Jonathan and Fran
Fran and Jonathan Rutstein, owners of Burnham & Mills food business located in the Wells River Industrial Park off Route 302, are seen here with some of the many products they manufacture that range from chocolate mixes and pancake mixes to lollipops. TBWS/Bernie Marvin
In 1988, native Vermonters Jonathan Rutstein and his wife Fran purchased a small, local company with three chocolate sauces and a client base of about a dozen good customers. Since then, they have expanded their product line to include eight creamy chocolate sauces, fresh berry preserves, savory jams, spicy Dijon mustards, authentic pasta sauces, unconventional salsas, barbecue marinades, and elegant champagne vinegars and infused grapeseed oils plus an award winning line of hot chocolate beverages made with organic kosher cocoa and caffeine-free "White Hot" drinks, instant chai teas and exotic tea blends. Not to mention a Vermont summer necessity: "Moose Pops," hand poured, real maple flavored suckers!
Whether under the signature Bread & Chocolate name, or our new Burnham & Mills™ label, our products are still made in small batches, using the finest natural ingredients and packaged by hand in Vermont.
WELLS RIVER-Burnham & Mills, a locally owned food company in Wells River, increased sales figures 22 percent last year and according to figures posted for this year, those numbers will be the same or better for 2009.
In a balky worldwide economy, the company has diversified its product line nicely. It has also adopted a runaway best selling new package to hold their popular blend of organic hot chocolate mix....a glass milk bottle.
What has come as a result of this creation is a smash hit, with orders pouring in from the United Kingdom. Sales are climbing throughout the southeast and midwest with major specialty food distributors and others.
The company, founded 21 years ago on a card table, kitchen counter top plus the dining and living rooms of their former home in Haverhill Corner is now Vermont's premier hot chocolate manufacturer selling their product line from Spain to Alaska and beyond.
In November 1988, the company started with a simple line of chocolate sauces. Today they have 13 signature styles and 55 flavors with sales zooming through the roof of their warehouse and office located around a bend of the access road into the industrial park off Route 302.
Jonathan and Fran Rutstein founded the company in 1988, when he was a planner with the North Country Council and she a mom, a gardener and keeper of a home that at one time housed the Grafton County Jail in the late 1700's.
Therein lies an interesting tale!
The Rutsteins settled on the company name, Bread & Chocolate, back in 1988 and began their marketing efforts with that name affixed to glass jars holding their Belgian chocolate sauces.
A company in the southern part of the country with the same Bread & Chocolate name, however, asked that they modify their label, so the Rutsteins added an additional brand name, taken from two lawless characters that were incarcerated in the old Grafton County Jail in the early 1800's.
Those two jailed residents, once occupants of Jon and Fran's historic home, had last names of Burnham and Mills.
Bread & Chocolate DBA Burnham & Mills was officially born.
With Fran and Jon at the helm of the growing business, new products were introduced at a fast pace and now the company sells a long line of very popular foods, including their year-old Silly Cow Farm organic hot chocolate mix in glass pint bottles, pancake and waffle mixes, cookie and brownie mixes and bread mixes.
Their Storytime nursery tale hot chocolate mixes are another global hit, packed in collectible lithographed tins in a wide variety of flavors, the products are also lactose, sodium and cholesterol free.
They also market Burnham & Mills special edition chocolate mixes, a white chocolate hot drink mix. Also teas, lattes, fruit jams and preserves and spiced sea salts.
They also make suckers and pops in a long line of flavors, shapes and colors, but the product they sell the most of is their tremendously popular Maple Moose Pop, made from pure organic sugars and natural maple syrup.
Many of their products are Kosher, organic and the containers, such as the hot chocolate mix tins and pint bottles are collectible and reusable.
They promote and show their products to food shows in New York, Detroit, San Francisco and in other cities around the country, where manufacturers, national and global distributors flock.
The plant, as seen from the air.
The plant manufactures the mix of products five days a week with a payroll of 44 in varied shifts through the day, plus and a night shift. They endure federal and state inspections regularly, when inspectors come unannounced to give the facility a thorough going over.
At one point in the beginning of the business when they first moved into the industrial park, their warehouse was a huge dome with nothing much in it. The couple are presently debating the pros and cons of building a new, warehouse, where more product can be stored.
Today, with national and overseas orders ready to be packed, the warehouse will be filled to the ceiling with 30,000 containers of this chocolate product and 90,000 containers of that chocolate product, all destined to be shipped throughout the world in time for the coming holiday eight months down the road.
Every day, it seems, market possibilities expand because of the uniqueness and excellence of the Burnham & Mills product. Rutstein said he recently received a phone call from a hotel restaurant owner in Turkey who wants the chocolate mix for his customers.
So, if the owner of the swankiest five star hotel in Istanbul, Turkey wants Rutstein's product for customers there, he is sure others will want it as well. Another marketing effort will be launched.
