Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


The Chocolate Factory

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By Samantha Alman 

A tent is set up inside the back end of John & Kira's chocolate factory. Under its folds, women are typing and filing and writing. There are papers and cardboard boxes piled about. If it seems to be something temporary, something makeshift, that's because it is.

 "We use this tent as an office," owner John Doyle says, his arms stretched out. "We move it further and further back into the factory as we grow."

 John & Kira's sells more chocolate each year. To meet demand, it has had to expand its production line: there are more machines, more conveyor belts, more of everything. Doyle moves the tent back to make space for this.

It has even become a measure of growth: the further back the tent is, the more chocolate John &Kira's has sold. 

Doyle and his wife, Kira, had no way of knowing there would be so much growth when they first rented the old factory in Juniata Park nine years ago.

It did not stand out among the mix of packing plants, industrial suppliers, and wholesale dealers along Wyoming Avenue in an old commercial/industrial section of the rowhouse John & Kira use this.jpgneighborhood.

Besides the fact that it is painted brown, here is nothing about the factory that says that it makes chocolate, especially a gourmet chocolate that is nationally known. There is not even a sign, other than the number 157 on the door.

But the Doyles did not just rent any factory for John & Kira's; 157 West Wyoming has a history. It was one of the first chocolate factories in Philadelphia. Goldenberg's Peanut Chews were produced there: those dark chocolate-covered peanuts and molasses were first developed as a ration bar for U.S. soldiers during World War I.

For more than 70 years, Goldenberg's remained one of the confectionary landmarks of Pennsylvania, a state with a long, rich, chocolaty history that includes Hershey's, Just Born, Whitman's, Wilbur's and others.

That is the factory that the Doyles took over. And that is where they set up their tent. But unlike Hershey's or even Goldenberg's, they go about making chocolate very differently. Their John & Kira's is unlike any other.

It is a chocolate factory with a social mission.

In the beginning, it sold only one flavor of chocolate--mint. Instead of coming from large industrial farms, which is where the chocolate giants get their mint, all of John and Kira's mint it is raised in urban gardens throughout Philadelphia. Most of it comes from high schools in poor areas of the city, where students were taught how to grow their own mint.

 It costs more, but John & Kira's continues to bring in its mint from urban gardens.

"In the big picture, our largest expense is labor," Doyle says, walking slowly through the factory. "But it is a core part of our business. It is our mission."

Doyle's wife, Kira, who goes by the last name Baker-Doyle, came up with the idea to use urban gardens more than 10 years ago. While working on her master's in education at the University of Pennsylvania, she was part of a program to develop them in high schools throughout Philadelphia. When she and Doyle decided to produce chocolate, she thought they should continue to support urban gardens.

"We tell the stories of the growers behind the ingredients," Doyle says, as he opens up one of his small, white boxes. In it, there are rows of chocolate squares, and he takes one of them between his fingers. "The chocolates are almost like a window into the story of the kids doing urban public school gardening."

The mint is infused into cocoa butter, turning into concentrated mint oil. It is then mixed with chocolate and heated until it can be molded. This is premium chocolate and costs range from $29 to $49 a box, depending on the size and mix.

"That way, it's a really clean and really vibrant, fresh flavor," Doyle says. "It's just the chocolate and the mint."

Since those beginning years, John & Kira's has continued to bring in more flavors into their factory.

The inspiration for most of them came during one of the Doyles' stays in France.

"I was tasting French chocolates and saw flavors such as ginger and raspberry and strawberry," Doyle says, walking over to the other end of the factory. "I thought, gee, couldn't we source those ingredients locally?"

And that is what they did.

Doyle takes a bite of the chocolate square he had been holding, and then opens up one of the freezers in the factory. Many of the ingredients are kept there, and he pulls out some bags of fresh pepper, ginger, lavender, and lemon grass. Taken together, they have a light, balmy scent.

"What we'll do is take lemon grass and put it inside cream," Doyle says, as he opens up one of the bags of the green stalk.

When the cream is boiled, it takes on the flavor of the lemon grass. This is called infusion. The cream is then poured into a kettle with chocolate. The top is closed, and the cream and chocolate are mixed to form a ganache center -- "It's an emulsion of water and fat," Doyle explains.

Once it dries, it is set onto what Doyle calls an enrober, where it is covered by a stream of melted chocolate. This determines how thick the squares will be. After the chocolate comes through the conveyor belt, it is imprinted with a dipping fork.

"That's how you can tell the difference between each chocolate," Doyle says. The lemon grass is imprinted with a dot, the cinnamon pistachio with a circle. Other flavors are imprinted with ovals, ellipses, and lines.

John & KIra's chocolate bees.jpgThese days, John & Kira's does not only make chocolate  It has also begun to make toffees and fruit squares, continuing to use gardens and farms to source their ingredients. For the holiday season, John & Kira's makes dried cherries with dark chocolate ganache, flavored with brandy.

Doyle walks to where there are figs half-covered in dark chocolate. "You take a dry fig, which has a natural hole at the bottom," he says. "Then you attach it to a receptacle filled with ganache, which pushes down and fills the fig."

The figs are brought in from a small farm in the village of Almoharin in Spain. Doyle wants all who buy John & Kira's to know this, so he writes it in a letter that comes with the chocolate.

 In the tent, at the back end of the factory, the women print hundreds of thousands of these letters. Each of them tells the story of where and how the chocolate was made.

What John & Kira's is most known for are their chocolate bees. "Since we use urban gardens, we thought it would represent that well," Doyle says.

He picks one of them up, filled with honey from a nearby apiary. "These make good corporate gifts," he says, turning the chocolate bee over and over, as though it were about to take to the air. "This one is for Summit Financial."

Most of what John & Kira's sells is through their catalogues. It makes up one third of all sales, now approaching $1 million a year.

"We are primarily a gift company," Doyle says. "Some of that business has suffered as a result of a slow economy."

To make up for that lost business, John & Kira's began to set up stands in local farmers markets and those outlets. It was an economic move that had pleasant side effects: the chocolates are now better known in Philadelphia.   

"Farmers markets offer a way to take chocolates into people's neighborhoods and sell them," Doyle says, putting the chocolate bee back down with the others. "The downside is that with open-air markets, it is often cold and/or raining. Weather becomes a factor in sales."

John & Kira's sell its chocolates at farmers markets more than once a week: on Saturdays at Rittenhouse Square and Clark Park; Sundays at Headhouse, and Wednesdays at a farmers market at the University of Pennsylvania. It has become more of a local flavor because of this, gathering a following from throughout Philadelphia.

 John & Kira's also sells its chocolate through Di Bruno Brothers and the Fair Food Farm Stand in the Reading Market.

Despite the economy, Doyle thinks that John & Kira's will continue to sell its chocolate. The pepper, the ginger, the lavender, the lemon grass--all of the ingredients they use in their chocolate will continue to be brought in from gardens and farms, urban and rural, but all small individual growers. Each chocolate square that they sell will continue to tell a story, each box will continue to tell a tale.

John & Kira's will continue doing what makes them so unlike Hershey's or Just Born or even the original Goldenberg's. They will make socially conscious chocolate.

Doyle walks over to the end of the factory, where the tent is set up. It is still a few hundred feet from the back wall. But if John & Kira's is lucky enough, someday the tent will reach that wall. 

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