Oh, sooo good! – Gilbert Chocolate employee loves her work
Story and photos by Marta K. Dodd
Maranda Pepin learned about Gilbert Chocolates when she was a youngster and as a special treat, her mother bought Gilbert Chocolates caramels for herself and truffles for Maranda. In high school, when Pepin acquired a tortoiseshell cat, which was a “dark, almost chocolate brown color, with a caramel color rippled through her fur,” Pepin named the cat “Truffle,” for those Gilbert Chocolate delicacies.
Four years ago, after some college culinary classes that morphed into an associate degree in business management, and a stint as a self-described “lunch lady” at Napoleon High School, Pepin started working as a candy cook at Gilbert Chocolates, where, she said, “The truffles still are my favorite. They are milk or dark chocolate on the outside, with a ganache center.
“I knew about the Gilbert Chocolates store at the [then] Paka Plaza,” she said, but she was unaware of the company’s factory until she applied for work there. She worked her first three years at Gilbert Chocolates’ former Ackerson Lake Road site, and now, at their new downtown Jackson location.
The Cement City resident said she enjoys the variety in her work, where “you are all over the factory,” and that she and the other employees typically handle hundreds of pounds of candy each week.
Her primary job is mixing and cooking the dozen or more flavors of cream centers for chocolate covered candy, as well as the filling for peanut butter cups and several kinds of caramels, but “I help on the machine, I help with fudge, wherever I can be used. I always smell like chocolate when I leave.”
“The machine” is the enrobing machine. Employees place creams, nuts, Oreos, gummy bears or any other of the many candy centers into one end of the machine, and as the centers travel through the machine on a conveyor, they encounter a “waterfall of chocolate,” which coats them. The centers then pass through a cooling tunnel, so when they come out “they are cooled, shiny and beautiful,” Pepin said.
“We mark each piece according to what it is,” she explained. “The mint smoothies get dusted with green chocolate, and some other things get marked on top with a letter for whatever flavor they are – ‘r’ for raspberry creams, ‘m’ for maple creams, etc. We use the tip of a gloved finger to mark them, right in the chocolate.”
“Maranda is a great asset to Gilbert Chocolates,” said Sally Krichbaum, co-owner of Gilbert Chocolates with her husband, Brian. “She has taken on more duties in the factory; when others are off work she can easily fill the void. She is always willing to help, which is so important in a small factory. When we had our open house last October, she made sure the food and beverages we provided were constantly replenished and looked nice, which allowed me to mingle with our guests. She also offers many good suggestions when we are experimenting with new candy ideas.”
One of Pepin’s suggestions resulted in a new product, “Michigan snappers,” a larger version of Gilbert Chocolates’ regular chocolate-caramel-nut turtles, in the shape of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
“Unlike Christmas tree or valentine shapes, we can sell snappers year-round. People use them as gifts,” Pepin said, “and they are nice as a souvenir when people come to town.”
Gilbert Chocolates makes 75 to 80 percent of what they sell. They follow company founder John Gilbert’s more than 100-year-old recipes for most of about 250 different candies.
“I didn’t know a lot about chocolate when I started, but now I feel proud and honored to help carry on John O. Gilbert’s legacy,” Pepin said. “It makes me feel good to say we’ve been operating for more than a hundred years. Not a lot of small businesses can say that.
“When I tell people I work at Gilbert Chocolates, their eyes just get wide,” Pepin laughed. “They’ll ask if it’s like Lucille Ball working on the candy conveyor in that ‘I Love Lucy’ episode.’ I say it’s a little like that, but it’s a real craft to get it right. I am excited about everything I do. At the end of each day, I know I made something.”