoa butter, using other ingredients that would hold together. It was a commercial success but would never meet European standards, “it if doesn’t melt as easily in the truck it’s also not gonna melt as easily in your mouth.”
So Landegren set out to give Americans the kind of chocolate products they craved, made with better ingredient, “a superb business concept eh, yet it failed miserably.”
He quickly learned it takes time to change palates, pocketbooks and budgets. Even though he started out selling his chocolate at $8.50 and then $12.50 a pound, it wasn’t the kind of every day treat customers would buy.
Mail order was about to boost another Bridgewater business only now the orders come by phone and through the internet.
Litchfield County is a popular weekend retreat for New York City residents. For them, Landegren’s chocolate was a bargain compared to prices at some of the fancier chocolate shops in the city, not to mention his products were different. Someone brought his chocolate to a party in New York where a radio talk show host got some. When she called Landegren to ask if he could ship her several boxes of chocolate, he surprised himself.
“I just wanted to sell more chocolate and I immediately said yes, of course we do in fact.”
He had no idea she would rave about Bridgewater Chocolates on the air. Mail order was about to change his life.
“We got slammed and had about a hundred phone calls that afternoon.. and I had no idea how to go about it.”
Landegren’s business began to grow but he didn’t run it like a business. May’s son-in-law, Andrew Blauner, a television producer, noticed. He’d fallen in love with the chocolate at family get-togethers over the years but he also noticed Erik’s talents were better suited to the kitchen.
“I’d bring it to work where and I’d put it on the conference room table and it’d be devoured in 30 seconds. Then I’d like at my bill from my credit card and I’d see it was never charged so I said this is not a good business situation.”
The two had become fast friends. Neither had ever run a big business before but Blauner was convinced anyone who tried Landegren’s chocolate would love it. Landegren took him on as a partner and Blauner quit his job. One of the first things he did was find a proper workspace, about five thousand square feet in an industrial park seven miles away in Brookfield, Connecticut. Partly to scale up the business and partly to save Erik from himself.
Then there was the chocolate cooling machine, a long conveyor belt, that threatened to cause a reprise of the famous chocolate factory scene from “I Love Lucy.”
“He bought this machine that.. it’s 55 feet long. I mean you cannot put this anywhere you need to have a facility. Where were you going to put it? And he says well I was just going to put it in my basement.”
“It’s absolutely true everything he says,” Landegren agrees, “because when I am just me it’s pretty hard to be me. Andrew makes it really easy to be me.”
“Which makes it very hard to be me,” says Blauner with a laugh.
Proper shipping containers were one fix Blauner helped with. Styrofoam cushioning positions the boxes in shipping containers so ice can fit underneath… and the bows on top of the boxes aren’t crushed.
Better marketing helped the company scale in size. Their hinged boxes open up to reveal chocolate in various forms but also leave room inside the lid for company logos making them ideal for corporate gift giving and large scale corporate orders bring in big dollars.
Those gifts help make the period between Black Friday and New Year’s Day the busiest time of the year at Bridgewater, accounting for about 65 percent of their business. Another 10-to-15 percent happens around Valentine’s Day. The multi-million dollar business employs about 15 people (which triples during the holiday season) and makes about 40, 000 shipments a year, containing about 125, 000 pounds of chocolate.
“We have always made money,” Blauner says, “and the goal is.. to be America’s chocolate. Not the highest most fancy chocolate. We want to have a box of Bridgewater chocolate on everybody’s dinner table for every special occasion.”