Julia Birnn Fields at Birnn Chocolates in South Burlington. Katie Kittell photo/VBM
Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Julia Birnn Fields had a dilemma. A long-time employee, who’d given 20 years to Birnn Chocolates in South Burlington, kept being passed over for promotion. This had nothing to do with his work ethic. He showed up on time everyday and worked hard every day. But he could not read or write English, nor speak it very well.
So, for the past couple of years, Julia, who runs the company with her husband Mel Fields, has been working with the Refugee Resettlement program. They’ve also managed to get some state money.
Their goal has been to get those employees to learn English.
Eight of her 22 employees are part of the program. Those new Americans are all originally from the Pacific Rim.
Julia sees the Refugee Resettlement program and Birnn’s effort to help their workers learn English as a way to help people, help the community and help her make chocolates.
Birnn Chocolates isn’t as well known in Vermont, or anywhere, as Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington or Snowflake Chocolates in Jericho.
But they make tons of truffles and only truffles for about 1,500 customers across North America.
"A lot of mom and pops. That's what keeps us going around the country," Julia said.
"They pay their bills and they're really amazing."
Most are small so if one drops out it's not as impactful has having just a few giant clients.
There are just a handful of big customers, maybe 25 or so, she said. "All of our customers are equally important."
Birnn Chocolates of Vermont makes 154 different types of truffles. The most popular is raspberry dark, with caramel milk second. Shown here are a few varieties. Birnn photo
Julia wears a smile and a scarf as she tours her traditional warehouse-type buildings set together off Kimbell Avenue. All the buildings were cool, or cold, for the benefit of the truffles.
While they serve almost exclusively wholesale and private label customers, you can find some Birnn branded truffles here and there. Florists, say, will sell Birnn chocolates. Chappell’s and Maplehurst Florist in the Burlington area are customers, as well as some hotels, especially if they don't have their own branded candy.
"Most people will not turn down a sale" if someone wants to order a Birnn branded truffle at a candy store somewhere.
Their business model is simple to understand. Local candy shops, even very high-end ones, cannot always afford the time or expense of making truffles, so Birnn does it for them and under the name of the local shop.
You might also find a Birnn truffle on your pillow at that hotel you’re vacationing at in St Croix, or in Alaska. And that box of truffles you pick up at a well-known retailer might be made in Vermont at Birnn, even if it carries the retailers own name.
That Caribbean hotel pays more for shipping than they do on the truffles.
“It’s a nice fancy hotel, so they’re happy with it,” Julia said.
Local clients include Harrington’s, Middlebury Sweets, Shelburne Country Store, Sweet Things, Candylicious and Amarah's Chocolate Company in Williston, among others.
Occasionally, and especially this time of year, you might find a box of Birnn labeled truffles as part of a corporate holiday package.
The Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce supports Birnn’s corporate gifts.
But otherwise, Birnn toils away in the glorious business of making people happy anonymously.
And, “This is a happy business,” Julia said. The company motto is: “We make truffles, for people who sell truffles, to people who love truffles.”
Charles “Pop” Birnn started the company in New Jersey in 1915. "He actually lost an eye because of a caramel spit."
Julia’s grandfather Edward then expanded to open candy shops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1950s. "He was more of a businessman."
Then Julia's dad and uncle expanded more into the wholesale of truffles.
"In 1991 they made the leap of faith and moved to Vermont." She said, “Dad wasn't a ‘Jersey guy.’ He went to college in New Hampshire and loved skiing and the outdoors.
The brothers went 100 percent wholesale truffles with Birnn Chocolates of Vermont. Farewell to retail and New Jersey.
"That's it, which is crazy to think about. And here we are 27 years later still literally doing the same thing with one product, but we have 154 different types of truffles. So we've really grown."
It’s a time-consuming, complex process making truffles. Just try doing it at home.
Birnn guarantees customers that they'll make more money buying them from Birnn than making them themselves.
"Our entire business model is efficiency."
"We only have one shipping size." Which also helps with their own storage.
They use non-sweat ice packs when it’s hot out and guarantee shipping up to 100 degrees in three days. They must be careful the boxes aren’t sitting in a truck in a steamy place overnight.
There’s a huge customer base in the Northeast, where they can ship in two days. They ship the same day as the order and avoid back orders.
Their customers appreciate that reliability, Julia said. The small shops can sell out in a day and need orders shipped immediately.
“They’ll say, I need truffles now. I can't wait two weeks!"
To preserve the delicate truffles, they make sure there’s no shaking, no movement, so a snug fit in the boxes is crucial.
They also have to monitor what else is on the same truck. Chocolate is very sensitive to picking up scents. Fragrant soap, for instance, would be a big problem.
Birnn also guarantees a six-month shelf life.
The truffles at the cold warehouse in South Burlington are stored at 50 degrees, 50 percent humidity.
