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“Who can make a sunrise? Sprinkle it with dew. Cover it with chocolate and a miracle of two, the candyman, the candyman, oh the candy man can. The candyman can ‘cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.”

This song, from the original movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” used to greet me on the radio a few mornings a week growing up and was sung by Sammy Davis Jr.  I always remembered the spell that movie cast, allowing us to dream of eating chocolate and sweets to our heart’s content and spoiling our appetites on the regular. No matter the version our affinity is drawn towards, something more than magical occurs when we put ourselves in Charlie Bucket’s shoes. I’d been on tours of candy and chocolate factories before, but the magic was replaced by manufactured “Ooo’s and Ahh’s”, all tidily wrapped up at the end with a gratuitous piece of candy and a ticket stub for our memories. There was always something missing…or was it someone.  Where was the Candyman?

Through a series of serendipitous events, an opportunity to meet the owner and head chocolatier of David Bradley Chocolatier presented itself and I jumped. I gathered my pen and pad and made sure I gave my teeth some extra love because no matter what happen I was going to plunge my head into a river of chocolate and lick some fruit flavored wallpaper. I drove the twisty turny back roads past farms stands and fields filled with amber waves of grain and further away from where one might expect to find a candy store. Turning into the Windsor Industrial Park, a white banner emblazoned in red lettering shouting the word “Chocolate” met me with it’s siblings waving and weaving a path through warehouses, semi trucks, and pallet boards. I have heard others say it was hard to find and off-the-beaten-path, but that doesn’t deter me and besides, how could you miss these banners?

Chris O’Brian (Photo: Renata Barnes)

Far in the back, way off to the left and after a few easy turns, the “Chocolate” banners led me to the second to last door at the end of a long warehouse building. The words “David Bradley Chocolatier” adorn a glass door.  Somewhere beyond that door was the sugar laden, fruit flavored, chocolate covered Shangri-La of my pre-pubescent dreams. I couldn’t wait.

The retail space was wall-to-wall sweets. Baskets and other vessel were brimming with glorious selections of in-house made confections. From chocolate covered pretzels and truffles to non pareils and Harry Potter Chocolate Frogs, there was something to conjure the childhood soul of every patron. As I was surveying all the choices and quietly picking out a few treats that clearly needed a home, the woman behind the counter came out with a tray of milk chocolate and dark chocolate and salted caramel temptation, something they treat every customer to.  That’s my kind of welcome.  Still licking my fingers, I asked to speak to Chris, the owner. Out from behind a door with a small window, stepped an unassuming woman with a twinkle in her eyes and an exuberance that comes only from someone who truly loves what they do and why they do it.  I knew that I had finally met the Candyman…and he was a woman.  Of course she was.

Hopewell Borough resident Christine O’Brian, is an affable woman whose joyful demeanor and ready smile belies the magician that lies beneath her dirty blonde hair. As I surveyed what looked like chocolate covered fruit, she informed me that their fruit is “Made today, sold today.”

“Our chocolate covered fruit is one of the most popular items we make,” she tells me.  “Chocolate covered apples, oranges, pineapple, grapes, blueberries, and (of course) strawberries.””.

Quite honestly, I was still stuck on chocolate covered grapes. Not sure if Chris noticed my bewilderment but it quickly subsided when I heard the words: “Come in the back and see how we make our chocolate.” Finally, the inner sanctum. All was right in the world with that one sentence.

No Oompa Loompas greeted me, but the quiet hum of a conveyor belt and the presence of apron clad, hair-net wearing employees told me that, even without the ubiquitous presence of those small green orange-haired men, there was plenty of magic-making going on.

Making candy (Photo: Renata Barnes)

After stepping just a few feet beyond the door, she offered me chocolate-covered fruit, deftly steering away from strawberries. “People are crazy for it, the chocolate covered fruit,” she reiterated, and then wordlessly suggesting I try the dark chocolate covered pineapple.  It was definitely a different experience of tropical sweetness meeting dark and smooth, and I liked it.

Peppermint bark (Photo: Renata Barnes)

We hurried along, weaving through a maze of boxes filled with all manner of confection, reaching like sugar coated columns toward the cathedral like ceilings. I spied one of my favorite treats, peppermint bark but I don’t just eat anyone’s. I told her my favorite brand and that I only eat it because they use real peppermint oil. As an impish smirk appeared at the corners of her mouth, she responded that, “We use real peppermint oil in our bark. What is the point if you’re not going to use real and high quality ingredients?” Who can argue with that?  My favorite peppermint bark now has competition.

Around a few more columns of boxes and exiting the candied labyrinth, we come upon some employees dipping chocolate covered pretzels into trays of these tiny, round, multi-colored sugar balls. A few feet away, I could see the freshly coated pretzels coming off the conveyor belt sporting their cocoa finery and waiting for their next coating. Somewhere behind the machine, I could here voices quietly discussing something.  As curiosity bested my otherwise stellar manners, another employee came out from around  the front of the machine and deposited some pretzels in the trash. “What was their crime?” I thought to myself.  The employee saw my shock and addressed my question before I could ask. “That one and the others were a bit dull.”  If dullness were a reason to offload someone, many of us would be in serious trouble.  “There needs to be a certain sheen to the chocolate,” he informed me. “We are looking for a certain shine. If it is not there, we don’t sell it. Sometimes it is used for samples or sold at a discount.  It’s still edible it just isn’t–” “–cute enough?” I chimed in. He chuckled and said, “Well, yea, I guess.”

