Friday, June 19, 2015

Dulce-de-Lectable: Bissinger's Dulce De Leche Chocolate Bar

Photo courtesy of Bissinger's
As Reviewed by Tom and Stephanie

We first encountered Bissinger's line of premium chocolate bars at the 2014 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.  Always on the look out for new and different flavor combinations in premium chocolate, their line gave us exactly what we were looking for--excellent chocolate paired with ingredients in ways we hadn't seen before or didn't already carry in our store in other lines.  The packaging was attractive and the price point was equally alluring, so we brought in the entire line of twelve bars.

We haven't worked our way through every bar yet, but what we've had, we've liked.  The Dulce de Leche bar was an easy favorite of some of our Dickinson College student customers, so we thought we'd give it a try.  Described as a 38% cacao milk chocolate bar with "creamy caramel, cinnamon, and a touch of smoked fleur de sel," we eagerly ripped open the box and tore the foil wrapper.

Tom:  When you open the bar, you push your finger into a tab and pull it up to reveal a foil wrapper.  The wrapper is hard to open, which was astonishing to me.  By the time I opened the wrapper, I had broken a piece of the chocolate bar.  Inside I found a big bar that was segmented and had a fancy B on the front of each section.  When I bit it, I was surprised by it having filling.  The bar has a chocolate exterior with caramel inside and salt on the bottom.  The chocolate is decent, but as with most fancy bars, the chocolate is not really the point of the bar.  The bar tastes of a sweet caramel flavor battling with cinnamon.  The biggest flavor, however, is the salt on the bottom.  It takes you by the hand and throws you into the ocean and sometimes masks all of the other flavors.  Overall, this is a Tom Gilbert recommended bar and something you should try.

A peek inside a chocolate pocket,
revealing the caramel center.
Stephanie:  My first impression of this bar is it's a handsome piece of chocolate with a lovely brown hue that is exactly the color one would expect of milk chocolate.  The bar is segmented into squares with an embossed "B" on each section, and each section is actually a pocket containing the caramel filling instead of the filling being incorporated throughout the chocolate bar, which makes sense for a bar containing a dulce de leche type caramel because it tends to be thinner.  The caramel is very liquid, so if you're going to bite into a square instead of popping the entire thing in your mouth, make sure you have a napkin!  The caramel is very lovely--a rich, buttery caramel that coats your tongue but doesn't require chewing, and it's infused with a mild hint of cinnamon, which you can definitely taste, that helps temper the richness of the caramel.  The salt here acts as an enhancer, bringing out the sweetness of the caramel without overpowering it.  As you swallow, you really taste the butter in the caramel, and you are left with a pleasant after taste.  The chocolate, while obviously necessary as the vehicle in which the caramel is delivered, really takes a backseat.  Its milky taste is just right for this bar, as it doesn't overshadow the featured ingredient or deliver an overly rich or bitter taste that would compete with the caramel.  With some premium bars, the chocolate and other ingredients can be so rich that you simply can't eat more than a square or two at a time, but that really isn't the case here.  Although you'll definitely savor each bite, you could eat an entire bar in one sitting.

Overall, the Bissinger's Dulce de Leche bar is dulce-de-lectable and definitely a bar you'll want to try.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

What happened to Kazoozles? They're now SweeTarts Soft & Chewy Ropes

As Reviewed by Tom and Stephanie

Not seeing Wonka's Kazoozles on store shelves lately?  Could be because Kazoozles have fallen victim to a widespread re-branding of the Wonka line by Nestle.  This rebranding extends to include such popular candies as Shockers, which have been re-named SweeTart Chewy Sours.  Nestle seems to be trying to capitalize on SweeTarts, one of their best selling brands, by renaming products under that umbrella.  But honestly, what name has the better potential to grab attention on a crowded candy aisle shelf--Shockers or SweeTarts Chewy Sours?  And when considering that Shockers have ten years of name recognition behind them, this rebranding effort feels even more strange.  But using this same SweeTarts rebranding effort, Kazoozles have been renamed Sweetarts Soft & Chewy Ropes.

