Larry Burdick was in his twenties working as a pastry chef in New York when he first traveled to Paris and later to Switzerland to train as a chocolatier in the 1970s and 80s (Gilles, 2014). During his time in Switzerland, Burdick was inspired to begin his own chocolate business, which he opened in 1987 in New York City. Since that time, Burdick’s has expanded to four storefront locations and relocated its headquarters to Walpole, New Hampshire. In the following post, I will explore the values L.A. Burdick aspires to uphold, Burdick’s bean to bar venture which leads to much of its success by allowing it to oversee its production process, and the ways in which the company has given back to local communities overseas. I will analyze Burdick’s goals and endeavors in the context of the chocolate industry locally and abroad.
In the mid-1980s, Larry discovered “in a confiserie the heady aroma of pure chocolate and hand-made delicacies” that inspired him to open his own business, L.A. Burdick’s website recounts (L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates). Burdick returned to the United States with a chocolate pot, guitars for cutting shapes, and dipping forks. Upon his arrival, he and his wife, Paula, co-founded a small chocolate business. Paula’s background in design and style – acquired through her education at the Fashion Institute of Technology – guided her in creating glamorous chocolate products which could be enjoyed in an “ambiance of relaxed elegance” (L.A. Burdick Homemade Chocolates).
When the couple launched its company, they made chocolates out of their home in Brooklyn, but they soon moved to New Hampshire to expand their facilities and staff. This Walpole location remains the home base of the Burdick mail and online shipping business, and its chocolate and pastry production. Larry and Paula chose to start their business in Walpole when Larry was driving up Interstate 91 from Brooklyn, “looking for a good place to raise his family and his business” (Tree, 2008). Larry bought a store on Main Street in Walpole and turned it into a chocolate factory with a storefront café and space for filling mail orders. Adjoining the chocolate store is Walpole Grocery and the Restaurant at Burdick’s, “which presents quality ingredients, an imaginative menu and impeccable service along with a distinctive wine list” (Burdick Catalog, 2012).
This Walpole venture kept the Burdicks busy for the first decade of their success, and its popularity spread as a result of the 1996 Consumer Reports which rated L.A. Burdick chocolates the best in the country (Tree, 2008). In 1999, L.A. Burdick opened in Cambridge, followed by a storefront in Manhattan in 2010. In 2012, the fourth and final location opened in Boston’s Back Bay. Today, the L.A. Burdick chocolate business includes retail chocolate shops in Boston, Cambridge, New York City, and Walpole, a French-inspired restaurant, and a small specialty grocery store (L.A. Burdick Homemade Chocolates).
BUSINESS AS A CHOCOLATIER
Much of Burdick’s popularity is tied to its famously created bonbons (above, top). Other signature items include truffles and chocolate mice (above, bottom). Even more notable is the fact that “every double-caramel bonbon, white chocolate-coated, spiced mousse mouse, and beautifully wrapped, wooden gift box of truffles is made by hand,” according to a 2015 YouTube advertisement video. While Burdick’s chocolate production processes take place overseas in its Grenada factory, the bonbons, truffles, and chocolate delicacies are all made in Walpole. The YouTube video serves as a promotion effort for its Manhattan location, “a café counter where you can get coffee, pastries, and chocolate to take away,” an employee explained in the video. Customers who enter the storefront can sit at tables to enjoy their purchases, socialize over a cup of coffee, or buy baking items, chocolates, and chocolate bars to take with them. “Even if you don’t see the person who receives it, when you put together a basket or box of chocolates and you know it’s going to someone who will really appreciate it, that’s the best part of it. It’s knowing at the end of the day that you work somewhere that makes people happy. People are happy to come in here and people are happy to receive our gifts,” the employee shared in the YouTube video.
This luxurious experience is quickly appreciated when one enters the restaurant. Upon walking into Burdick’s (on April 27, 2016) to observe the storefront in Cambridge, I noted how its customers were able to consume chocolate in an elegant manner; the eating experience was purposefully created through the design of the products, their packaging, and the sophisticated setting of the coffee shop. The Burdick’s location I observed is situated in a wealthy area – the heart of Harvard Square neighboring expensive real estate property – which enables the company to sell high priced chocolate bars, drinks, and desserts because its customers can afford and are wiling to pay for these items to enjoy their taste and the Burdick’s experience.
