PONCHATOULA, LA (WVUE) - A lot of the heart-shaped boxes of chocolates that will be headed to sweethearts this Valentines Day got their start in the Town of Ponchatoula. A century and a half old candy maker has a new high-tech chocolate factory.
The conveyor belts of chocolate candy criss-cross a state-of-the-art candy-making factory in Ponchatoula.
"There is a scanner that allows a robotic system to know exactly where the piece of candy is," said Michael Nelson.
Robotic arms load heart-shaped trays at a dizzying pace.
"Each arm is capable of over 100 pieces per minute," said Nelson.
The HMI basically shows us from beginning to end, the making of the caramel process.
Michael Nelson is VP of Operations at Elmer's Chocolate, which just completed a $43-million modernization of its factory. His brother, Robert, is the company president. They are 3rd generation candy makers.
"So my grandfather married a woman from New Orleans and moved to New Orleans and went into business with the Elmer Family and in the early 60's and ended up purchasing the company from the Elmer Family," said Robert.
Their candy company began in New Orleans more than 160 years ago. Elmer is now the nation's second biggest maker of heart-shaped box chocolates.
"We make somewhere between 40 and 50 million boxes of chocolate a year. We have lines that can make 400 boxes a minute," said Robert.
During Easter, Elmer's is known for its Gold Brick and Heavenly Hash eggs.
"Heavenly Hash goes back to 1923, The Elmer Family acquired the recipe for Heavenly Hash from a Canal Street department store. Gold Brick was actually formulated by the Elmer Family in 1936," said Robert.
Along with today's increased volume, the candy is not touched by human hands. The creme and caramel fillings are cooked in huge vessels and the mixture is pumped to the chocolate room.
Machines fill the candy trays with melted chocolate. The flavor filling is added.
"We are shaking the center down at this stage to make it level," said Michael.
And then a melted chocolate bottom completes the candy.
"At this point, the product is finished, cooled and it's ready to be de-molded," said Michael.
"It's a facility that we built to be really tops in food safety and tops in efficiency in the world," said Robert.
Each day, more than three-million pieces of chocolate candy roll off the production line and are boxed for distribution across the country.
"We've actually increased our full-time employment as the jobs are higher-paying, they are higher tech jobs," said Robert.
The Nelson Brothers say their automation also turns out a chocolate that's shiny and untouched with no scratches.
"It's a great presentation as you know makes people feel special," said Robert.
And isn't that what giving a heart-shaped box of candy is all about on Valentines Day.
For more information on Elmers, click here.