In the 5+ years since we opened, we've seen this type of fiddling with packaging, formulas, and branding before, usually with disastrous results.  The most devastating rebranding we've seen so far was when the New England Candy Company, bowing to healthier food trends, changed their flavoring and coloring to all natural in their most famous product, NECCO Wafers.  After a few months of tanking sales, NECCO got the message that people were buying their products specifically for the flavors and colors they grew up with and changed everything back to the original formulas.  You see, sometimes with candy, the power of nostalgia overshadows everything else and changing packaging or formulas to meet current trends or design norms can kill the single most powerful marketing tool candy makers have.  In a similar effort, Mars banked on the power of the Snickers name in the United States and began packaging the Snickers Almond in 2010, which is essentially a Mars Bar rebranded.  Five years later, a real problem remains that many lovers of Mars Bars still haven't realized that a Snickers Almond is simply their beloved Mars Bar under a new name.  The expansion of the powerful SweeTarts line to encompass some previous stand alone Wonka products is a dicey one, and we'll have to wait and see what the long-term impact will be. 

Now, on to our take on SweeTarts Soft & Chewy Ropes, a.k.a. Kazoozles . . .

Tom:  SweeTarts Soft & Chewy ropes are pencil-thick, red tubes that are filled with a creamy white, sugary filling.  The outer part, or the tube, is red licorice that tastes like cherry, but the glaze that's on the outside to keep them from being sticky tastes a little like rubbing alcohol smells.  The inner white sugar is punch flavored and that's the best part.  It's fantastic. The whole product is gimmicky, though, because you only get four ropes that are fairly small in the package.  Overall, the product is decent, and I would buy them again.

Stephanie:  Tom's right about this product being gimmicky.  The ropes are basically a filled cherry licorice that used to have a silly name, Kazoozles, to fit into the Wonka mythos, but really had nothing to do with what the product was.  With the name change, you do actually understand better what the candy is, but it's an overly descriptive and cumbersome change.  The name change doesn't lend itself to the type of iconic branding that flows off the tongue that something like Twizzlers has.  The tubes have a slightly artificial, almost plasticky texture and appearance, which does also carry over into the flavor.  At first taste, the tubes are just not very good, but upon chewing, when the filling mixes with the outer licorice, it does become much better.  The overall taste is that of drinking fruit punch flavored Kool-aid that has way too high a powder to water ratio and hasn't been mixed up properly.  It's not terrible, but it's just not that good, either.

Our take on SweeTarts Soft and Chewy Ropes?  Although we may eat them again at some point, they certainly wouldn't be in our top 75 candy choices.  Heck, they probably wouldn't be in our top 150 candy choices, if we're honest.  With so many tasty sweets to choose from, perhaps Nestle should've done a little more to tweak this candy than just change it's name. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Drink your Dessert: Cicero's Salted Caramel Root Beer Soda

As Reviewed by George, Tom, and Stephanie

We recently found a new soda distributor and just brought plenty of new flavors Georgie Lou's hasn't carried previously into the store.  One of our new finds is Cicero Beverage Company's Salted Caramel Root Beer.  Based out of Chicago, Cicero Beverage currently crafts 11 flavors of soda.  We brought in their Caramel Apple, Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, and Candied Bacon Cream alongside the Salted Caramel Root Beer.

Recently, we popped a cap on the Salted Caramel Root Beer and here's our take . . .

Tom:  I usually look for a classic root beer when choosing a drink.  However, when I saw a salted caramel root beer it peeked my interest.  It lacks the burn of a normal root beer but makes up for it with a strong caramel flavor.  It is a good choice if you are looking for a nice twist on the classic.  Just be prepared for a trip to flavorland.

George:  As a full-grown man and high school graduate, I am trying to enhance my pallet and develop a more sophisticated sense of taste to match my newly found adulthood.  This soda has allowed me to grow as both a "foodie" and as a person.  While an amateur soda drinker or average person may just stick to typical root beer, I reached my hand into the cooler and grabbed a salted caramel root beer, and boy was I astounded by its fantastic taste and elegant passage down my throat into my digestive tract.  I could taste equal parts root beer and caramel with even a hint of salt which had to be the best part because of its delectable subtlety.  In short, I was simply delighted and even, dare I say it, privileged to drink a culinary masterpiece such as this.

Stephanie:  Well, I'm not really sure there's much left to say after those two fantastic reviews, but I'll give it my best shot.  Our standard root beer go to around here is Frostie, but we have so many twists on root beer in our cases right now that not trying them all seems a travesty. As salted caramel anything is the current snack and candy trend, Cicero's salted caramel version seemed the best place to start.  Upon first taste, the caramel flavor is very bold and fills your entire mouth with buttery-flavored goodness.  The caramel is so apparent that it's difficult to taste any traditional root beer flavor. The carbonation is mild and doesn't burn at all, which enhances the smoothness of the caramel.  It's not until you swallow that you're able to detect root beer, which is, indeed, very mild as well.  I had a hard time tasting any salt, but as salt paired with sweet acts as a flavor-enhancer instead of taking center stage, the salt here is probably the reason the caramel flavor is so strong.  We split one bottle of Cicero's between us, and I'm not sure I could finish an entire bottle myself because it's overall impact is pretty sweet, and it seems as though this soda should be enjoyed as a stand alone beverage and not paired with food--well, at least nothing savory.

