As Valentine's Day approaches, many begin thinking about buying gigantic heart-shaped boxes of chocolates for their significant others. Most will wait until the last minute, making their purchases two days before the holiday.
But, for folks such as Rick Harris who work in the chocolate industry, planning for the second-biggest "candy holiday" on the calendar will begin about the time happy customers are opening this year's candies.
Harris is president of Salt Lake-based Maxfield's chocolates, a company founded in 1947 at 1049 S. Washburn Street as a small, purely handcrafted operation specializing in pecan logs and Easter fondants.
These days, Maxfields can use as many as 200 employees to produce chocolate products for most of the United States, Canada and even Australia.
The total amount of candy sold by all companies is staggering. According to the National Confections Association, it's an $18 billion industry. Close to 40 million heart-shaped boxes will be sold for Valentine's Day this year.
Surprisingly, about 60 percent of chocolates are sold for Christmas with another 30 percent going on Valentine's Day.
And, according to Maxifield marketing director Lynn Wylie, the day of the week Valentine's Day falls on makes a big difference when it comes to sales.
"If the holiday is on Friday and Saturday, our sales go down," said Wylie, adding that the average man spends about $170 on Valentine candy. "The man usually takes his lovely out for dinner and a movie. If the holiday is during the week, they might not have to go out for the festivities. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the best days for chocolate sales."
Then there is the debate among chocolate lovers over dark, semi-sweet which I prefer or the lighter milk chocolate. It turns out I'm in the minority.
"Demographics play a role, both with regions and age," said Harris. "Studies show that the coasts tend to like more dark chocolate. As people get older, they tend to like dark chocolate. The middle of the country goes more to milk chocolate."
So, Wylie said that's why was the box of Maxfield's chocolates you might purchase this week will contain 70 percent milk chocolate and 30 percent dark.
Most of Maxfield's chocolate comes from the Ivory Coast in the form of cacao, which are pods that get turned into cocoa and cocoa butter. Harris said the company works with international providers of blocks of either dark chocolate, milk chocolate or white chocolate. A few of those recipes date back to 1947.
"We have our own variation that we have developed with those providers," he said. "We go through a process where we melt the chocolate and temper the chocolate. We get it ready for the enrobing process."
Though much of Maxfield's operation is automated, the packing lines are still not all that unlike the famous scene from the '50s comedy "I Love Lucy" where Lucille Ball works on a chocolate line and can't keep up, so she begins gobbling the chocolates.
"There is a packing line with assorted chocolates that are going into a tin like this with a number of varieties of chocolates," said Harris, showing off a beautiful red, heart-shaped tin. "There is no mechanized way of placing the chocolates in, so we set up the line so the chocolates can be placed in the right positions in chocolate boxes."
Wylie said that the company is proud that, in an era where most things are mechanized, its chocolates are still hand-packed.
Chocolates have a relatively long shelf life, unless they have exposed nuts. That's why when you bite into a Maxfield's chocolate this week, chances are the planning, manufacturing and shipping process has been going on for years.