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Ponchatoula chocolate factory goes high-tech

Caramel-filled chocolates (Source: Elmer Chocolate) Caramel-filled chocolates (Source: Elmer Chocolate)

The chocolate Easter rush is over at the Elmer plant in Ponchatoula, and now workers look toward a sweeter future.

The oldest family-owned candy company will make the same treats, but starting next month they'll use a state-of-the-art system unrivaled in the candy-making world.

"Between Christmas and Mardi Gras this was bustling with a lot of people," said Rob Nelson, pointing to empty machines and conveyor belts. "We made Heavenly Hash on line one. Gold Brick on line three."

The company makes 12 million chocolate eggs for Easter. They've made their last run in this part of the plant.

"Right now we're in transition. We are making a major change to how we do things here." he said.

Elmer executives are thinking outside the candy box. A new production room more high-tech than Willie Wonka ever imagined.

"Our new facility is tops in food safety. Food safety is so important today. What we'll do with this operation is from beginning to end, no one will ever touch it and that's a big deal," Nelson said.

It's candy-making behind glass, fully robotic. Starting next month, hundreds of employees will be hands-on in a new skill set.

"Everybody here still has a job. In most cases it's a higher tech job and requires a lot of training to teach people how to do new things and it's been a lot of fun."

The new machines go online in mid-April, but tests are underway to make sure operations are sweet. Michael Nelson, Rob's brother, is working on the strawberry-filled chocolate.

"It's fonden. It's a mixture of sugar and corn syrup that's been cooked and cooled and then we add flavor and color," he said.

Fonden is run through the machines until the mix is perfect and the robots drizzle it into chocolate shells. The candy company has made strawberry filled chocolate since the 1990s.

"Senator John Hainkel came to me and said, 'you're making every type of candy but nothing strawberry,'" Rob Nelson said.

"You get into what we're really known for, which is Valentine's day and Christmas, and all that has become automated," he said.

The company, founded in 1855, has only been owned by a couple of families. Nelson's grandfather bought the company in the 1960s and his legacy is secure.

"We're really in North America," he said. "Canada to Central America is where we  are the strongest."

When it comes to candy-making, Elmer Chocolate has it down to a science. An old art in a new, automated world.

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