ElmerBiz bf 0309.jpg

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- As tours go by, chocolate in molds awaits the caramel filling at Elmer Chocolate in the $40 million expansion at its Ponchatoula facility Thursday morning June 23, 2016. The work added 70,000 square feet to the plant and 10 new jobs. Elmer said the expansion will make it more efficient, versatile and competitive.

BILL FEIG

For south Louisiana residents, Elmer Chocolate is synonymous with Easter. The company’s Heavenly Hash, Pecan Eggs and Gold Brick Eggs have been a staple of Easter baskets for decades.

But Easter accounts for less than 10 percent of Elmer’s annual sales, said Robert Nelson, CEO of the Ponchatoula-based candy company. It’s actually Valentine’s Day that accounts for the overwhelming majority of Elmer’s business.

“We’re a Valentine’s company, and with that comes challenges,” Nelson said. “Seventy percent of what we make year-round sells in about a 72-hour period. We put in a lot of work to nail it before Valentine’s Day.”

That crucial Valentine’s business led Elmer to spend $40 million to expand its Ponchatoula plant, adding modern equipment manufactured all over the world. The plant held a dedication ceremony for the expansion last month. Nelson said the plant finally started ramping up to full production over the past two months after nearly a year and half of construction.

Officials boast that the sprawling Elmer plant is the most efficient facility in the world for making boxed chocolates. Chocolates and fillings are pumped into pastel-colored plastic trays. Rows and rows of trays march through the plant, through clean white rooms that have the aroma of chocolate.

The plant is capable of producing 4 million pieces of chocolate candy a day. None of those candies are touched by human hands at any step, Nelson said, a move that improves food safety. The candies are boxed by spindly metal arms that move at lightning speed. The machines stuff 4,000 pieces of candy in boxes per minute.

+3 
ElmerBiz bf 0373.jpg

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Chocolate molds await use at Elmer Chocolate in the $40 million expansion at its Ponchatoula facility Thursday morning June 23, 2016. The work added 70,000 square feet to the plant and 10 new jobs. Elmer said the expansion will make it more efficient, versatile and competitive.

+3 
ElmerBiz bf 0039.jpg

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Elmer Chocolate CEO Robert Nelson talks about the one dollar Valentine's Day heart that helped change the industry. Elmer Chocolate is cutting the ribbon on a $40 million expansion at its Ponchatoula facility Thursday morning June 23, 2016. The work added 70,000 square feet to the plant and 10 new jobs. Elmer said the expansion will make it more efficient, versatile and competitive.

Nelson joked that the process is far beyond the classic “I Love Lucy” skit that featured Lucille Ball trying to fill boxes with chocolate but failing to keep up with the conveyor belt. “That’s really how most other people do it,” he said.

Elmer, which started in New Orleans in 1855 and moved to Ponchatoula in 1970, didn’t make a large investment in Valentine’s sales until the mid-1980s. That’s when Nelson said the company went through a process in which it sold small, heart-shaped boxes filled with candy for $1. Instead of selling one $20 box of candy, Elmer’s strategy was to sell 20 $1 boxes.

That allowed teachers or parents to do things like buy a box of candy for every child in an elementary school class.

“We sell 40 million of those boxes a year now,” Nelson said. Elmer is the second-biggest manufacturer of heart-shaped boxes of candy in North America. Because the company is privately held, Elmer officials would not discuss annual sales figures.

But with the success came pressures. Elmer had to hire 190 to 200 seasonal employees to handle the extra work for the Valentine’s Day holiday. It was highly difficult to get the right employees, Nelson said.

The company looked at what its competitors did, which was move candy making plants to Mexico or China. That wasn’t part of Elmer’s DNA, Nelson said. A survey of employees to discuss what terms best described Elmer Chocolate turned up phrases like “family” and “find a way to do things better” — things that aren’t compatible with moving a plant out of the U.S.

+3 
ElmerBiz bf 0378.jpg

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Excess chocolate in a mold is scraped off to finish the chocolate covered caramel candy at Elmer Chocolate in the $40 million expansion at its Ponchatoula facility Thursday morning June 23, 2016. The work added 70,000 square feet to the plant and 10 new jobs. Elmer said the expansion will make it more efficient, versatile and competitive.

“We’ve always been the insurgent fighting for the consumer,” Nelson said. “We believe in doing things differently and betting big on them.”

Elmer embarked on a plan to build a modern manufacturing facility. The company started talking with Louisiana Economic Development about expanding its operations in August 2014 and announced the expansion at the end of 2014.

To secure the project, the state offered Elmer an incentive package that includes a performance-based $550,000 Economic Development Award Program forgivable loan to cover equipment purchases, along with LED FastStart workforce training.

Charlie Romaine, assistant director of LED, said Elmer is “prospering better than ever before,” which is quite an accomplishment for a 160-year-old business.

Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO Inc., said the effort to keep Elmer in Louisiana shows how the state can come together to take care of its iconic brands.

“If you look at this on paper, we should be in Mexico having this announcement,” Hecht said late last month, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Elmer plant.

The expansion shows how Louisiana businesses and economic development leaders take their biggest challenges and become world-renowned experts in them, Hecht said. “When it got to the point that we couldn’t produce chocolate in Ponchatoula, we had to build the most advanced facility in the world,” he said. The expansion has actually led to increased permanent employment at the chocolate plant. Elmer had 164 employees. The payroll is now at 230 workers.

The new jobs pay better and offer more opportunity because they involve taking care of highly specialized equipment. LED estimated the new jobs have an average annual salary of $42,500, plus benefits.

“The technology here is the wave of the future,” Nelson said. “If you’re going to manufacture in the U.S., it has got to be automated.”

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.