Tioga County and the Chocolate FactoryFeb 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
A long time ago, about thirty years, John Kravas was the administrator of what was then the Tioga County Human Services Agency. The agency was recognized nationally and internationally for its innovative service delivery system, and, thanks to the efforts of Emilia Martinez-Brawley, with the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, became involved with the United Kingdom in what was known as the International Exchange of Technology. What that meant was that social workers from the UK—the Scottish Highlands, specifically—came here, and social workers from here went there. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other—not only about new and different methods of providing human services, but about making chocolate confections.
Wait a minute. What?
John recalls meeting Garth Pattison during a castle tour and dinner in Scotland. Garth was head of financial operations for the Highlands, and a chocolatier. Truffles were his specialty. He made them by hand, in his kitchen. John’s wheels were turning—why couldn’t some of the agency’s clients make chocolates to sell? Would Garth come to Wellsboro and show us how to do that?
He would and he did, and in 1994 Highland Chocolates—named for the Scottish Highlands—was born.
“Yes, it was naïve, but it’s wonderful to be naïve,” John says. “It wasn’t easy getting that candy factory started in the public sector.” He says the plan was to provide a new form of employment for the people with disabilities that the agency served. In the beginning, the workspace was a kitchen in one of the agency-operated apartments at the St. James complex in Mansfield. After a few years, operations moved to the little house on the corner of Shumway Hill and Route 6 in Wellsboro. And, John adds, the plan was always that Partners in Progress, the Mansfield-based nonprofit vocational agency serving the “extraordinary people” who have ultimately made Highland Chocolates a success, would end up with the chocolate factory. But only “when it was ready.” That happened in 2012, says Erin Roupp, operations manager since 2022, when PIP took over the operations and all net proceeds returned to be reinvested in the program.
Truffles, while undeniably delectable as well as popular, proved to be extremely time-consuming and not particularly cost-effective. So, says Erin, “attention went to the next popular product, pretzel bark, which is still one of our top-selling items.” Since that decision, an abundance of chocolate creativity has led to an abundance of chocolate options, including fun yummies like Flatlanders (coconut-filled), Ridgerunners (coconut-filled with three almonds sticking up, like ridges), and Tree Stumps (peanut butter and caramel between two pretzels—guess what they look like).
Stop in for a free tour on Wednesdays, no reservation needed; for other days and for large groups, reservations are requested and payment may be required. While the chocolate factory is still on the corner of Route 6 and Shumway Hill, it’s in a new and improved building that contains the latest in chocolate-making equipment. The first thing you might notice is the smell. Mmmmm. Jae Zugarek, production manager, says most of the folks working here don’t notice it anymore, but visitors can sure tell there is chocolate on the premises. The way the new building is designed, you can see into the production area from the gift shop, but, if you’re on the official tour, you’re invited inside to get the skinny on how things work. In addition to actually making the candies, staff are packaging and labeling. There are two enrobing units—one for dark chocolate and one for milk—providing the “waterfall” of chocolate over the fillings. There is an adjustable speed conveyer belt which, of course, brings to mind the famous I Love Lucy episode (it’s out there—just Google it), a blower to ensure all the chocolates have the same amount of chocolate on them, computerized tempering units to keep the chocolate at the proper temperature throughout the workday, a shaker table to jiggle the bubbles out of the molded candies, and, most important, a capable work force with an impressive amount of longevity. Luella Miller, for instance, working at the end of the conveyer belt where the finished candies are exiting, notes with a big grin that, “I will be here twenty-nine years this year.”
“We currently serve thirteen individuals, and, on any given day, there are six [working],” says Jae. “They all have different skills and talents, and they all do it better than you or I could. We try to match their strengths with their tasks. We want productivity, and for them to be happy with what they’re doing.”
“Some of their talents would blow your mind,” says Erin. “We’re very lucky to have them. Everyone has an amazing amount of pride in what they do. They really want to be here, and that’s refreshing in today’s workplace.”
Highland Chocolates are available locally at retail locations throughout the Twin Tiers, including the factory and the new (open just two years) downtown location on Main Street in Wellsboro. They have wholesale and corporate customers throughout the country.
“Over the years, we have worked to create custom-molded chocolates for many corporations, and we also do custom wedding, birthday, showers, or other special event favors,” Erin says.
Last year, Highland Chocolates won the Champion of the Pennsylvania Wilds 2023 Business of the Year award. The year before, Highland Chocolates was named the 2022 Artisan of the Year by the Route 6 Alliance.
“We are coming off a very successful year,” says Erin, adding that between October 2022 and October 2023, “we sold 29,267 Tree Stumps in 7,153 packages.”
And to think it all started with a trip to Scotland and a truffle.
The 82 Main Street store is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The factory is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Phone numbers are (570) 724-6777 and (570) 724-9334, respectively, or visit highlandchocolates.org.