Further, it must be acknowledged that L.A. Burdick is a chocolatier, which means the company “uses fine chocolate produced by chocolate manufacturers/makers to create unique chocolate products and confectionary” (Martin, “Lecture 5”). Susan Terrio explores the craft community of French chocolatiers in her 2000 Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate. She writes about walking into a French chocolaterie as her eyes glossed over the assortment of offerings: “their size, aesthetic display, and evocative names suggested radically different symbolic meanings and social uses than the – dare I admit it – chocolate bars I purchased at home” (Terrio, 2000: page 2).
Burdick’s success within the chocolate industry can be linked more closely to its place as a chocolatier, rather than as a chocolate maker. Terrio writes “when one considers artisanship as a cultural category, it is clear that chocolatiers possess an intermediate, highly ambivalent class position and social status” (Terrio, 2000: page 12). A chocolate maker creates chocolate from cocoa beans; a chocolatier’s role is more romanticized and profitable. Burdick’s chocolate production processes take place overseas in its factory in Grenada, which I will investigate in the following section.
When Larry and Paula set out on what would become a successful business endeavor, they selected Grenada to acquire the majority of their chocolate. “Long known as the ‘Spice Isle,’ the nation of Grenada is one of the world’s largest mace and nutmeg exporters…Grenadian cocoa portrays characteristics unlike cocoa from any other growing region. A robust chocolate, it has an uncommon, bright forefront acidity with long-lasting finishing notes of nutmeg, banana, and molasses” (L.A. Burdick Homemade Chocolates, The Cocoa Isle). Despite the appealing fragrance of Grenadian cocoa, it makes up less than 0.01 percent of the world’s cocoa supply (Ellman, 2014).
The entirety of Burdick’s chocolate production is completed within its factory, making it a “cocoa bean to chocolate bar” venture (L.A. Burdick Homemade Chocolates, The Cocoa Isle). This process includes harvesting, fermenting, sorting, drying, roasting, and conching. Burdick’s purchases and processes beans from farmers at its Grenada factory to sell at its stores and to other high-end chocolate makers. These efforts have led to the success of Burdick’s through ethical practices in contrast to other large companies which cannot oversee their overseas sources. Carol Off writes about the use of forced labor in Cote D’Ivoire, arguing that “almost every critic of the industry has identified the key problem: poverty among the primary producers.” She suggests that an end to the practice could be achieved if cocoa companies “simply undertake to make sure the farmers received a decent price for their beans” (Off, 2010: page 146). By overseeing the entire process of chocolate production, Burdick’s ensures its farmers are both well-paid and well-educated by “opening a chocolate factory that could ship single-origins bars to commercial outlets across the globe” (Smith, 2015).
Another advantage of bean to bar production is that it encourages farmers and workers to produce high quality chocolate because they care about the goods they will send back to the United States. Together, the structure of Burdick’s sourcing makes “cocoa farming more profitable, keeps the unique Grenadian cocoa legacy alive for future generations, provides L.A. Burdick Chocolate with an excellent couverture for our bonbons and enriches the palates of chocolate gourmands everywhere” (L.A. Burdick Homemade Chocolates, The Cocoa Isle). The concept of bean-to-bar has become popular in the United States; there are over 150 craft chocolate makers who oversee the various parts of the production process, like Burdick does, ensuring their standards are met while improving their relationship with the source (Martin, “Lecture 13”).
Pam Williams and Jim Eber’s Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate investigates how the industry of fine flavor chocolate has recently evolved and will continue to do so in the future due to its growing popularity and the public interest in sustainable and just practices. In examining the impact of efforts in newer markets, “it is about helping farmers understand that what they do affects the end product – how what they do with harvest and fermentation and drying stages is so critical” (Williams and Eber, 2012: page 51). Thus, Burdick’s helps the farmers who produce its chocolate witness the connection between their efforts and the finished products, creating a sense of pride in their work.