Overall, our take on Cicero's Salted Caramel Root Beer is it's delicious-it's like drinking a dessert instead of eating one, and it's definitely a soda experience meant to be shared.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Governor Wolf's Extension of Sales Tax to Confections may Kill More than Penny Candy

Children choosing .10 candy in our store.
On the surface, extending sales tax to candy and gum seems like a very obvious move for Governor Wolf to make. Soda is already taxed, and in the child obesity fearful society we live in, taxing candy places it in the same category of sugary ills.  We probably all agree that candy, although a quick and easy way to get fast calories, is not food.  We do not need it to survive, so extending the sales tax to include candy places it in a separate category than food, which would continue to be tax free.  Candy if taxed would now be considered a luxury of sorts or a even vice, depending on how you look at it.  The 6.6% tax doesn't seem like a lot.  Effectively, a mere .07 on a dollar probably wouldn't dissuade anyone from buying a candy bar, right?

But what would a tax on candy look like for a consumer?  Many of us grew up with penny candy.  We knew as children that if we had .10, we could go up to the candy counter and buy 10 pieces of candy.  In fact, the concept of penny candy is so ingrained into the American candy tradition that although the days of true penny candy, whereby a piece of candy cost a penny, are long gone, the idea of a piece of candy costing a flat rate survives.  The closest we can get to penny candy today is .10 candy.  With the advent of Governor Wolf's proposal, the days of a child walking into a candy store and being able to get so many pieces of candy for a flat rate will no longer exist, for the .10 candy would no longer cost .10.  It would cost .11.  So instead of getting 10 pieces of candy for a dollar, a child could get nine because .05 would be needed to pay the new tax.  That doesn't seem so terrible except still today, many children only have a few coins to spend.  The child who before could make a simple, even exchange in our store with a dime would no longer be able to do that.

Couldn't we, as the candy store, simply adjust our prices to absorb that penny tax to preserve the sanctity of penny candy?  Maybe some stores who already pad their candy prices could, but our store could not.  We are located in a small, mostly blue collar community where our competition is Walmart and other regional and national chains.  Walmart prices their average candy bar a few cents less than our wholesale price.  That's right--Walmart charges less for a Hershey bar than what we pay wholesale for the exact same bar.  Although we carry far more specialty and unique candy than Walmart, we still have to compete with the idea that candy should be cheap, so we mark up our candy the minimum that we can.  There simply isn't any wiggle room to absorb Wolf's proposed tax extension.  To give you a better idea of what we're talking about, last year we sold over 18,000 pieces of .10 candy.  If we absorbed that penny, we would have cut into our bottom line by $180 for the year.  That doesn't seem like much, right?  Let's just assume that this is the only candy category where we would have to do this even though it's not.  What would be the effect of that $180 loss?  What would we have to cut out of our yearly budget to cover that $180?  The most obvious place to cut would be some of our sponsorships of our local schools and other charities.  We could no longer be patrons of the high school musical, high school basketball team, high school Shakespeare troop, mini-Thon, and so on until we cut enough to make up for the difference. 

The bigger problem is that this is not the only effect our business could see.  Although we are a candy and gift store, 80% of our yearly business is currently candy sales.  So using a hypothetical yearly candy sales total of $150,000, our sales could decrease nearly $10,000 a year simply because our customer's buying power would be potentially cut by the addition of a 6.6% sales tax.  This is not the only hit we would take.  Currently, 54% of all purchases made in our store are made with credit cards, which means that $81,000 of our hypothetical sales would be assessed fees.  Since 80% of those sales are candy, this means that $64,800 of our hypothetical credit card sales are candy.  Because candy would now be taxed, we would increase our sales total on those sales by $4276.80 a year, which is the proposed 6.6% sales tax.  Let's say our merchant services effective rate, which is the total percentage rate we are charged to process credit cards, is 3%.  Processing that $4276.80 additional amount to cover the sales tax would result in $128.30 more in merchant services fees that we would be charged.  Again, this may seem like a nominal number, but the potential loss to our bottom line continues to expand.  We're already up to about $10,308 in loss of business a year.

