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Anyone who drives along the northbound Interstate 15 corridor usually notices the Stephen's Gourmet Hot Cocoa sign atop a large Farmington building just east of the freeway.

The story behind Utah's own hot chocolate began in Stephen Story's Farmington kitchen in the 1980s when he began playing around with different variations of hot chocolate and trying out the mixes on his neighbors as Christmas gifts.

Story, a food scientist, eventually signed a licensing agreement with powdered food manufacturer Excellent Foods to produce and market the now-famous hot chocolate mix.

"Consumers are really enamored with the product because the taste is truly different," said Brent Scott, CEO of Indulgent Foods, the holding company that now owns the rights to Stephen's Gourmet Hot Cocoa.

The hot chocolate known for its unique taste comes from using only the finest ingredients, such as cocoa from Holland, said David Cowley, president of Indulgent Foods.

"Better cocoa and creamers are critical to what we do to make it a premium product," he said.

Now headquartered in Clearfield, the company boasts a strong market share in Utah and Idaho, although it has recently offered its products in other Western states and hopes to expand further next year. The company has sold 3 million to 4 million pounds of cocoa over the Web (http:// this year alone.

Kurt Price, a pharmacist at Bowman's in Kaysville, has been buying Stephen's Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa for several years now.

"When I buy hot chocolate I choose Stephen's because I like the flavor and it is easily available here at Bowman's where I work," he said.

Scott said there is a great anticipation of a special holiday brand. Each year, Stephen's creates a new flavor for the holidays.

This year, after a request from a longtime customer for crushed candy canes in the hot chocolate, Stephen's top food scientist began lab work in Salt Lake.

The process began by first tasting candy canes made by different suppliers and deciding on one to use. Then he began determining how much of the candy cane should be used in the hot chocolate to produce the desired taste.

The food scientist also had to decide what shape to use for the candy cane bits, such as whether to use pellets versus crushed and whether the pieces should be large or small.

The new flavor then moved on to the taste testers; internal and external focus groups compared the flavor with other comparable options on the market. Afterwards, the company finalized the product by tweaking the strength of the flavor.

The entire process of creating the new flavor and putting it on the grocery shelves only took a few months. Candycane Cocoa is now available in individual packets.

Stephen's limited-edition holiday flavors over the years have included Chocolate Cinnamon, Italian Amaretto and Dulce De Leche Caramel - all of which went through the same creation process as the Candycane Cocoa.

Of course, the most popular flavors are Milk Chocolate, Mint Truffle, French Vanilla, and Chocolate Raspberry. Deemed the core flavors of the company, they have been around since the creation of Stephen's Gourmet Hot Chocolate.

After stagnant sales several years ago, the company decided to build upon their core flavors base and expand by offering other products such as cider, wassail, gourmet candies and dessert toppings. It is now an ongoing, yearlong process to add more products without ending up with too many assortments.

"Our focus for the future is to take the brand nationally," said Cowley. "It is the best-tasting cocoa available in quality and taste."