On a weekday six weeks before Christmas, the production lines are humming at Abdallah Candies, the venerable maker of chocolates, caramels and toffees that's been a mainstay in Burnsville since the 1960s.
On one side of the room, two workers fill plastic molds shaped like Santa's face with melted milk chocolate that flows from a spigot. A short distance away, two others take turns stirring a huge copper caldron filled with corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk, fresh cream, butter, sugar and salt. The mixture will simmer for about an hour, then get poured onto a long table to cool before being cut into squares and placed on an assembly line to be bathed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt.
"We have been fortunate," owner Steve Hegedus said as he surveyed the bustling factory floor. Even during the recession, the company's sales climbed and now total more than $15 million a year.
Hegedus can remember how large this 65,000-square-foot building at 3501 County Road 42 W. seemed in 1998 when the company moved from its first 20,000-square-foot home in Burnsville. Before coming to Burnsville in 1965, the business was in even tinier quarters in south Minneapolis where it was founded by Hegedus' great-grandfather, Albert Abdallah, in 1909.
Now, because of growth, things are getting cramped again for the 120 production workers in Burnsville who do everything from hand-dipping chocolates to overseeing highly automated toffee production lines. "We're looking at options for expansion," Hegedus said.
Christmas accounts for about 35 percent of Abdallah's annual sales, Hegedus said. The company makes more than 200 varieties of candy and typically produces about 10,000 pounds of alligators, truffles, toffee and other treats a day. But it can ramp up to as much as 15,000 pounds a day during peak demand periods.
With merchants starting the holiday selling season earlier every year, the challenge to fill some orders can begin before Labor Day, he says.
"It's not uncommon for some retailers to want their whole shipments well before Thanksgiving. They know customers aren't necessarily buying, but they believe customers are looking so they want the product out on their shelves. That's hard to do and make it fresh at the same time," Hegedus said.
Even so, local merchants that have been longtime customers say Abdallah is nimble enough to accommodate last-minute requests.
"There have been times on Valentine's Day I've driven out there in the morning to pick up extra candy. You're not able to do that with any of the big national companies," said Brad Boogren, owner of Borgstrom's Hallmark stores in White Bear Lake and Cottage Grove.
"You can call and talk to a person. They know who you are, and they're willing to do everything they can to accommodate you," said Nancy Keeler, senior gift buyer for Bachman's. She recently called in a last-minute order for customers ordering candy on Bachman's website and was able to pick up the merchandise the same day.
Although Abdallah has a small retail shop at its building 2 miles west of Interstate 35W, the vast bulk of its business is wholesale, selling to almost 7,000 stores nationwide. The company focuses on gift and specialty stores and high-end grocers like Byerly's, Lunds and Kowalski's.
Premium candy producers like Abdallah fared better during the recession, spurred on by consumers' willingness to indulge is small luxuries, according to Packaged Facts. A report by the Maryland market research firm said sales of chocolate candy nationwide currently are rising at more than 6 percent a year and total more than $20 billion annually.
Hegedus said Abdallah also has benefited from the growing popularity of dark chocolate. "People have discovered how well it pairs with red wine," he said. Demand for candy combining sweet and savory flavors also has taken off, Hegedus said. The dark-chocolate sea salt caramels were introduced about three years ago and are among the company's hottest sellers.
Dark chocolate's health benefits — lowering blood pressure, controlling blood sugar, improving cognitive function — also have drawn consumers, Hegedus said. And the company has long had a wide array of sugar-free candy.
Abdallah's sugar-free dark chocolate almond clusters are the candy of choice for Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz. But when she goes on official trips to other cities, as she did while serving as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, she brings a selection.
"I am incredibly proud of the company and its products and the fact it is Burnsville," she said.