Again, what does that really translate into for our business?  We've been steadily trying to build our business to the point that we could hire a part-time employee to help take the pressure off our family and to better serve the community, and we're almost to that point.  If we lose $10,308 a year, our ability to hire someone--a local college student, for example--disappears.  If we wanted to employ someone 20 hours a week at the current minimum wage of $7.25 for 52 weeks, the wages alone would cost over $7500.  Add in the taxes we would have to pay into the local, state, and federal government for this employee and the workman's compensation insurance premiums we would have to carry, and all of that $10,308 loss is eaten up.  If you factor in that Wolf has also proposed raising minimum wage to $10.10 a year, the wages of that employee alone would be more than our possible loss in sales due to the sales tax being extended to candy.  So by extending and increasing the sales tax to candy and gum, our candy store could not only directly lose sales but also the ability to grow our business by expanding our hours and services with the addition of an employee while someone in our community would lose a chance of employment and the potential wages we could have paid.

Wolf not only proposes extending sales tax to our industry but to 40+ previously untaxed categories of products and services, increasing the current sales tax rate, and raising the personal income tax rate as well.  It's the overall effect of these tax proposals that disturbs us as candy store owners the most.  Earlier we established that candy is a luxury.  When people are hit by economic hardship, such as losing more of their bottom line to increased taxes, what do they tend to cut out first?  You guessed it--luxuries.  If this happens, our own family's bottom line could be drastically and negatively impacted by Wolf's proposed tax increases and extensions, so our buying power would also decrease.  We also would not be able to employ someone in our store, so a second family's buying power would be negatively impacted as well.  Using just our candy business as an example, two families will lose buying power--buying power that they would use to support other local businesses and services.  Trying to quantify the effect of Wolf's tax increases and what they will do to overall buying power for Pennsylvania families is nearly impossible to do.  However, logic seems to say that our loss of buying power would have a snowball effect, giving those other business owners and service providers where we would have spent money either less money to spend or be faced with raising their prices.  And I haven't even mentioned the incredible increase in the cost of our private health insurance this year for lesser care or the local school district proposing once again to raise our property taxes to the maximum allowable amount or the ever-rising costs of candy due to the protectionist sugar policies of the USDA, but all of these factors have very real and very serious impacts on the economic health of our small business.

Finally, here's one last point before closing.  When we were a young family, my husband often had very little money to spend throughout the day even though he was working two jobs.  We were not on any form of public assistance and were barely scraping by.  My husband often had little time between ending one job and beginning the next, so he made quick stops at convenience stores for food.  Even though candy was mentioned as not being food or a necessity earlier, my husband did use candy as food during that time because it was a cheap, calorie-packed item that helped him get through his shifts.  With all our talk of proper nutrition for the working poor, the sad fact is that many people still simply cannot afford healthy food and have to survive on what they can afford, which includes candy.

One can be sure that Wolf's proposals to extend sales tax may put into jeopardy more than just the idea of "penny" candy.  Although the sales tax extension to confections may not cripple our family business, the overall effect of Wolf's proposed tax increases just might.  We are a growing business--one just past the first critical five years but still not past the daily struggles of small business--and the governor's unprecedented tax increases and extensions will undoubtedly set us back like many other Pennsylvania families.  We only hope if Wolf's budget passes that we will be able survive.

**Note--We are small business owners and registered Democrats.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

No Big Whoop: Hammond's Whoopie Pie Candy Bar

Traditional Whoopie Pies
Photo Courtesy of King Arthur Flour
I was lucky to grow up in Central Pennsylvania, where a very strong Pennsylvania Dutch cooking tradition permeated my grandmother and mother's kitchens.  This tradition included both savory and sweet dishes, from Chicken Pot Pie to Whoopie Pies.  When my mother made whoopie pies from scratch, which was thankfully often, I eagerly waited to lick the mixer beaters when she was done.   

When I heard that Hammond's Candies out of Denver, Colorado, was releasing a Whoopie Pie candy bar, I was intrigued.  Touted as a "dark chocolate shell with a sweet sugar frosting filling," Hammond's Whoopie Pie bar sounded promising, but I wondered how well the delightful confection I grew up with would be captured in a candy bar.  For those unfamiliar, a whoopie pie is something of a pastry hybrid, where two moist, soft chocolate cookies with a cake consistency form a sandwich with a creamy filling that could be used to frost a cake.  While whoopie pies now include a diverse group of flavor combinations, the original version has a chocolate cookie outside with a vanilla frosting center. 

