Good things, small packagers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Van Billington, Resisting the business maxim that "bigger is better," two longtime family-owned confectioneries in Harford County continue to thrive by staying small and putting excellence ahead of expansion.

Log Cabin Candies, which opened in Fallston in 1962, and Bomboy's Home Made Candy, founded in Havre de Grace in 1978, have built and maintained enviable reputations for their mouthwatering chocolates and attentive customer service. But despite a growing demand for their products, both establishments have chosen to remain small and to retain control of their businesses. And each operates from one location, producing all of their confections in-house, on a daily basis.

That attitude, says an industry expert familiar with Bomboy's and Log Cabin, is characteristic of family-owned confectioneries.

"Both companies harken back to a time when quality and customer service were paramount," says Van Billington, executive director of Retail Confectioners International, the industry's trade association. Most of its members choose to stay small, Billington explains by phone from his office in Glenview, Ill., "because it's a matter of knowing what they do well, which is making fine chocolates."

The Harford confectioneries make about a hundred varieties apiece. Selections include dark, milk and white chocolate varieties, with an array of fillings.

Customers savor the freshness of the chocolates, as well as the personalized attention they receive. Rick Herbig, an attorney in Bel Air and a longtime Bomboy's customer, relishes shopping there.

"First off, the owners are delightful, and the staff is very friendly and efficient. And Bomboy's chocolates are superior to others I've tried," he says.

Anthony Serio of Kingsville, a 25-year Log Cabin patron, offers similar reasoning for his repeated trips to the quaint, log-faced building on U.S. 1.

"The candy's always been great, and the people are wonderful," he says, nodding at Edna Rudell, who still runs the retail store that she started with her husband, Bernard, 41 years ago. "And the fact that it's family-owned makes it better. If I was price shopping, I'd go to one of those discount places."

In fact, neither Log Cabin nor Bomboy's charges premium prices for their chocolates, most of which are still handmade. Rudell's 14-inch molded rabbits, for example, which retail for $10.95, are hand-trimmed to remove excess chocolate. Jellybeans are "glued" with chocolate onto baskets on the rabbits' backs.

"We could charge more," agrees Jeanne Bomboy, who, with her husband, Barry, founded Bomboy's 25 years ago. "Our assorted chocolates retail for $10.50 per pound, which is probably 5 to 10 percent less than we could charge. But I'd rather people come in for a regular treat than buy chocolates once a year. We're not in it for gluttony."

A similar attitude prevails at Log Cabin Candies, where chocolate prices are adjusted once a year, despite fluctuations in the price of ingredients. And so, despite the fact that civil strife in Ivory Coast, a leading cocoa producer, has caused the price of cocoa beans to jump from $1,200 a ton in May to more than $2,400 recently, Richard Rudell, who took over the business after his father's death in 1992, continues to sell assorted chocolates for $9.95 a pound.

"Everyone goes away happy because they got their favorite candy at a price they can afford," he says. "It's just a nice business to be in."

But not an easy one.

Eighteen-hour workdays are common, especially around holidays. Christmas Day, according to Jeanne Bomboy "is just a day to collapse." Vacations are more trouble than they're worth.

"I have to work twice as hard before I go and twice as hard once I'm back," Barry Bomboy says. "It's not worth it."

Family members are also expected to pitch in when and wherever they're needed. On a recent afternoon, Charlie Bomboy, Jeanne and Barry's 25-year-old son, was in the basement making chocolate. He prefers marketing to production, but with Easter coming, he works where he's needed.

Then, too, there are the pressures of working side-by-side with other family members. And bridging two generations can lead to a number of family disagreements.

"We butt heads," Charlie offers candidly.

"It's a changing business," his mother says diplomatically, referring to Charlie and his sister Kathy's growing involvement in the business. "We're all trying to respect each other's ideas."

But some aspects of the business haven't changed over the decades. Bomboy's and Log Cabin each still makes dozens of varieties of chocolate using the freshest ingredients. Equipment is still functional, not fancy: simple conveyer belts and tumblers, and cooling and tempering machines. Most of the hard work continues to be done by hand. Both Log Cabin and Bomboy's begin with chocolate bases from Wilbur Chocolates in Pennsylvania. From there, they each develop and temper their own chocolate blends and make all their own fondants and fillings. Chocolates are still hand-packed, one by one.

Neither business will divulge sales figures or profit margins, but both estimate that they use about 60,000 pounds of chocolate a year. The two businesses don't compete: they've carved out different market niches, and both enjoy strong local customer bases. Log Cabin does about 30 percent of its business with schools and nonprofit institutions that sell the chocolates for fund-raising activities. At Easter, Rudell's busiest time, he'll make 40,000 Easter bunnies, employing up to 24 workers. Bomboy's, which maintains a Web site, does more of its business by mail, choosing and packing assortments according to a customer's specifications. Christmas is its busiest time of the year. During December, Bomboy's employs 27 people, up from 20 during normal times.

"One day in December, we shipped to 46 states," recalls Charlie, who formally joined the business after graduating from Clemson University in 2000.

"We make more money in one day at Christmas than in the entire month of July," adds Barry. I can't make enough candy to keep up with demand."

With both businesses growing by several percentage points each year, Bomboy's and Log Cabin could easily expand if they wanted. They've both considered it. At the moment, however, neither one plans to.

"We toyed with the idea of a second location, but decided Charlie and our daughter, Kathy, will have plenty of opportunities to expand if they want to. We're leaving it up to them," Jeanne says.

Richard Rudell offers a broad smile.

"I'm happy with my business the size it is," he says. "You can't be greedy."

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