BIRNN Chocolates of Vermont
Story by: BENJAMIN LERNER Photography courtesy: BIRNN CHOCOLATES What makes a good chocolate truffle? If you ask fourth-generation candy maker and current co-owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont, Julia Birnn, the difference lies in the details.
“I would say the overall appearance…I want the truffles to look very nice, to have a nice shine to them and nice decoration…We hand decorate all of our truffles… Also, when you bite into them, you want a nice snap. A profound snap. That means that the chocolate is in temper. If they’re chewy that’s not what you’re going for. You want a nice snap and then the creamy feel on the inside.”
Made with locally-sourced Vermont heavy cream from Monument Farms in Weybridge, Vermont, and available in over 150 varieties, Birnn Chocolates of Vermont’s truffles are made in a state-of-the-art factory that integrates traditional Birnn family methods with modern candy-making technology. Sold wholesale in shops around the country, and available in Vermont stores such as Shelburne Country Store and Harrington’s of Vermont, the chocolates are sure to satisfy the palate of any discerning chocolate enthusiast. Owners Julia Birnn and husband Mel Fields work as a dynamic husband and wife duo overseeing the South Burlington-based chocolate truffle factory, continuing the Birnn family’s legacy of candy excellence, which first started hundreds of miles away over 100 years ago.
When Charles “Pop” Birnn first got involved in the candy business in 1915, everything was made by hand. Charles was a craftsman of confectionery who worked for years in the candy industry, honing his skillset and perfecting his recipes. In 1934, he opened his own shop, Birnn Candy, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He had all the sartorial trappings of a 1930s candy maker and was known to spend hours in the candy kitchen, meticulously hand piping chocolate into his candies in his tall white chef hat. He was passionate about his line of work, and eventually passed the torch of the family business to his son, Edward.
According to Julia Birnn, “Edward was a cellist, a professional musician… But his dad needed him in the family business. So he pulled him from that trajectory and said ‘I need you here at the candy shop’…he still played the cello, but his primary focus shifted to the family business.”
Though Edward might not have originally chosen his path in the candy business, he was a fast study and quickly found success. A natural businessman, he grew the Birnn candy empire from his father’s single original shop to 11 retail stores in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. By the time Edward’s sons Bill and Jeff Birnn started working in the family business in the 1980s, the company had been reborn as Birnn Chocolates, and it wasn’t long before Bill & Jeff took the candy-making operation in new directions in terms of both location and business strategy.
In the late 1980s, they adapted to the fast pace of the chocolate industry’s demand for truffles and became truffle wholesalers, moving large volumes of the delicious chocolate candies to stores in need of quality product. The outcome of the business model change was incredibly favorable for the Birnn brothers, and success came fast. They needed to expand production and needed a bigger facility in a place with affordable rent to accommodate the potential for even more future growth. Reflecting on the circumstances that brought her father and uncle up to Vermont, Julia Birnn says that her father and uncle’s youthful adventures hiking and skiing New England mountains played a significant role in their decision.
“They wondered, ‘What should we do? Where should we go?’ …My uncle and dad [had at one point] lived together in New Hampshire, and they loved skiing and hiking and the outdoors…They said, ‘Let’s move to Vermont’…Thinking back now— being in a similar situation myself— taking that leap of faith is pretty risky, and it’s pretty incredible that they did that.”
After moving to South Burlington, Vermont, Bill & Jeff wasted no time in establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the wholesale truffle industry. As demand steadily increased, they were able to expand into neighboring buildings and grow their business to meet the needs of the market. Early on, they made the decision to get involved at a local community level with the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. They started working with the Vermont refugee resettlement program, which gave refugees of foreign conflicts access to steady paying jobs. According to Julia, working with the refugee resettlement program has not only worked out well for the family business but created long-lasting relationships with the employees who found work here through the program:
”People from the refugee resettlement program who came here to work at Birnn, they found that [we] paid them a livable wage…And provided them a safe working environment…we have people that have worked here for 30 years. They remember me from when I was 6 years old, so that’s pretty amazing…Most of them are now American citizens. We help them through that [citizenship] process and support them. We now offer English classes once a week for our English-learning employees.”
Some of the employees hired from the refugee resettlement program have encouraged their own family members to apply, which has in turn given new meaning to the words “family business” at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont. In the same way that Jeff & Bill Birnn made the bold move to Vermont from New Jersey in 1991 and found a new home and purpose in the Green Mountain State, the employees who found a way to make a decent living and new life in Vermont through the refugee resettlement work program are now part of the extended Birnn corporate family. The term “family values” gets thrown around a lot when discussing family-owned businesses, but at Birnn Chocolates of Vermont, it’s clear that it doesn’t only apply to the family who founded the business, but the families who make their living working there, as well.
When asked about her philosophy in looking towards the future, Julia references wisdom of the past imparted to her by her grandfather, Edward Birnn, about the most important things to remember while running a business. Birnn Chocolates of Vermont was founded on a philosophy of honesty and transparency, so when it comes to dealings with customers, employees, and other competing chocolate companies, their ethical code is always the same:
“I think my grandfather would say, ‘Pay your bills. Be approachable. Don’t turn your back on other people to make a penny. Be a friendly neighbor. Help out those around you and be honest to your customers - and sell high-quality product for a fair price.” Birnn Chocolates of Vermont might be known in the candy industry for the delicious chocolate truffles that they ship to countless stores across the country, but the positive impact that they have had on the community in South Burlington has been equally notable.
Changing the lives of those who need it most, while making chocolate lovers around the country happy (by doing what they love) – now THAT is one sweet deal!
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