BUFFALO — When Kathi Lee Gifford’s 60th birthday cake was presented with great fanfare recently on "Today Show," its most prominent feature was the gleaming decorations made by a candy company headquartered in Buffalo.
While the co-hosts are noted for their morning “refreshments,” which they sip from elegant wine and champagne classes, no one really knows what they’re really drinking. But, when producers ordered the cake, they requested the decor include candy champagne glasses.
Cake makers Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, best-selling authors of “Hello, Cupcake!” created the multi-tiered cake, and used different sizes of shimmering white candies to represent champagne bubbles in the edible glasses that lined the cake.
The candies came from SweetWorks, located near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, a company which employs more than 150 full-time employees — a quarter of whom commute to the Genesee Street plant from the Niagara County region.
Those who love chocolate will recognize the company’s former moniker, Niagara Chocolates, once a small, family-owned candy business. Now Niagara Chocolates is one of several candy companies joined by a parent company called SweetWorks, which has been experiencing a growth spurt in the past decade or so after aquiring the Sixlet brand from Hersheys. SweetWorks also acquired several other candy companies such Oak Leaf Confections from just outside Toronto, a maker of gumballs and jawbreakers and other sweet treats brands such as Break Aparts, the orange chocolate balls that break into perfect segments when slammed on a counter, and Ovation chocolate sticks.
As part of the company’s expansion, SweetWorks has gone on a hiring binge, bringing in new leaders for a variety of divisions including marketing and human resources.
Len Previte of the Town of Niagara, was recently hired as the Niagara Chocolates warehouse manager and he admitted that his family was pretty excited about his working in a candy factory.
“My girls love it,” Previte said, speaking of his daughter and his girlfriend and adding that, after he was hired, even his dad was delighted. “My father was so excited. He asked, ‘did you get any chocolate?’ “
And while candy making is serious business for a company that now sells to 65 countries, Zach Woodill, human relations director, does not underestimate the ability of his product to attract new workers, especially for a company built on the reputation of Niagara Chocolate.
“It’s fantastic for me when I’m recruiting. Everybody knows and loves the name,” he said.
Many adults he talks to have sold the company’s candybars as young people, for school or sports fundraisers, part of Niagara Chocolate community outreach program where non-profits keep half the proceeds of whatever they sell.
“Over the years we have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the community through that initiative,” said Kathy Bassininski, director of public relations for the company.
Beyond its commitment to the community, Bassininski says that its product quality that has created such customer loyalty, especially today under the leadership of third-generation owner Phillip Terranova, whose family created Niagara Chocolates in 1956 and who now leads SweetWorks.
“Phillip has never once blinked about using the best ingredients possible,” she said, describing the all-natural ingredients that go into making the chocolate, such as sugar, cocoa and vanilla.
During a recent walk through the plant, the aroma of melted chocolate made the air smell sweet while assembly lines of workers sorted and wrapped finished chocolate molds of turkeys, oranges and eggs in foil. It all felt a little like a scene from the movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Production manager Jeff Geiger, who led the tour, says the company goes through about 9.5 million pounds of chocolate a year.
He and plant manager Stan Bogdan spend lots of time on the floor of the chocolate factory and Bogdan’s relationship building seems to show in the apparent lightness of the work environment. Many workers look up from their jobs to greet guests with a smile.
Bogdan talks and jokes with many of the employees as he moves around the various production lines operating on a recent September weekday. He proudly pointed out the minuscule details of a packaging-fold error that will require repackaging, an error he said many other companies might let pass by. He repeats to a visitor what he hears often from his boss, Terranova: “I don’t care what you do — do not affect the quality.”
As such, some major chocolate companies with highly recognizable names, have hired the company to confidentially produce some of their highly recognizable confections. The names will go untold here, but, the impact of such trust means continued growth for the company.
The leaders of SweetWorks project the company’s growth at 10 percent each year for the foreseeable future, which is a good sign for the job hunters in the region.
“As people retire and the growth continues, we’re going to have to reach out for talent across the board,” Bogdan said.
It’s likely everyone will agree that talk of such expansion is the sweetest news of all.
INSIDE • For more photos from photographer James Neiss' tour of SweetWorks, see PAGE 2C.