A rambling by Tom Knapp

On a good day, a whiff of chocolate can travel far beyond the boundaries of Elizabethtown Borough.

After driving through a line of fragrantly fertilized fields along Route 283 in Lancaster County, Pa., the heady chocolate aroma of Elizabethtown is a refreshing change. Walking into the M&M/Mars plant, a division of Masterfoods USA, can be a mind-altering experience.

"If I go on vacation, when I come back I get a solid hit of chocolate," said site industrial engineer Steven Sturgis. But after a few days back at work, he can tell which candy bars are running through the lines just by sniffing the air. "My wife wants to dive into the vat every time she visits the plant," he said, smiling.

The local facility is one of nine candy-producing plants in the Masterfoods USA chain. It is the sole supplier of Milky Way Midnight and Kudos granola bars and produces 99 percent of the country's 3 Musketeers bars. The E-town plant also makes regular Milky Ways in single and "fun size" bars, Dove bars, heart-healthy Cocoa Via crunch bars and more.

And then there's "chocolate liquor," which despite the name contains no alcohol. Liquor in this case is similar to baker's chocolate, and it is shipped to other M&M/Mars plants for use in their production lines. "Virtually every chocolate product that's made by Masterfoods USA starts here," Sturgis said.

"We are one of the few candy manufacturers in the world who goes from bean to finished chocolate," noted plant manager Bob Harvey. In a week, he said, the plant produces more than two dozen tanker truckloads of liquor that is shipped to other Mars plants. That's 20 tons of liquor per truck.

The site is active around the clock, seven days a week, Sturgis said. "We are turning out as much product as we can. As we figure out ways to do it faster, we do that, too."

The plant now has more than 400 employees, of whom about 225 are directly involved in candy-making operations.

"But we don't have people touching the product," said site logistics manager Wilson Hoke. "Everything is moved automatically."

Hand-mixing and hand-cutting of candies was phased out of most M&M/Mars processes in the 1940s, he said. Everyone in the plant wears immaculate white uniforms -- with snaps, not buttons, to prevent anything from falling into the mix. Loose hair is bound and netted, and jewelry must be removed.

The basic ingredients of chocolate are cocoa beans, milk, sugar and cocoa butter (fat from chocolate liquor), Sturgis said. The specific recipes of the M&M/Mars products are, of course, classified information.

Some aspects of the modern manufacturing process are tightly guarded secrets. Visitors are barred from some areas of the plant, and photographers (including anyone with a camera phone) are not allowed beyond the plant lobby.

"We have some folks about 8 miles up the road who'd love to know what we're up to," Sturgis said with a laugh.

That would be Hershey, for those out there who don't realize southcentral Pennsylvania is a chocolate-lover's paradise. In fact, M&M/Mars is one of several chocolate manufacturers in southeast Pennsylvania. The proliferation of dairy farmers in the region is the reason, Sturgis explained.

"It goes back to the cow," he said. "You don't want to be trucking one of your main ingredients for long distances." Other ingredients come a far distance, however, before they are added to the mix on the M&M/Mars plant floor.

Much of the process involves the preparation of those ingredients. Milk fat is melted in large ovens before it can be blended with the chocolate. The chocolate itself comes straight from cocoa beans imported from Ecuador, West Africa, Indonesia and other areas within 20 degrees of the Equator. The beans are actually seeds from the cacao tree, Hoke explained.

The flavor of the beans -- which is actually dry and quite bitter before the other ingredients are added -- varies depending on the country of origin, he added.

"Ancient Aztecs used to grind them and drink it," Sturgis said. "They didn't add sugar or butter. ... They have a stronger constitution than I do."

Beans are blended for flavor, roasted under high temperatures, shelled and ground into a liquid.

On a separate floor, nougat is mixed and caramel is cooked. For the Milky Way bar, the two key ingredients are combined as a "slab," a long, glistening sheet of sweet. Machines divide the slab into long, thin ropes that are chopped into bite-sized rectangles and conveyed into the "enrober," where a layer of chocolate is first added to the bottom, then a second layer is wrapped around the top and sides.

Time and temperature are key elements of production, Sturgis said. Subtle changes in the process can produce chocolate that melts too quickly in the hands or gets a grayish, dusty appearance. "We try to maintain a good crystalline structure. Just like in the manufacture of steel, nickel and copper, the same chemistry and technology applies here for chocolate."

Once cooled, the bars are conveyed to yet another floor where they are mechanically wrapped and sealed in rapid succession. The process concludes as the packaged bars are weighed, chuted into bags, crated and sent to shipping for distribution. The candies may go as far as China and Russia, Sturgis said.

Research and development is also housed in Elizabethtown, he noted, because "chocolate starts with liquor."

For M&M/Mars, the story starts in 1911 with Frank Mars in Tacoma, Wash., where he first started making buttercream candies in his kitchen.

"He tried a couple of times to get into the candy business and went belly up twice," Sturgis said.

Mars moved to Minneapolis in 1923 and got his first hit with the Milky Way. After moving to Chicago in 1926, he developed 3 Musketeers and, in the first year of the Great Depression, the Snickers bar. M&Ms were introduced in 1941 and quickly became a staple of soldiers' rations during World War II. Peanut M&Ms came along in 1954.

A portion of the E-town plant was built in 1915 as Klein's Chocolate Co. M&M/Mars purchased the plant in 1970. Many of the employees stayed with the company (including one who is still working there today).

Over the years, the site has been expanded and modernized. Wooden floors were replaced with sanitary concrete. The old factory windows were enclosed. "Glass is not something we like around a chocolate product," Sturgis explained.

The latest additions included the Dove production line within the last six months, Sturgis said. Future growth is anticipated. "We intend to grow," he said. "We have a good cost base and very good associates. ... We're in a competitive situation here."

But if Frank Mars returned today, Sturgis said, "he would recognize his Milky Way, absolutely. ... A Milky Way bar is always a Milky Way bar. Our flavoring is consistent globally. The basic principles of a good, quality product were there from the beginning, and they will continue to be."

by Tom Knapp