Chris led me on through to where the chocolate nonpareils were just coming off the conveyor belt. We snuck up on the freshly made chocolates like mischievous kids.

“This is my favorite thing,” Chris whispered, her eyes widening. “Still warm and just able to hold their shape. Here, have one.” She placed a warm, fragile, round mound of sprinkle covered chocolate in my hand. “You’ve got to put it in your mouth at the right time, right when it’s warm like this.”

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We did. I didn’t have high expectations at all but when that still warm chocolate, spilled out, and flooded my mouth with just the right amount of sugar and cocoa and warmth, my eyes rolled to the back of my head. At that moment, I knew the magic spell that Willy Wonka and Chris O’Brian had fallen under.

“We use the same chocolate that Godiva uses,” this thirty plus-year veteran in the candy making business proclaimed. “There are very few places in the US that actually process their own chocolate and most of them are larger operations. Chocolate making is a very precise and time consuming process and very few are able to do it in a cost effective way.”

As a Philly girl from Ardmore, O’Brian got her start in the business when it was run by her parents, Bob and Marcy Hicks, and her grandmother, Alma Hicks.  “Originally my dad started the business to give my grandmother something to do. She started out just selling other people’s chocolates and candy. We weren’t manufacturing or creating anything ourselves.”

According to O’Brian, things took off quicker than they had expected and the store became popular, with the Hicks family dabbling in confection creation. As the business grew, the parents enlisted the help of their children, Chris and her two brothers, David and Bradley, to help run the burgeoning business. What started out as a family venture is still a family run business from the office staff to those who work the production line. Now, David helms the marketing division, while Brad is the tech/machinery wiz, and Chris is the “Candyman” overseeing production and a staff of 20 full time employees and around the same number of part-time workers. The chocolate is delivered in fifty-pound blocks, and O’Brian and her staff set out to breaking up the blocks and loading it into the “melter” where it is blended together – with a combination of different chocolates all containing different notes – giving their chocolate it’s signature taste. After that, it is off to another machine to cool it down, and then finally it is ready to be tempered.

Turning to me, O’Brian affirmed, “I am so proud of where our company is today.  We use the best chocolate, not compounds or mixes. We use best practices in manufacturing our products. Our chocolate covered pretzels are the best pretzels we can buy, as are the cookies we use for our chocolate covered cookies. We like the best for ourselves and want to pass that on to our customers.”

Clearly the process of making chocolate is exhausting but still amazingly magical.  From chocolate covered potato chips and bacon to double dipped cookies and rice crispies, Chris and the folks at David Bradley Chocolate produce over ninety different kinds of candy all year round.

Currently David Bradley Chocolatier is experiencing a growth spurt and looking for bigger digs to work their magic.  With a childlike giddiness for what the future could hold for the company, she shared, “I want to stay in Robbinsville because this town has been so good to us, and we want to continue to contribute and be a stalwart part of this community”.

My time in Candyland was drawing to an end and, as I passed still more delights waiting to tantalize and entrance my taste buds, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of that magic had rubbed off on me. I certainly felt more lifted, more happy, but that was probably just the endorphins. I wanted to know what her favorite candy was, the one she likes to make and eat.

“Cocoa powder truffles,” Chris stated very matter-of-factly. “We make fresh batches of these truffles every week. They are so simple, just a few ingredients and so good.” With a bag full of treats that I couldn’t wait to dive into, I told Chris what a wonderful time I had. People were coming and going leaving with parcels filled with any number of the ninety plus confections David Bradley Chocolatier creates.  As I turned to wave my final goodbyes, I saw Chris slip beyond the entry door back to that magical place to conjure up more deliciousness —  a chocolate oasis all its own and I didn’t even need a golden ticket to get there and… neither do you. Eat your chocolate heart out Charlie Bucket.

David Bradley Chocolatier, 92 North Main Street (in the Windsor Industrial Park) Robbinsville, NJ, 08561, (609)433-4747.

Yum it up.  Brush your teeth. Tell all your friends.  

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Renata Barnes
Renata is the author of "The Taste Chase," MercerMe's own food review column. She's a lover of all things poetic, colorful, funny and inspiring. A native New Yorker, who grew up in Hopewell Valley and spent the better part of her adulthood back in NYC, currently finds herself in a growing love relationship with “the Valley”. Latin food, Indian saris and mehndi, French perfume, African music, Middle Eastern spices, South American jewels, Asian fabrics and anything from just about any island (maybe not Riker’s Island) are things that remind her to go out and taste the world, live passionately and always wear deodorant. The mother of one rambunctious boy and the wife of a mellow fellow, Renata tries to put her too many years of university and her film and writing talents to good use here in NJ. “I’ve spent too much time trying to fit in some where when I probably belong everywhere. That slow revelation has been freeing.”

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