Julia Birnn Fields, owner, does trade shows, HR, sales, and customer service with husband Mel Fields, right, who is in charge of operations,
IT and computer systems. VBM photo.
Birnn operates on a federal fiscal year to avoid doing taxes during their busy holiday season. Mel is in charge of operations, IT, computer systems. Julia does trade shows, HR, sales, and customer service.
Tall, young and athletic, they make a handsome couple. But Mel is happy to let Julia be the face of the company. They’re also happy for the separation of duties.
"We used to do it all together and that really didn't work," she said with a chuckle.
As the only child in this generation of Birnns, Julia eventually acquired the company.
Julia and her husband now run the company; the transition happened in January 2016.
The transition went OK, but, "It was hard. It was emotional. It was a two-year process."
She thought for a moment in the large shipping building stacked with boxes of truffles and one-ton pallets of raw chocolate.
“It was tough but we got through it and we’re stronger than ever now. It was just like asking your dad and your uncle, What are you worth? You know? Like 40 years of their lives. My uncle also didn't have kids, which made it easier, but this is his baby, so giving that up was very emotional.”
Jeff Birnn is 69 and uncle Bill Birnn is 65.
"They're like consultants. So we can call them anytime and they have to answer, even if it's on the golf course."
Julia and Mel started at Birnn in 2008, so there was five years of overlap between the two generations before the transition of ownership.
Julia and Mel were managing the company while Jeff and Bill still owned it and were semi-retired.
"It's been amazing, but it was hard and emotional and challenging just going through that and being, Who am I without this company?"
The brothers considered selling even before Julia came into the business. "So I was the only option in keeping it in the family."
So they talked about it.
They also talked to the University of Vermont Family Business Institute and the RCI trade association (Retail Confectioners International). They went to seminars on family businesses and enlisted a third-party attorney to help them walk through the process.
"That was three years ago and they're super happy and retired and get free chocolate for life."
Before they got into chocolate, Mel was from Boston and would come up to ski. Julia has a degree in elementary education. She had a leadership role in the children’s program at Sugarbush. She also did some landscaping. Mel was building houses at one point.
They met on the slopes at Sugarbush. They were both ski instructors. Julia on skis and Mel on a board.
Mel also helped out with Vermont Adaptive at Sugarbush North.
"And then Mel and I had this awesome job where we were caretakers for Stave Island in Lake Champlain, a private island owned by the Hazeletts (owners of Hazelett Strip-Casting Corporation in Colchester). So we were island caretakers for two summers and ski bums in the winter. And my dad was like, 'What's your plan?' What do you mean? I'm living the life. I ski every day in the winter and I'm on an island in the summer. Life is great. But it wasn't like a long-term plan, obviously."
They also managed a restaurant for a winter, Miguel's at Sugarbush, right before joining Birnn.
"We started that two years ago."
They got a Vermont Training Program grant from the state to get started. "I kind of had to pitch the idea because it was pretty non-traditional."
Most of their employees are in production.
"The goal was to empower our employees. To pay them more. To bring them up in our company, which is what the training program was for."
The state bought in, but the employees did not, initially. Birnn offered the classes before and after work for free "and no one signed up."
Truffles decorated by hand. Hand feeding and decorating is more accurate than a machine. Simultaneously checking quality control, which is another advantage of decorating by hand. Birnn photo.
"Come on guys, we're paying for this."
"But they're like, 'We're too busy. We have families.' Which is understandable. So then we got the grant from the state and they paid for half our employees’ salaries to attend the class."
The one-hour sessions were done during the work day. Birnn paid for the other half and the instructor. The grant was for a year.
"It was fantastic. I think we gained a lot of loyalty and appreciation from the employees. They really understand we were trying to help them out."
It was a challenging course. They were adult learners, Julia said, "and English is super hard."
Some of the people hadn't received even a middle school education in their own language. One woman had only got up to fifth grade.
So Birnn wanted to continue the program when the year was up.
"We saw it has a huge value. We do see everyday people are [making progress]. How was your weekend? 'It was great. I did this.' And we're like, Oh, before they'd be like, 'Fine.'
They also encouraged their English-language employees to engage with them to show them it's a safe place for them to use their new language.
"The more you talk the more you'll learn and the easier it will get. So, we've really built that in as part of the culture.'
Birnn was able to extend the program another three months last summer when the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program was able to find some more money to help out and now Birnn is picking up the entire cost to extend the program another three months.
Birnn did not start it as a simple means to find workers. They had the workers already.
"We started it because a lot of our staff that had been here the longest amount of time, their native language is not English. And we were having newer people coming in and promoting them because they could speak the language. So it's like, Wait a second, this guy's worked here for 20 years, why isn't he being promoted?
Julia Birnn Fields in the cold storage room. Katie Kittell photo/VBM
“Well, he's not able to communicate, so we can't. And we're not doing anything to help him in that regard. But we need someone who's easily able to communicate if he's in a leadership position, and read and write, you know, but at least verbally communicate. Reading and writing, other people can kind of step in.
