McKibben's new chocolate factory to open in Sonoma

In a little old house on Broadway that was formerly the address of Sonoma Print Shop, an aroma decidedly sweeter than the smell of ink and paper is being quietly cooked up – right under the noses of local residents.

Currently under significant construction and major remodeling, the still-nondescript building will be unveiled this winter as something thoroughly transformed, exciting enough to catch the eye, and the nose, of confectioners like Willy Wonka or Lord Scrumptious.

Unlike the candy empires created in children’s novels by those decidedly fictional characters, however, this gleaming new candy emporium will be deliciously real.

“We are building a chocolate factory,” pronounces Anne McKibben, founder and CEO of Cocoa Planet. The 3-year-old company – a rapidly expanding Sonoma-based manufacturer and distributer of high-end, low-calorie chocolates – has been conducting its nationwide distribution from McKibben’s Sonoma home. When construction is complete at 921 Broadway, adjacent to the Subway sandwich shop and Easy Stop Market, McKibben’s new headquarters will include offices, a chocolate shop and tasting room, an outside “chocolate garden,” and an operational chocolate-making facility fully open to public view.

“It’ll be like a brand new building,” says McKibben. “When we open in December, it will have glass walls between the tasting room and the production area. All of our chocolate making equipment will be visible so you can see how our chocolates are made. It’s going to be a very interesting place.”

It is appropriate that the new business will not look like a traditional candy store or confectionary. After all, according to McKibben, Cocoa Planet’s largely organic confections do not resemble any run-of-the-mill candy bar. Eschewing anything rectangular, McKibben, when she began dreaming up the idea of starting a candy company, elected to make chocolates in the shape of disks. Extravagantly wrapped and packaged, the 2-1/4 inch chocolate circles contain numerous embedded “pearls of flavor” (that’s trademarked), made using a new process invented by McKibben and her husband, requiring a stainless steel depositing machine, for which the McKibbens have applied for patent protection.

“’Pearls of flavor,’” laughs McKibben, “is our romantic way of saying ‘drops of filling.’ The main thing is the chocolate itself. The filling is just the accent.”

Those “accents,” for the time being, come in five flavors: salted caramel, mandarin orange, deep dark truffle, CocoaMint, and Vanilla Espresso. According to McKibben, Cocoa Planet chocolates contain just 15 percent filling as opposed to the 50 percent often seen in other chocolates. Most chocolates that include a filling basically inject filling into a cavity in the center of the chocolate, much like a donut filled with raspberry jam. Cocoa Planet chocolates, on the other hand, contain multiple tiny droplets of filling, appearing like the indentations on a miniature Chinese checkers board.

That, more or less, is what a Cocoa Planet chocolate looks like.

“It makes for a very different experience when you’re eating it, compared to eating a big bar with a blob of something in the middle,” says McKibben. “The more filling there is, the less chocolate, and with our product, it’s more about the chocolate, with the filling as the accent. Our fillings are beautiful ingredients, really high-end, mostly organic ingredients. Each chocolate has less than one hundred calories, with only 7 grams of sugar. That’s one of the benefits of having smaller amounts of filling.”

Since launching the business, the chocolates have been manufactured at a facility in Los Angeles, where McKibben travels every two months or so to oversee production and hand make the fillings. Once the new factory in Sonoma is completed, and the new depositing machine is in place, the increased capacity of the local facility will allow McKibben to make 50,000 chocolates in a single day.

“Not that we have the demand to make that many right now,” she laughs, “but we could, if we needed to.”

According to McKibben, Cocoa Planet products have been rapidly gaining wholesale market traction in the Northeast United States, and in high-density pockets around the country, in particular Pittsburgh, Chicago and Nantucket, where the chocolates are sold through specialty markets and health-food chains. Closer to home, the curiously packaged goodies have established a strong presence in similar stores throughout the Bay Area, including Sonoma Market, Sonoma’s Best, Glen Ellen Village Market, Oliver’s in Santa Rosa, Mollie Stone’s, the General Store on the Plaza, and many of the larger Whole Foods in the area.

“The factory and the store is going to be a really fun brand-builder for us,” she says. “‘Til now, we’ve had to do everything online and at trade shows, selling wholesale to stores, which makes it feel like a virtual thing, almost. There’s been little public face to the business. It’s going to be a lot of fun to finally be able to say, ‘Hi! We’re Cocoa Planet! Come on in and taste our chocolate!”

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