By Sarah Unger
The promise of hearts and chocolates may be around the corner for some of us, but for the three siblings who run David Bradley Chocolatier, Valentine’s Day already is making plans for Easter, Mother’s Day, bridal showers and other occasions enjoyed with a coating of chocolate.
The company was founded in 1978 as Sophisticated Chocolates by the siblings’ semi-retired parents Marcy and Robert Hicks. Robert, a Wall Street bond broker, opened a candy store for his mother to run. It wasn’t long before Robert and Marcy caught on to the benefits of owning a company, prompting Robert to bid farewell to Wall Street in favor of opening more stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Atlantic City.
Eventually, the couple shifted the focus from selling chocolates made by others to making their own.
“We were probably 13, 14, making chocolates,” David Hicks said in an interview at the company’s factory and retail store tucked into Windsor Industrial Park on North Main Street. “They put us right to work!”
Each of the three, including brother Bradley Hicks and sister Christine O’Brian, gained at least several years’ experience in other industries before coming back to the family chocolate business that employs 12 to 15 workers, with a few more taken on during the holiday seasons.
It’s no coincidence that the sibling executives exude an enthusiasm that calls to mind the proverbial kids in a candy store.
“It’s just plain fun to work in chocolate,” Christine said. “You work with a lot of nice people. Even competitors, you call each other and talk. It’s not cutthroat. It’s a nice industry to be in, which makes it very pleasant to show up at work every day. And people eat chocolate all day, so they’re happy.”
Christine added that “we’d be a perfect reality show,” as the siblings described the balance of power that they sometimes fight over good-naturedly. Acknowledging plenty of overlap, David said he oversees sales representatives, Bradley runs Internet sales and logistics, and Christine manages product development with not only the sweets themselves in mind, but presentation, too, keeping up with trends in color and material, flavor and texture.
“You go with themes,” she said. “I might see a beautiful snowflake ribbon, and next thing I know, I have a sugar decoration going on five different products.”
The results of Christine’s inspirations are on colorful, fragrant display not only in the store out front, but in the factory, too, where a captivating scent wafts from glistening chocolate that churns, flows, and drips at various stations. As a chocolate-spattered radio plays Billy Joel in the background, worker Kate Harris uses her gloved thumb and finger to place potato chips, one at a time, into a curtain of chocolate that falls over a conveyor belt. A few feet away, Rich St. Ives smooths the surfaces of milk chocolate heart pops before dragging them through pink and white sprinkles.
Everywhere, stacked metal trays hold rows and rows of pink-sprinkled chocolate pretzel rods, green and white nonpareils for St. Patrick’s Day, solid chocolate crosses ready for First Communion parties, and bunnies awaiting their upcoming holiday.
“We have our staples, but our job is to keep things fresh and unique,” Christine said of the company’s diverse seasonal inventory, including liqueur-filled Easter eggs for grown-ups, and eggs filled with ice cream flavors like mint chocolate chip and rainbow sherbet.
“We try to go for fun,” she added as she lifted what looked like an ice cream bar but really was a chocolate-covered Rice Krispies Treat on a stick.
While milk chocolate once was tops with customers, Christine said the release of numerous studies about the health benefits of dark chocolate now has milk and dark running about neck and neck in popularity. As for specific products, chocolate-covered pretzels are No. 1 by far. Chocolate-dipped fruits like oranges, grapes, strawberries and blueberries are popular during the winter holidays, David added. They’re thinking of launching a product that combines peanut butter and pretzels coated in chocolate.
Like the majority of chocolate companies, David Bradley uses a supplier rather than making its own raw ingredients. Their supplier is the same one used by Godiva chocolates.
“Wilbur (the supplier) might have 20 different flavors of milk chocolate,” Christine said.
From those flavors, David Bradley creates its unique blend by mixing and melting large bars.
And, although economic conditions forced the siblings to pull back on their plans to establish other retail stores beyond their Windsor and Manalapan locations, Christine, Bradley, and David remain optimistic that as the national mood returns to old-fashioned activities, chocolate — the ultimate comfort food — will keep a place in their customers’ hearts.
David Bradley Chocolatier is located at 92 N. Main St. For more information, call (609) 443-4747 or go online to dbchocolate.com.