He sees the Internet as one of the secrets of business success and will be soon working with some major Internet firms to continue expanding sales throughout the world.
Although 21 years old, Burnham and Mills under Jon and Fran's leadership is really just beginning its way into the hearts and minds of those in England and elsewhere in Europe. Once the Brits taste the goodness of their hot chocolate, folks in France, then Ireland, now Germany will want their own.
Then they'll get a trickle of orders from China and it will be time for Jon and Fran to get serious about expanding their warehouse space. It definitely will be time to build on.
Article Featured in The North Star Monthly November 2009
Across The Pond
Vt. company has banner year despite bad economy
WELLS RIVER -- What do nursery rhymes, milk bottles, Wells River, Vt. and cocoa have to do with one another? Bread & Chocolate’s combination of these four components has made them a leader in the specialty foods in Vermont. Recently, their top sellers of StoryTime Cocoa and Silly Cow Milk Bottles have launched them into the international foray.
In business for 21 years, Bread & Chocolate, based in Wells River, Vt., have found their niche with their award-winning hot chocolate beverages, classic pancake, bread and scone mixes, and their signature Maple Moose and Maple Leaf pops.
“Our product lines appeal to emotion. People are drawn to the funky packaging. Our demographic is women ages 25 to 55. We have a niche in the specialty foods market. We have found that packaging is key to sales,” said Bread & Chocolate co-owner Jonathan Rutstein.
It all began with chocolate sauce. Jonathan and his wife Fran, both Vermont natives, relocated to the Upper Valley area and bought a small business producing chocolate sauces with a dozen regular customers.
Today, Bread & Chocolate has distributors covering the Northeast, mid-Atlantic states, the Southwest, West, California and the Midwest. Their products are carried in Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Spain. They have large customers like TJ Maxx stores and Macy’s Department stores. The past two years have been banner years for them.
But didn’t the U.S. have its worst economic year in recent memory? How did a specialty foods producer in Vermont fair? Business was on an even keel but in the spring of 2008, the economy was becoming more unstable and summer brought through-the-roof heating prices and price-gouging at the gas pumps. The Rutsteins were getting nervous about the effects it would have on their business.
So Jonathan and Fran thought outside of the box, or “cocoa tin” as it were. They decided to push into broader territories and focus on getting an overseas distribution. That way, they wouldn’t rely solely on the domestic market if the economy tanked.
They focused their energies on the growing interest in a relatively new product of theirs, Silly Cow cocoa in old-fashioned, glass milk bottles. People just loved the cocoa in bottles and the orders poured in. They started picking up distributors in areas they had never covered before.
At the June 2008 food show in New York City, fate smiled on them and created a cocoa stir overseas. They piqued the interest of a United Kingdom distributor which covers England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. They had been trying for 10 years get their foot in the door of the UK.
“We knew if we got into the UK, it would be huge. We kept our fingers crossed and if we had the right product line that UK consumers wanted, we would be in.” The right product line was the StoryTime Hot Chocolate lines. Today, their products are carried in a top-quality department store chain over there which a created a ripple effect of interest and orders.
The StoryTime Hot Chocolate are their biggest sellers here and abroad, packaged in nursery rhyme character tins such as Mother Goose, Frog Prince or Hey Diddle Diddle featuring 12 different flavors in different character tins.
The Silly Cow cocoa bottles are popular due to their nostalgic appeal and feed right into the large Americana craze. “We are the only ones doing milk bottles in specialty foods,so we don’t have any competition.“ There was such a huge demand for Silly Cow cocoa that in December 2008 they added a third flavor, marshmallow swirl to existing line of chocolate and chocolate truffle.
Another huge seller are their original pancake and waffle mixes that they just can’t keep enough in stock. Popular mixes are organic pumpkin spice, maple buttermilk, blueberry and apple-cinnamon in their line of nine different varieties, organic and natural.
In the B&C kitchens, they test every product until they are satisfied that it is ready for consumers. If a customer calls in with a complaint that the pumpkin spice pancake mix is too dry, they head back to the kitchen to see what needs to be added to make it “just right”.
In March 2008, there was a call for organic pancake mixes so they developed their own. Bread & Chocolate has gone “organic”, keeping up with consumers’ demand. Their cocoas, pancake, scone, bread mixes are made with all natural ingredients with no fillers or dairy products. Jonathan said that they eliminated corn syrup in their confections line and use rice syrup instead.
No order is too small or too large. From the franchise of 100 stores to the woman orders for two tins of Mary Had A Little Lamb Chocolate Caramel cocoa, every order is treated with an hands-on approach.
