Keri Alloway uses her impressive core strength and a wooden paddle the size of an oar to stir roasted almonds under a glossy stream of molten milk chocolate flowing from a pipe overhead.
Nearby, workers pour chocolate into heart-shaped molds, smear buttercream onto heart-shaped lemon cakes and pipe pink icing onto heart-shaped cookies.
The weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day are a peak time at André’s Confiserie Suisse, 5018 Main St., where chocolatiers like Alloway are working overtime. Right now, for example, they’re producing up to 600 pounds of those almonds a day.
“We go through about 40,000 pounds of chocolate per year,” says president René Bollier, “and more than half of that goes to our chocolate-covered almonds.”
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They start by roasting the almonds in a copper kettle with a sprinkling of sugar, which adds a crunchy coat of caramel. Then they twirl the almonds in a rotating stainless steel pan as the chocolate pours over them. The finishing touch: a dusting of snowy powdered sugar. A 3-ounce bag sells for $6.25.
You can also witness the pre-Valentine’s Day rush through the windows at Annedore’s Fine Chocolates, 5000 State Line Road in Westwood Hills, where workers make truffles by filling rows of dark chocolate shells with velvety ganache. Or at Christopher Elbow Chocolates, 1819 McGee St., where customers wait patiently in line to pick out pale pink boxes of jewel-like confections in flavors such as Butterscotch Bourbon and Passion Fruit Caramel.
At Kansas City-based Russell Stover Candies, one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the U.S., customers can’t get enough chocolate-covered strawberries. The three local stores — in Kansas City, Kan., Fairway and Merriam — sell around 50,000 of the seasonal treats this time of year.
The jumbo berries cost $3.99 each, or $38 for a heart-shaped box of 10. Each one is dipped by hand in milk, dark or white chocolate and stays fresh for just 24 hours. Making enough to meet demand requires all hands on deck: Local stores hire temps and recruit corporate staffers to pitch in.
On a recent afternoon at the Merriam store at 10100 Shawnee Mission Parkway, training manager Kim Shrewsbury dips plump red strawberries into a 45-pound vat of creamy milk chocolate. Next to her, in-store program manager Christi Jones decorates the berries with pink and white sprinkles before the chocolate hardens into a glossy shell.
“I like to joke that I spend more time with Kim on Valentine’s Day than I do with my husband,” Jones says.
But working overtime at a chocolate shop has its perks. First off, there’s free Pecan Delights.
“I’ve worked here for 21 years,” Shrewsbury says, “and I still eat at least one piece of chocolate every day.”
She adds she’s witnessed many sweet moments over the years, from a veteran’s surprise homecoming, complete with chocolate, to a man proposing to his girlfriend with a ring hidden inside one of Russell Stover’s famous heart-shaped box of chocolates.
The candy company might not have invented the heart-shaped box of chocolate, but there’s no denying that Russell Stover helped make it America’s quintessential Valentine’s Day gift. Legend has it that after Russell and Clara Stover launched the company from their Denver home in 1923, Clara got the idea to package assorted chocolates in heart-shaped boxes like those she’d spotted in Europe.
Over the years, Russell Stover’s classic 7-ounce red foil heart-shaped box of assorted chocolates — filled with creamy centers, chewy caramels and nuts — has become the best-selling gift of its kind in the country. And at $5.99, the price is easy to swallow.
The Merriam store has full aisles of such boxes decorated with red velvet, black lace or quilted floral fabric. Many are produced about 70 miles south in Butler, Mo. Some boxes contain only truffles; others all dark chocolate, or salted caramels that stretch like taffy when you take a bite.
Both Russell Stover and Andre’s say sales of milk chocolate and dark chocolate are about even. “Twenty years ago, it was 70 percent milk chocolate to 30 percent dark,” says Rene Bollier of André’s. “Now it’s closer to 50/50 , but milk chocolate still wins.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Russell Stover regular Patti Lamanno of Raytown picks out two small heart-shaped boxes of peanut butter cups for her granddaughters. Each comes with a plastic Snoopy keychain.
She also purchases Pecan Delights for her boyfriend and, for herself, dark chocolate bark studded with pistachios.
“I try to go with dark chocolate if I can, because it’s healthier,” she says.
That same day, Kathy Kane of Raymore rushes in to the André’s second location at 4929 W. 119th St. in Overland Park and leaves with an armful of Valentine’s Day bags prepacked with assorted chocolates.
“I’m going to pair these with champagne and give them to my girlfriends,” she says.
When René Bollier has a craving for something sweet, he returns to a childhood favorite: André’s rich and buttery chocolate-coated caramels.
In 1955, his grandparents André and Elsbeth Bollier emigrated to the United States from Switzerland and opened a traditional Swiss-style sweet shop in Kansas City. As a kid, René Bollier would sneak into the chocolate room and grab a caramel fresh from the production line.
His parents never pressured him to join the family business, but he knew even then that one day he’d learn to make caramels, silky-smooth truffles, fresh-baked gingerbread cookies and chocolate-coated almonds.
“Chocolate was where I wanted to be,” Bollier says.
Lately he’s been following in his grandfather’s footsteps by experimenting with new products, such as fresh nut butters and cordials filled with spirits from Kansas City’s own J. Rieger & Co. His current favorite is infused with Caffè Amaro, a bitter liqueur made with Thou Mayest coffee.
The cordials, which cost $2 each or $14.75 in an 8-piece gift box, are already a hot Valentine’s Day gift, so the André’s crew has been working overtime to make them by the hundreds.
For Bollier and other candy makers, it’s a labor of love that lasts well beyond Feb. 14.
“I literally eat chocolate every day,” Bollier says. “Even on vacation.”
50,000 Jumbo chocolate-covered strawberries sold at local Russell Stover stores around Valentine’s Day.
31Russell Stover stores in the United States, including locations in Merriam, Fairway and Kansas City, Kan. Thousands more retailers around the world carry the chocolates as well.
40,000Pounds of Swiss chocolate André’s buys annually. More than half of that is used for chocolate-covered almonds; up to 8,000 pounds is for Valentine’s candy.
600Pounds of chocolate-covered almonds André’s produces at peak times before Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.
6,000Heart-shaped pastries Andre’s sells in the two weeks before Valentine’s Day.
A taste of KC chocolate history
1923: Russell and Clara Stover start a candy company in their home in Denver. Five years later, they open a factory in Kansas City, and in 1932, the Stovers relocate along with their company’s headquarters to KC.
1955: André and Elsbeth Bollier emigrate from Switzerland and found André’s Confiserie Suisse in Kansas City.
1993: Russell Stover buys the venerable Whitman’s Chocolates, founded in 1842 by Stephen F. Whitman in Philadelphia.
2014: Russell Stover is bought by Lindt & Sprungli, a Swiss candy company. The sale makes Lindt the third-leading chocolate company in the U.S., behind Hershey and Mars.