Williams and Eber acknowledge that small US manufacturers “have been driving the recent changes for the better in the industry: Change the world – make better chocolate. They pride themselves on direct and transparent trade, paying top dollar for the best beans, speaking out against forced labor, investing in education, and making chocolate that tastes nothing like the multinational mass-market brands” (Williams and Eber, 2012: page 156). While most of those chocolatiers in the United States are forced to rely on specialty stores, groceries, and to online markets for profitable sales, “more and more of them are also building their success in what might be called a very European way: targeting their local communities at markets, events, and their own retail locations and combining that with a factory tour and tasting experience” (Williams and Eber, 2012: page 156). Perhaps as a result of Larry’s training and chocolate education abroad, Burdick’s has focused its success into efforts in Grenada (alongside many of these small manufacturers).
Burdick’s website emphasizes the relationship the company has with Grenada, which I will delve into in the following section. However, upon walking into the storefront, I noticed that they sold various single origin chocolate bars from different sources. The bars, priced between $8 to $13, are from Chuao, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Madagascar, Venezuela, and Ecuador. I was surprised that the website did not describe any relationship between Burdick’s and these other single origin sites given its unique arrangement with Grenada.
The Burdicks’ relationship with the Grenada Cocoa Association began in 1999, when they requested one hundred bags of dry cocoa beans for their only L.A. Burdick store at the time. “Our continuous search for superlative quality, full-flavored chocolate has led us to Grenada…the lush mountain terrain and volcanic soil host a bounty of heady tropical flowers, fruit and nut trees and scattered amongst them – cocoa trees” (L.A. Burdick Homemade Chocolates, Cocoa Journey). However, shortly after, Larry and Paula set out to work with the farmers themselves to eventually establish the Cocoa Farming Future Initiative (CFFI) in Grenada.
By 2001, the Burdicks were traveling to work on this fair trade project in Grenada themselves. However, it was not until 2011 that Paula founded the non-profit CFFI. In 2004 and 2005, hurricanes across Grenada created serious setbacks to the Burdicks’ endeavors, according to the CFFI website. Once farming stabilized, the Burdicks “began working with the island’s cocoa farmers to help them reclaim their lands, improve their crops’ quality and value, and create value-added businesses that will increase and diversify their incomes – all of which support the preservation of this unique tropical ecosystem” (CFFI – Cocoa Farming Future Initiative, About CFFI). Paula also began an educational nonprofit to teach cocoa farmers sustainable farming methods and to help them manage the economic conditions that accompany working as a cocoa farmer.
New Hampshire’s EIV News released a YouTube video highlighting the Burdicks’ work in Grenada in 2012. “The project has created a lot of interest on the island of Grenada. The farmers are excited about the project. I think it’s encouraged people to stay in cocoa farming,” Larry said in the video interview. By partnering with Grenadian cocoa farmers to build a factory on the island, “this helps decrease cost of shipping overseas, and puts more money in farmers’ pockets [since the middle man is cut out]. When you add that fine cocoa to the island’s ecosystem – the terrior, the organic soil, the plant life that grows on the island – you have a special flavor in the beans” (Smith, 2012). By establishing this model in Grenada, the farmers have been exposed to organic farming practices and are able to “realize the benefits of value-added processing” (Pienda, 2016).
Furthermore, Burdick’s refuses to use cacao produced by child labor. In contrast to larger companies far removed from their chocolate source, Burdick’s supervision of chocolate production from bean to bar mandates just practices. Though the Fair Trade certification theoretically demands that companies engage in fair practices, critics of the initiative suggest that the marketing system is difficult to monitor, and fails to ensure standards are met (Sylla, 2014). Sylla argues “Fair Trade is but the most recent example of another sophisticated ‘scam’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market” (Sylla, 2014: page 18). The Fair Trade movement has also been criticized for being used to expand the consumer base and appeal of certain brands of chocolate rather than focusing on improving the work of farmers themselves. Instead of depending on a certification, Burdick’s takes pride in the origin of its chocolate through its bean-to-bar venture.
Through an investigation of L.A. Burdick Chocolate, I have presented the evolution and expansion of a chocolate business that started in Walpole, New Hampshire less than three decades ago. While one must acknowledge that Burdick’s is a chocolatier, allowing the company to more easily be profitable, I argue that the success of the business is at least in part due to its maintenance of all parts of the chocolate production process. Further, Burdick’s has used its success to give back to the island of Grenada by founding the Cocoa Farming Futures Initiative, creating jobs in its sourcing community, and educating farmers on sustainable practices.
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