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Archive for Sunday, September 23, 1990

NEW TRUFFLES ARE MORE THAN A TRIFLE DIFFERENT

September 23, 1990

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The shape of a truffle, chocolate lovers know, is spherical.

In fact, Webster's Dictionary spells it out quite clearly: "A candy made of chocolate, butter and sugar shaped into balls and coated with cocoa, macaroon crumbs or chopped nuts."

But Marcus Phillips, owner of Phillips Confections, has a brave new idea the handmade truffle square.

These new chocolate cubes, which the East Lawrence company introduced this summer, are creating a stir in the high-end segment of the confectionary market.

They made the August cover of the Fancy Food Magazine. They were featured in the July issues of National Association of Specialty Food Trade What's New and Manufacturing Confectioner.

Phillips' handmade truffle squares also have been selected as "Chocolates Pick of the Season" by First Magazine.

"THERE ARE 18 original designs, all conceived from views of nature," Phillips says. "We've got some that are reminiscent of planets and solar systems and trees. There's even one in there that was conceived from a friend of mine's rabbit."

Phillips, whose operation is located in a converted turn-of-the-century stone barn at 512 E. Ninth, also makes a line of traditional truffles, which he said are a bittersweet chocolate, combined with fresh dairy products and a natural flavor, covered in either a milk white or a dark shell.

"We took off from that this year with the square, with more of a heightened aesthetic, much prettier piece," he said. "We're using a lot more colors. Basically, everything that we're doing is kind of cutting edge on that particular piece."

PHILLIPS HAS been in the specialty candy production business for four years. He produces 125 different pieces at the plant.

"Half are devoted to novelty/seasonal, and half are devoted to a bulk orientation, meaning that they go into candy cases," he said. "The reason that we're succeeding in such a great way is that we have taken some traditional chocolates and reconfigured them to meet today's demand and actually created a niche in the marketplace."

The line of products includes butter creams, nuts and chews, foil-wrapped wafer-thin pastilles, long-stemmed chocolate roses, Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter novelty molded chocolates and watercolor-illustrated boxed chocolates.

But the one piece that's the star of the show is the handmade truffle square, he said.

THAT NEW age truffle had some difficulty in getting from concept to counter shelf, however.

"It's caused us a lot of problems in terms of getting all the constituents to work together," Phillips said. "It is a very difficult procedure. The novelty and the innovation of the piece is what has the consumers going for it."

Only one type of piece is worked on at a time, with a production capacity of about 90 pieces per hour, he said.

Phillips now has five full-time employees. But at the peak periods during the holiday periods the company has 25 employees working two shifts.

"We're actually going to a third shift in October," he said.

This year, the company will have between $300,000 and $500,000 in wholesale sales, producing 2,500 pounds a month, which are distributed across the United States, he said.

At the retail level, the confections will bring in sales of between $600,000 and $1 million, he said.

PHILLIPS said his company's products are sold by Nieman Marcus and Macy's department stores as well as a host of small specialty and gourmet stores and independent department store chains across the country.

"All of our products in general are aimed at the upper 15 percent of the confection market. It's definitely the high end," he said. "It would be something you would find in a specialty section of a gourmet food store or specialty delicatessen, department store candy cases."

Most of those who buy his creations are single young professionals, between ages 20 to 30, who are college educated and make more than $50,000 a year.

"Women traditionally buy more. But that's interesting because it switches," he said. "When you're in a 30 to 50 age range, it's more women. But when you're down lower, it's about tit for tat."

MONTE BOWERS, manager of Bowers' Penny Annie's Sweet Shoppe, 845 Mass., says the new truffles are catching the eyes of his customers.

When placed alongside the traditionally shaped truffle at the candy counter, many customers go right to the new truffle square, he said.

"They're not selling two to one, but almost. Right now I'm ordering more squares than round," Bowers said. "It's a completely new concept in truffles."

But they are a little harder to handle for the candy dealers you have to be careful not to leave a fingerprint in the chocolate, Bowers said.

However, he said the future looks bright for Phillips' truffle squares. "You're probably looking at one of your future Lawrence millionaires if this thing goes like I think it will go," he said.

Phillips founded the company in 1986 in a downtown apartment and moved it to the Bowersock Mills building, then to its current location in 1988. Todd Jost is operations manager, Cheryl Frisbie is creative assistant and Steve Fleeker is production director.

PHILLIPS, WHO received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Kansas University in 1985, says a love of cooking, a keen sense for flavors and an enjoyment of the science of cooking got him into the business.

"It very simply gives me a forum I can operate within that provides me with a challenge in both the creative and the scientific directions," he said. "There is very much a science to this."

He said the truffle squares are expected to hit their peak sales in about four years and then plateau.

By that time, Phillips hopes to have products ready to carve out other niches in the high-end confections market.

"There's several other things that I will be coming out with within that time," he said. "We're going to be introducing a lot more art into chocolate than has ever been introduced before."

At one time, the business produced such specialty items as university mascots, including the Kansas University Jayhawk. However, he said that product line has been discontinued because the company needed to target a larger market with its chocolates.

"We wanted to hit the mainstream, upscale candy market," he said. "If you put a chocolate Jayhawk in New York, it's not going to mean much."

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