“So Mel and I just felt uncomfortable that that was becoming the norm, that new people were coming in and being brought up before all these other people who'd been our core for 20-plus years, who really dedicated their lives and are super loyal. Wait a second, this doesn't really feel right. So that's where it came from. I think it's important enough to put it into the work day."
The workers are mostly Vietnamese, with two Nepalese and one Chinese. There are varying levels of English proficiency based on each individuals schooling in their own countries.
Birnn has divided the program into two levels because there is such a gap.
"It's people who want to work and work really, really hard every day. Show up on time with a smile. And are grateful."
Hiring refugees has been "tremendously beneficial to us and we recommend it to other businesses."
Several other local manufacturers have gotten involved with the Refugee Resettlement Program, Julia said.
"It's pretty cool."
Over on the small assembly line Shashika places white tiramisu truffles on a conveyer. Hand feeding is more accurate than a machine. Coffee and chocolate bits are sprinkled on top by another worker, also by hand.
“She’s faster than a machine,” Julia said as Shashika delicately and in a blur placed truffles two-at-a-time on the conveyer. They simultaneously did quality control, which was another advantage of decorating by hand.
The busy season begins in August and runs through Easter.
"Valentine's Day is crazy. Christmas time is absolutely our busiest time. The day after Thanksgiving break is our busiest sales day typically because Black Friday, the weekend, everybody sells out, 'Oh my gosh Christmas is in four weeks.’ From now on it's nutso."
The 10-pound chocolate blocks are broken up, mixed and melted to 100 degrees before it enters the one-shot machine.
"We're really able to have a fair price. Our customers can't really do it for cheaper."
To make a truffle by hand you'd have to pour the mold, pour out the extra and let it set, pour the ganache and let it set, dip it and then maybe top it.
Truffles made by the one-shot machine ready to be decorated. Birnn photo.
The one-shot does everything but decorate it. The one-shot machine has “two straws.” One fills the mold, the other inserts the ganache, and then it’s covered in a single operation. Voila.
While they have three one-shot machines, typically they're just using one for dark and the other for milk chocolate.
"We do mostly dark."
Birnn does not make a solid white chocolate truffle, but it is a popular coating for several of the chocolates they make. The raw chocolate comes from Peters (mostly dark) and Blommer in Pennsylvania, which also serve Hershey and Mars. Birnn then has its own special mix.
The truffles come in two sizes, the larger being about twice the size, but still smaller than a golf ball.
Each flavor creates six SKUs: big and small, milk, dark and white. So they're conservative in developing and committing to big runs of a specialized truffle.
They did a small batch of chipotle sea salt last summer that went over well. But like Waterford crystal, they have all the flavors they've ever had. "Which is maybe something we should look at."
Julia said they’re always asking, “How can we create excitement with what we're doing. So the small batches have been fun."
The corporate gifts under the Birnn brand are usually for lawyers’ offices and other small businesses, but she was pretty happy when they got an order for 1,000 gift boxes from an investment group. "OK, thank you!"
The gift boxes come in pound and half-pound sizes.
The storage and shipping is a whole-nuther story.
Julia on the "Wave." Katie Kittell photo/VBM
The "Wave" is a motorized lift they got last summer that allows for the pickers to reach the higher levels of the 18-foot racks in the cold room warehouse.
"This is our fun, new toy." They ran out of warehouse space last year. So their only option was to go higher. The most popular items are the more accessible ones in the cold room and the less popular are higher and farther back.
The most popular is raspberry dark, with caramel milk second and then the plain dark and plain milk are third and fourth.
Toasted coconut and coffee is Julia's favorite. She doesn’t understand why coconut isn’t more popular, nor can she believe that many people don’t like coconut.
Julia does more traveling now, about six shows a year.
"We've kind of amped it up. It's where we get most of our new sales."
The wholesale-only Sweets & Snacks show in Chicago is massive and important to them in accessing new business.
Birnn doesn’t play much into the whole Vermont brand, which she said maybe they "could or should" but she's not sure how much the world cares about it outside the Northeast.
So, what do they aspire to?
"To continue with steady growth, which we have been. You know, we're not looking to do anything crazy and have it triple or double our sales or anything.
“We're looking for steady, healthy growth. And potentially we talk about coming out with an organic line. And continuing a great place for local people to work. We don't want to be the big guys. But we don't want to become irrelevant. We know we want to evolve as things change. Keep doing what we're doing and adding different varieties to keep things fresh, but not venturing too far from who we are.
“Three years ago when we transitioned we did a marketing survey and asked our customers, What do you want? 'Stay doing what you're doing. Too many people diversify and they're not good at what they do anymore'."
Timothy McQuiston is the Editor of Vermont Business Magazine.