Chocolatier maintains steady routine between busy seasons

January 29, 2007

Behind a case displaying a tempting assortment of truffles, nut clusters and other chocolate-laden delights, an open doorway reveals a woman in a hairnet and purple smock rolling fresh truffles onto a flat, cafeteria-style tray. Machines whir and grind in the background, and every few minutes the room fills with the sound of candies being pounded from their molds.

It's a typical Tuesday morning at David Alan Chocolatier in Lebanon.

Each week, three employees make a different variety of chocolate--today, it's truffles--while owner and shop namesake David Alan, 56, listens for equipment glitches and keeps production flowing smoothly.

Alan frequently checks a compressor for condensation in its lines and adjusts another machine's settings when the milk chocolate shells get too thick.

"If things work, I don't have anything to do," he says.

He's been known to pull double duty if a candy maker is sick or on vacation, but "it's difficult to do both," he said. On non-production days, Alan spends his time doing office activities such as paperwork, filling orders and answering the phone.

On this Tuesday, he arrived at 6 a.m. to prepare. By the time this week's production process is complete, he and his staff will have turned out about 8,400 specialty milk-chocolate truffles. Alan doesn't leave until the shop closes at 5 p.m.

"It makes for a long day," he said, but he doesn't seem to mind.

The Lebanon native graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked as a professional chef in Honolulu before returning to his hometown in 1981.

Two years later, captivated by the quality and flavor of Swiss chocolates, Alan attended the Swiss Chocolate School in Switzerland and learned how to use the right combination of ingredients--quality chocolate, sweet butter and whole cream--to create an authentic truffle.

Soon after, Alan renovated an old gas station on Lebanon Street and opened his shop in December 1984. He now employs a staff of five. Although he declined to share financial details, Alan said he uses about 7,000 pounds of chocolate per year to make his products.

Christmas and Valentine's Day are his busiest times. To prepare for the upcoming holiday, Alan has arranged heart-shaped boxes holding truffles and other assorted chocolates on a prominent shelf. In the two weeks leading up to the big day, he expects to sell more candy than usual to walk-in customers as well as through mail and online orders.

Despite the holiday flux in sales, Alan said, he does not significantly increase weekly production because most of the truffles are frozen and saved. He usually bases the amount of candy made on a Tuesday on how much cream is in stock.

In the kitchen on this Tuesday, 65-year-old Carolyn Veach, a nine-year employee and "head candy maker," puts filling ingredients in a stainless-steel bowl and places it under a large mixer. Although she's been doing the mixing for seven years, she still measures the chocolate, cream and butter to get the perfect proportion.

A few feet away, Bonnie Batts, 72, fills thin milk-chocolate half-shells with the creamy blend. After the candies have been filled, cooled and capped into neat balls, Pat Holzinger, 56, empties the truffles from their molds and loads them onto trays.

About 10:30 a.m., Veach finishes the mixing and carries sticky bowls to a large sink.

"The fun part starts at three o'clock," she says. That's when two of them use the "chocolate waterfall" to drizzle more chocolate onto the candy, creating a ruffled surface texture. Another will inspect each piece for bubbles or lumps.

"We've got a routine, and we stick to it," Batts says.

That routine does not exclude an occasional sampling of the goods.

"I see them getting into it every once in a while," Alan said later. "You can't help it."

People from all over the country order his candy, Alan said, and he pays attention to what they like. Twenty-nine sugar-free varieties are available in the front case as a result of demand, and dark chocolate also is gaining popularity thanks to studies promoting its health benefits. His best-selling product is a milk-and-dark-chocolate-truffle combination box.

Businesses closer to home are customers, too. In the packaging room, tiny gold boxes await truffles that will be complimentary treats for guests at the Canterbury Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. He also sells chocolates to local flower shops.

Despite his success, no plans for expanding the business are on the horizon.

"It'd be nice to have a store someplace else," Alan said. But along with more stores, he said, comes more headaches. And for now, Alan and his employees seem happy where they are.

"We like it here," he said.

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