Ever since they bought the business in 1988, the Rutsteins have made an effort to promote Vermont with its numerous its small manucturers. Bread & Chocolate promoted Vermont at June 2008’s New York City food show by bringing Clover,Vermont’s new Dairy Mascot to accompany them. Clover was introduced by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Vermont Dairy Promotion Council to draw attention to Vermont’s dairy industry. Jonathan said Clover was a huge hit, everyone wanted their picture taken with the mascot.
Rutstein said, “Under the Snelling administration, Vermont specialty producers were booming, the leaders in specialty foods. We banded together and would go ‘in force’ to trade shows as ‘Vermont Producers’.” The whole “Made in Vermont” push began there. But then politics and the business atmosphere changed and the smaller producers are neglected.
“We want to get people interested in Vermont products and in Vermont again. There is so little attention given to the producers from the state which is where it needs to come from.”
Another example of the Rutsteins creating a product that generates Vermont interest was the introduction of the Maple Moose and Maple Leaf Pops 19 years ago. Maple syrup, moose and maple leaves are synonymous with Vermont.
Bread & Chocolate Beginnings
Twenty-one years ago, the Rutsteins bought a small specialty foods company from Phyllis Perry in Bradford, Vt. They started out in the former Wells River Town Hall and through the years, Bread & Chocolate manufactured chocolate sauces, berry preserves, jams, mustards, pasta sauces, salsas, marinades and vinegars.
When they decided to change their focus to cocoa in 1990, a whole new world opened up to them. Cocoa would be their key to success. Their award-winning line of hot chocolate beverages hit the shelves and people couldn’t get enough of them. Consumers fell in love with the nursery rhyme tins and sales kept increasing. They expanded their lines to include pancake, waffle and scone mixes that literally, took off hot cakes. They also added lines of chais, teas and lattes.
In 1990, they added the name “Burnham & Mills” due to a name dispute with a Washington, D.C. bakery with the Bread & Chocolate name. Today they are Bread & Chocolate, dba Burnham & Mills and people are curious where the names originated from.
Their confections line was revived a few years ago when they changed the name and format from Green Mountain Suckers to Maple Moose Pops, Maple Leaf Suckers, and Lollie Palooza Toy Pops. All are hand poured in original B&C molds, using all natural and organic ingredients.
As their business blossomed, space became an issue. A warehouse in the Wells River industrial park near Interstate 91 was a prime location. In 1994, Bread & Chocolate relocated. Locals drive past the nondescript home of B&C unaware of the kitchens buzzing with activity and the warehouse that is full of pallets stacked high with 100-pound bags of sugar, cocoa, ingredients, packing peanuts, boxes, StoryTime tins, Silly Cowglass milk bottles, pancake mixes, etc.
Jonathan and Fran divide the responsibilities of the business between them with Jonathan focusing on the marketing, business, orders and shipping end and Fran in charge of the total production of their products, product development, packaging and personnel matters.
Bread & Chocolate’s production season runs from July to December. A dedicated staff of about 18 employees during the production season shift into hyperdrive to keep up with the orders. Four can operate the assembly line of filling cocoa tins, the confections kitchen keeps up with the pops, a crew works on hand-labeling, packing individual tins, bottles or containers, and that’s all before it gets to filling orders, packaging and shipping out.
Everything is done by hand which is incredible considering the magnitude of the orders. B&C has two shifts working diligently, sometimes seven days a week to keep up production. The second shift consists of a crew that works at a local furniture factory and then comes in to B&C to work.
In the spring, the confections orders start pouring in. The first of August is the onslaught of cocoa and pancake/bread mix orders.
What does Bread and Chocolate foresee for the near future? Rutstein has a positive spin on things. He feels that there is plenty of business to be had in the States and even moreso overseas. Now that Bread & Chocolate are gaining recognition overseas, there is an unchartered sales market to be had.
Jonathan sees the specialty foods line doing well and the forecast of a hard winter this year means another banner year for Bread & Chocolate. “It will be bad for our oil tanks but great for Silly Cow Cocoa.”
They never sit on one great product and already have 2010 plans to introduce a new line. They are in the process of designing a small tin milkcan, like the farmers used, to feature a line of cocoa. “Our forecast is that people will love this mini milkcan that they can keep afterwards. It will be great!” Also because the StoryTime tins are such huge sellers, they plan on adding two more character tins to the line.
Production gets more complicated when they have multiple product lines, inventory and ingredients. B&C plans on purchasing another filling machine so they can dedicate one just for the Silly Cow bottles and milkcans. “Our production now has reached a real bottleneck, excuse the pun, because of only one machine. We need to have two continuous lines running to keep up with the demand.”
When an order for a pallet of 100 cases of Chocolate Chocolate Silly Cow bottles (that’s six bottles to a box) comes in, the cocoa dust flies and the employees work until the order is filled, packaged and palletted ready to be shipped. Just another day in the life of Bread & Chocolate.