Making the Old New Again: A Gilbert Chocolates Tradition
Since 1900, Gilbert Chocolates has been making gourmet chocolates by hand in Jackson. We have always been committed to quality and will always choose quality over growth. But since our return to downtown Jackson in October of 2016, we have experienced extraordinary growth, requiring us to review and rethink our processes.
Most of our chocolate candy is covered on an enrobing machine. This machine essentially creates a waterfall of chocolate that covers the candy centers as they pass through. But working with ultra-high-quality chocolate requires precise control of the enrobing process; and at Gilbert Chocolates we struggled every day to keep control of the process.
In modern versions of these machines computers constantly measure temperature and other process parameters to precisely control the process. But our enrobing machine isn’t modern. It was originally put into service in 1964, and until we moved to our new location at 233 N Jackson Street in 2016, it hadn’t been moved or substantially changed. New enrobers are very expensive and frankly speaking, are not nearly as well made as our 56-year-old friend.
Typical mornings required two to three hours preparing chocolate for the day’s production run (in the chocolate business, this is called tempering). An employee would come in early to start the process. Our goal was to be running by 10:00 am, but it wasn’t unusual for this to extend to 10:30 am or beyond. In the past, this didn’t pose a big problem, as our production needs could be met in about 6 hours. But with our growth, it was becoming a growing concern.
Having spent most of my career as an engineer, I had been considering how we might modernize our enrober without sacrificing quality. When my son, a senior engineering student at the University of Toledo, was identifying options for his senior project, I suggested his team develop a plan to add a PLC (Programable Logic Controller) to our enrober.
Together we defined what was needed in the finished system. We also reviewed the current process in exquisite detail. This involved defining precise target temperatures; the means necessary to measure and reach those targets, and process timing requirements. Once they had “finished” their design, they came back to Jackson to a detailed design review, then returned to UT to finish the design a second time. They developed the program necessary for the PLC to operate, specified the parts required, which Gilbert Chocolates purchased, and developed an installation plan. In early December, the team and I spent a very long day at Gilbert Chocolates rewiring the enrobing line and installing all the new pieces (such as the PLC, the relays, linear actuators, temperature probes, power sources and solenoid valves)
After a few weeks of tweaking and tuning, we have found that our very old enrobing machine has become young again. At 6:45 am on designated mornings the machine starts the tempering process by itself. At 8:00 am when our employees arrive, it is ready for the final steps which are still employee controlled. By 9:00 am or sooner, we are ready to run, and since the temperature probes are accurate to within ½⁰ F (compared to the old thermostat’s 5⁰ F), the gloss level or our chocolate has improved dramatically.
So when you stop into one of our Gilbert Chocolates stores, look closely at chocolates in the candy case. You will see the sheen of high quality chocolates, perfectly tempered and beautiful. But some things aren’t meant to be changed, so you can be assured that the quality you have grown accustomed to is just as phenomenal as ever.
Author: Brian Krichbaum