The Smidgen® is Born
In the winter of 1984, my Dad (Elmer) and I made a commitment to develop a partnership with Van Leer Chocolate, our largest supplier of bulk chocolate at that time. The Van Leer’s wanted to offer their bulk customers the opportunity to buy Almond Bars made with their chocolate. In that era, $1 Milk Chocolate Almond Bars were a mainstay of the Fundraising business, and all of them were wrapped in gold foil with a paper outer sleeve that were printed with the company name, etc. This very distinct packaging required very complex wrapping equipment, and the high cost of those machines prevented a lot of smaller companies from making their own bars. Obviously, if you had one of these wrapping machines, you could sell a lot of bars.
Just before Easter of that year, we located a wrapping machine that seemed to be exactly what we needed. It was at a used equipment company in England, supposedly completely rebuilt and ready to wrap millions of bars. I took one look at the pictures of the machine and decided that if we were to bring this monstrosity into our building we had better get some training in how to run it. And so Steve Liddic, Vice President of Manufacturing at the time, Herb Black, our ace mechanic, and I boarded a plane for London right after Easter. The guy who sold us the wrapper couldn’t get over the idea that three of us were going all that distance to see this machine, and suggested we might want to take a little time to see some other things. He recommended we visit an eccentric engineer named Arthur Westbrook. This guy claimed to have developed a revolutionary way to mold chocolate that he called One-Shot Shellmolding, a process where you deposited chocolate with a center inside all at one time.
The first thing we did when we got acclimated to England was spend a day with the wrapping machine. We were thoroughly traumatized. If you’ve ever seen a Rube Goldberg cartoon, you’ll be able to conjure a visual of this contraption. Gears and cams, arms and pinchers everywhere, flailing away. In one end went our beautiful chocolate bars, and out the other came a wrapped product...if you were lucky, and the sun was shining just the right way.
The next day we drove to Reddich to visit the engineer we’d been told about. Arthur had been an engineer for Cadbury and had developed the one-shot process to make Caramello Bars, a huge product at the time. Arthur saw all kinds of potential for the process, but Cadbury didn’t want to do anything more with it. And so he left and set up his own little company to make one-shot lines. When we met him, he had built seven or eight, and was ready to ship his first to the United States. Arthur began by explaining his invention and drawing pictures of it on a pad of paper. We toured his shop and saw a half-completed machine. Then he drove us 10 or 15 miles down the road to a little confectioner’s factory to see one of his one-shot lines running. The guy was making little white mice with an orange filling. Frankly, it was one of the worst tasting products I ever remember eating. But the process was magic! You started with two hoppers – the chocolate hopper and the center hopper – and voila!, and out came beautiful filled pieces made as efficiently as a solid chocolate piece. We couldn’t believe our eyes.
The next day we toured one other company and then drove back to London. We flew back to JFK and my dad picked us up. On the way home, dad wanted to hear all about our trip, and I told him about Arthur’s molding machine. He was very, very interested in how it worked, what it would cost, and what we might make on it. The next morning we sat down in his office and talked about Arthur’s machine again. In a few minutes, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Do you think you can make this machine work?” “Yes, of course,” I said bravely. His next line was a line I will never forget – not if I live to 150. He said, “Order one”. I asked him if he wanted to go see it. No, order it. It was a simple as that. The decision he made that morning cost us everything we made for that entire year. In retrospect, it was a defining moment that launched us in an entirely new direction, but at the time we were both consumed with getting it installed and running in time for the coming Christmas Fundraising season. Well, I was consumed with getting it running. He was consumed with paying for it. Which was the normal division of responsibilities between us.
After the initial euphoria of getting the equipment ordered, a far more fundamental question loomed: What will we make on it? Our first thought was a line of truffles, a product just becoming popular in the U.S. at the time. And I had another idea. I knew of a company whose biggest seller was bite-sized pieces of solid milk chocolate molded into cute seasonal shapes. They made them for Christmas and Easter, and the product, from a sales perspective, was off the charts. If they could sell solid pieces so well, couldn’t we sell a similar product, only with peanut butter filling? We found a mold design we liked, and came up with a formulation for the filling everyone liked. Only one other question remained: What would we call it? We brainstormed for days before finally landing on Smidgens®. In typical Gertrude Hawk Chocolates fashion, the packaging arrived two days before we were to start filling Christmas Fundraising orders, the machine behaved itself, and the rest, as they say, is history. Peanut Butter Smidgens® rocketed to the #1 spot that Christmas, and has been there ever since.
From left: 1986 Christmas Smidgens®, 1991 Easter Smidgens®, 1996 Christmas Smidgens®, classic Tub O' Bunnies for Easter
I think it’s fair to say that Smidgens® have not remained a static product. Over the years we’ve changed many aspects of what has become our signature product. The original Smidgens® were packed in paper cups in a box, much like we pack Frango Mints. That’s the only way we could imagine selling them, because that’s how we packaged all our chocolates. About four years in we came up with the idea of bulk packing them in a plastic tub similar to what a deli packs potato salad in. We called it a Tub of Santas or a Tub of Bunnies, and once again, sales jumped to #1. Five or six years later we moved from using deli tubs to the gable style box we use today. Packs eventually replaced almost all of the more traditional cupped and boxed Smidgens® we make.
Believe it or not, for the first 10 years Smidgens® only came in one flavor - Milk Chocolate with Peanut Butter filling. To be honest, at the time we weren’t sure how to define a Smidgen®, and so didn’t know if our customers would accept another flavor. Eventually we gathered every ounce of our courage and made Solid Milk Chocolate Smidgens®, and guess what? They became our second best seller. Next came Milk Chocolate with Caramel filling, followed by Solid Dark Chocolate. And then the flood gates opened. Today we have a library of over 40 flavors of Smidgens®, and five or six new ones are under development. Beyond flavors, we’ve added Smidgen® shapes for every season. Over all these developments, the one thing that has remained constant is that Smidgens® as a category of products are always #1. More specifically, Peanut Butter Smidgens® are our best selling product.
The Smidgen® Today
The Jumbo Smidgen Bunny is nearly 5" tall by 8" wide!
This is the 30th anniversary of creating Smidgens®, a product that has truly become a local phenomenon. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that if you could find a single person in Northeastern Pennsylvania who doesn’t know what a Smidgen® is, you’ve probably found someone who’s lived under a rock for the last 20 years. To celebrate this tremendously important anniversary in GHC’s history, we’ve developed at brand new Smidgen® concept. We call it a Jumbo Smidgen® Bunny. It’s a giant hollow Milk Chocolate Easter Smidgen® that comes in at a whopping 15 ounces. Almost a pound of pure pleasure! Will customers accept such a very different version of their beloved product? Over these many years we have found that customers have developed their own idea of what a Smidgen® is, and when we venture outside those parameters they let us know in no uncertain terms that we’ve violated the “Smidgen® Religion.” All I can say at this point is the Jumbo Smidgen® Bunny looks great, and tastes even better. That’s a really great start for a new product!
Circling back to the beginning of this column, we brought that miserable Almond Bar wrapper into the building and struggled valiantly to run it. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t make it run smoothly or efficiently. I can say with certainty that it broke more bars than it wrapped. As I recall, it also broke a finger or two. A couple of years later we dropped out of the Almond Bar business and shipped the wrapper off to the grave yard. May it rest in peace. And yet, that trip to England was the most fruitful business trip in Gertrude Hawk Chocolate’s history. I guess the moral of the story is to always be open to new ideas. You just never know where they might lead you.
All The Best,