Most Swiss are familiar with the giant golden chocolate coins made by the central Swiss chocolate manufacturer Aeschbach Chocolatier. But at the company's new production site, visitors are now able to not only taste the chocolate, but also experience its manufacturing process.
Aeschbach chocolate can be found pretty much any where in Switzerland. Indeed, tradition dictates that Swiss children have to carry around trays of gold chocolate coins like ice cream sellers, hawking their wares from door to door to raise money for a charity chosen by their schools. And there's a good chance you have enjoyed Aeschbach chocolate in Switzerland too – even if you are unaware of having done so. Because the manufacturer of the finest chocolate specialties doesn't just produce promotional chocolates like the famous giant gold coins. It also supplies cafes, bakers and patisseries throughout Switzerland. The company also sells specialty products in its own stores. What's more, for now at least Aeschbach still manufactures its high-quality products at its facility in Cham.
Bespoke Easter Bunnies at Christmas Too
The doors to the production floor swing open, and ahead of us beckons the dream image of any child: Tanks many meters high in which long metal arms stir liquid chocolate around as if in giant teacups – one is almost tempted to take a headlong leap into this sticky brown bath. "These containers can hold up to seven tons of chocolate," explains Markus Aeschbach, proprietor and CEO of the family business Aeschbach Chocolatier. "Depending on the client's wishes, we can make white, black, brown or indeed organic chocolate. It arrives in liquid form and is held here at the perfect temperature." The humming machinery tempts the observer into conjuring up all sorts of fantastic images, and the tour goes on into a neighboring area where a rather old-fashioned-looking apparatus churns out a large chocolate carpet from which the above-mentioned chocolate coins are punched out.Die Maschine dafür stammt ursprünglich aus Bern von der Firma Chocolat Tobler. "Die meisten Maschinen hier sind 50 oder gar 60 Jahre alt, aber sie funktionieren sehr gut, und weil unsere Produktion nicht technologielastig ist, gibt es keinen Anlass, sie auszuwechseln", meint Aeschbach.
The machine in question originally came from Chocolat Tobler in Berne. "Most of the machinery here is 50 or even 60 years old, but it still functions very well, and as our manufacturing process does not depend heavily on technology, there's no reason to change it," reckons Aeschbach.
Higher up in the building there is further activity going on.This is where the Easter bunny production process (among others) takes place. Specially-trained employees decorate the bunny molds with extra features – adding details such as eyes to the basic mold with steady and well-trained hands. A machine then pours the liquid chocolate into the molds. The entire production set-up can be modified and reconfigured within 30 minutes. For example, if a client wants 150 Santa Claus figures even in the height of summer, Aeschbach can deliver within a matter of days. "This combination of a semi-industrialized and manual process is a daily challenge, but it defines us as a company and is unique in the market. This means that we preserve the flexibility and craftsmanship of a confectioner, yet achieve the volume and speed of a factory," explains the CEO. He then opens the door into a room in which many people would dream of being locked in for a whole day: It contains stands all filled from top to bottom with finished pralines and truffles. An array of chocolate stretching as far as the eye can see! And salvation is truly at hand, as sampling is permitted: Pralines can be conveyed directly from machine to mouth, the ultimate in fresh product testing. Just off the conveyor belt the confectioners are at work, mixing up fillings for pralines and truffles according to Aeschbach recipes before these fillings are then inserted into the chocolate shells. But the production process does not always stop there – some of these chocolates are then embellished, such as with small cantonal heraldic symbols.
"We produce many products for advertising purposes, like chocolates with logos, or giveaways with a certain association to the company – a tire dealer ordered chocolate wheels for his clients. And everything is then packaged by us according to the client's requirements," explains Aeschbach, as he leads us into a room in which a variety of packaging material such as shiny wrapping is stacked high in dozens of different colors. We have now reached the uppermost level of the building.
Chocodromo: The Origins and Processing of Chocolate
"As you can see, we are now spread over various levels of the building. My father moved into the current building in 1978, but at that time he only produced finished products like pralines and truffles." And the entrepreneur explains further: "I took over the business in 2003 and saw that the entire production side needed to be reorganized, and that the current set-up did not really lend itself to an optimal production process." So in 2010 he started hunting for a site on which to develop a new location. He found what he was after in the town of Root in the Canton of Lucerne, easily accessible by both car and public transportation. Good accessibility was crucial, because Root was selected to become not only the site for optimized production, but also home to an entire "world of experience" for chocolate lovers.
Chocodromo – as this experience center is called – maps out the fascinating route taken by the cocoa bean until it ends up as a finished chocolate product. And not only through images and text, but also through live demonstration: Visitors can work their way through a gallery that gives them an uninterrupted view of the production process, with various attractively designed information stations describing the individual process steps. Being able to follow the development of so many different chocolate specialties in such a detailed way is quite unique in Switzerland. Upon request, Chocodromo can also host events – from children's birthday parties to hands-on Easter bunny making sessions, almost anything is possible. Aeschbach: "The new building has also been designed in such a way that we can convert the space available according to the theme, season and group in question. We will be able to host seminar events and provide seminar areas for companies and private groups, and the entire building can even be hired for a specific event."
The catering side will also be taken care of, with sophisticated takeaway options available in addition to the in-house cafe. The event management team is already furiously busy, as more than 1,000 visitors have already registered their interest. Current calculations anticipate 50,000 visitors a year, but the site could potentially attract double this number. "The greatest challenge was to plan Chocodromo in such a way that we would be able to deal with a potential torrent of visitors," recalls Aeschbach. "So we designed things with the future in mind: If we need to, we can build two further floors. And we are also relying on the flexibility of our employees." The workforce, which comprises 50 employees, including many who have been with the company for years, will all be working at the new site from September 2012 onward. And with a seven-day week now envisaged for operations, new jobs will also be created.
Growth Thanks to Passion and Innovation
"Fresh, unique recipes, craftsmanship, and the very best ingredients have always been the hallmarks of our products. The idea behind Chocodromo was to take things a step further, highlight our brand, and make it something that people can experience." Aeschbach doesn't want growth at any price, but he is determined to put in plenty of passion, innovative ideas and quality to generate that growth. And it was precisely this at titude that made him interesting to Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd.; and that in turn enabled the further growth phase to go ahead. "Thanks to Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. we have maintained a healthy liquidity situation and preserved our operational and financial freedom to act, which was critical for us as a company." All in all, Aeschbach says his collabo ration with Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. has been very positive, and characterized by a degree of entrepreneurial thinking and much less red tape than one would traditionally expect. "They were capable of looking at things with an entrepreneurial eye. It wasn't just the bare figures, but also soft factors like entrepreneurial spirit and agility that mattered. And the experience of Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. with many different kinds of companies was also helpful to me, and allowed me to remain pragmatic and calm." On our tour we have now reached the in-house store, where the childish urge to take away half the contents cannot quite be allayed, but the many fine products available to taste do something to compensate. And quite frankly, there's nothing like careful sampling to prove the point: Plenty of passion and hard work must have gone into this chocolate.