How sweet it is: Candy & confection professionals from near, far gather for conference in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI - Greater Cincinnati gets to show off the best of its candy and ice cream makers when the Retail Confectioners International (RCI) trade association, with more than 600 member makers of goodies, holds its annual convention and expo at the downtown Hyatt Regency starting June 24.

Ohio is no slouch when it comes to sweets, as evidenced by the convention's host, Esther Price, the venerable Dayton candy maker, which will also give conventioneers a tour of its plant.

"We'll show how we make our fudge creams, which we're known for, through our packing lines where we hand pack all of our chocolates," said Sandy Brielmaier, Esther Price marketing director.

Taste of tradition

Esther Price still uses decades-old marble slabs to cool and form its made-from-scratch fudge. Owner Jim Day, who bought the company from its founder, Esther Price, along with three partners, said his company recently added a new kitchen to its plant, including two "new" steam kettles for making fudge – one copper kettle manufactured in 1938 and the newer one from the 1950s.

Hometown pride will be on display again on Wednesday when Rich Graeter, a fourth-generation co-owner of Graeter's, will deliver a speech on how his family's company has successfully transitioned from a regional business to a nationally recognized brand.

Graeter's will show off its operations, where workers still make ice cream using the old-fashioned French Pot method in small batches.

Three other local confectioners will offer tours as well:

  • Marie's Candies in West Liberty, which makes its creams from scratch and remains family owned
  • Golden Turtle Chocolate Factory in downtown Lebanon, which features signature chocolates like Texas Tortoise, Almond Toffee and giant white chocolate peanut butter cups
  • Galerie USA, Richard Ross's distribution company in Hebron, Ky., that has grown to include thousands of products.

Sweet ideas, inspiration

The gathering, the association's 93rd annual convention, gives candy and ice cream makers of all sizes the chance to swap ideas about flavors, packaging and every other aspect of the business.

"We always leave the RCI conventions with new ideas," said Chip Graeter, another fourth-generation owner of Graeter's. "Our Seasalt Caramels, current bagged candy program and new merchandising displays were all concepts from previous years' shows."

Chip Graeter oversees the retail side of the company, and he keeps his feet on the ground by working every Friday and Saturday morning at the store in Kenwood, offering the early crowd fresh bakery goods and hot coffee.

Esther Price's Day has been attending the convention since 1978, he said.

"We definitely plan to pick up tips, different packaging and manufacturing ideas," Day said.

Esther Price is working on its seventh retail location, scheduled to open this fall in West Chester on Union Center Boulevard, using the same natural ingredients and recipes it always has, plus some newer offerings, like sea salt caramels – homemade caramels, enrobed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt – and butter pretzels enrobed in chocolate.

"That's what people come and buy our candy for: all-natural ingredients and no preservatives," Day said.

New flavors, delicious growth

Brielmaier said it's been a good year for Esther Price, with modest growth in retail stores and double-digit growth in the wholesale business.

Denise Alvarez, marketing manager for RCI, said the group's many members bring a lot of ideas to the gathering.

"Different flavors are always popping up. Lately, a lot of spicy – chocolate and chili, for example," she said. "A lot of members are working with dark chocolate, adding nuts and Craisins for their health benefits."

She said new flavor combinations sprinkled on popcorn are also big.

"A number of members are offering chocolate-covered popcorn, chili lime and even coffee flavors."

Some consumers are looking for healthier options, and companies have responded by offering sugar-free candies, particularly Asher's Chocolates, a Pennsylvania confectioner that offers a big line of sugar-free products, including butter toffee, gummy bears, pretzel bites and mint patties.

Tried and true treats

On the other hand, the old-fashioned fare is still good for most in moderation, Alvarez pointed out. "A lot of it is reminding people that is a treat. Maybe it's a once in a week treat instead of a daily thing," she said.

Alvarez said the industry on the whole is healthy.

"As far as state of the industry, it's doing doing very well. Summer is slow for a lot of people, with a lot of their business coming around Christmas and the holidays, although business on the coasts stays strong in the summer," she said. "A lot of our member candy stores have started doing ice cream sales to draw in a bigger crowd in the summer."

Chip Graeter is looking forward to the RCI convention.

"Every year we have a lot of fun touring other manufacturing facilities and retail candy shops in the host city. We are very excited that this year's convention is in Cincinnati and that we get to show people from around the world how we handcraft candy and ice cream," he said.

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