Without a doubt, the Hammond's Whoopie Pie bar is a very good chocolate bar just like every other chocolate bar in their line.  But unfortunately, it tastes nothing like a whoopie pie.  The chocolate is too dark and bitter and it completely overwhelms the frosting taste.  The beauty of a whoopie pie is the balance between chocolate and frosting, which is totally lost in this bar.  In fact, if the wrapper hadn't mentioned the frosting or it hadn't been visible inside the chocolate shell, I would never have known it was there.  I simply would've thought I was eating a very good dark chocolate bar.   Perhaps Hammond's should have tried a milk chocolate or a dark chocolate with a lower cocoa content to try to keep the frosting from being lost. 

I'm sure many people unfamiliar with whoopie pies will enjoy this bar, but for someone like me, who lives where whoopie pies are sold at every farmer's market, roadside stand, and grocery store and are often made in home kitchen as well, this bar will most likely disappoint.   Although I love the Hammond's line and think it is truly one of the best premium chocolate bar lines on the market today, their Whoopie Pie bar falls short.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Subtlely Sweet: Hammond's PB&J Sandwich Bar

Guest Candy Review by George Gilbert

The PB&J Sandwich Chocolate Bar is just one of the four new Hammond's chocolate bars carried here at Georgie Lou's.  Based out of Colorado and in business for 90 years, Hammond's is best known for their handmade, gourmet lollipops, so their recent addition of specialty chocolate bars was a bit surprising. In addition to the PB&J Bar, we also brought in Hammond's Malted Milkshake (milk chocolate with malted milk), Sea Side Caramel (dark chocolate with sea salt caramel), and Crackle Crunch (milk chocolate with raspberry popping candy).

The PB&J Bar is a filled chocolate bar, so it has little three-dimensional squares that function as pockets for the peanut butter and jelly, which is literally inside the bar instead of being mixed into the chocolate.  PB&J has ten pockets in all, so it's great for sharing.  Although the pockets are filled with peanut butter and jelly, the flavors are somehow only subtle and get overpowered a bit by the milk chocolate.  The chocolate is very good, but as a fan of strange flavor combos, I was slightly disappointed because I would have liked a stronger punch of the filling flavors.

As I continued to eat more of the bar, I discovered that it's inconsistent and each pocket actually has different filling amounts, suggesting that it may be handfilled.  Also, the jelly is actually raspberry, which may be a turnoff to some who prefer a more classic take on America's favorite childhood sandwich.  When tasting the jelly by itself, it's flavor is very mild, which in turn doesn't bode well for a strong flavor profile.  My mom, who owns the store, and I were expecting and would have preferred a sweeter, tangier grape jelly instead of raspberry.  And judging by the appearance, taste, and consistency of the peanut butter, it appears to be handmade as well instead of the strongly flavored, processed spread most of us grew up with.  Overall, the bar is pretty tasty, but it is very surprising for better or for worse.

Each Hammond's specialty chocolate bar is priced at $3.00 and weighs 2.1 ounces.  So far, they're selling well, suggesting they'll have a place in our store for a long time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Salty Sweet Explosion: Wild Ophelia's Smokehouse BBQ Potato Chips Dark Chocolate Bar

Guest Candy Review by George Gilbert

An explosion of saltiness, spiciness, and sweetness comes together to form an extravaganza of great flavors.  The Smokehouse BBQ Potato Chips Dark Chocolate bar is made by Wild Ophelia, and it contains 70% cacao, which makes it a hardcore chocolate experience.  Wild Ophelia is the sister company of Vosges Haut Chocolat, known for creating high quality, gourmet, out-of-the-box candy combinations sourced from worldwide ingredients.  In contrast, Wild Ophelia's mission is to make their bars entirely from U.S. ingredients. 

Combining salty and sweet tastes is not a new thing by any means.  However, the addition of the barbeque flavor, something most Americans love, makes this a unique product.  When you take a bite, at first you taste the smooth dark chocolate. Then when you start chewing, the crunchiness of the chips comes into play.  Finally, the spice hits you when you swallow to give you the taste of BBQ.  I find it to be a truly delicious product that can appeal to a variety of palates.

Now, I could be a bit biased when  it comes to this product.  It tends to appeal to men and teenagers, and in both cases, this would apply to me.  I don't think that this means that it isn't a bar that women couldn't like as well, though.  The goal of the product was to bridge the gap between men's and teenager's general tastes, between simple chocolate, i.e. a Hershey bar, and gourmet chocolate, like Vosges Haut Chocolat.  I think it works well to appeal to its target audience.

Georgie Lou's has brought in six Wild Ophelia bars with each priced at $5.00.  In addition to Smokehouse BBQ Potato Chips, we have Southern Hibiscus Peach, Sweet Cherry Pecan, New Orleans Chili, Beef Jerky, and Peanut Butter & Banana.  If you're looking for a quirky chocolate give these a try.