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An iconic chocolate factory shuts shop in Chicago

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Smells are evocative of people, experiences, and places - maybe it's the aroma of bread and cakes wafting from a bakery or the odor of a mill or the stink of fish from a busy pier. For more than eight decades, a factory in Chicago has filled its neighborhood with a sweet scent. But now its days are numbered. Here's Michael Puente of member station WBEZ.

MICHAEL PUENTE, BYLINE: It may not have a well-known name, but Chicago's Blommer's Chocolate provided years of joy to its neighbors.

LINDA ZAGER: It's like being in "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory."

PUENTE: Linda Zager has lived nearby for 20 years in the city's West Loop area.

ZAGER: We can come outside and smell chocolate in the neighborhood. You know you're home when you can smell the chocolate. It was always wonderful.

PUENTE: And the Blommer's plant has made tons and tons of chocolate in the neighborhood for the last 85 years.

ZAGER: When the factory was going, you could smell it full force. The whole area smelled like somebody was cooking brownies.

PUENTE: And Lisa Nisevich, a nurse who used to work nearby, says she knows all about that baking reference.

LISA NISEVICH: Probably any bag of chocolate chips that I've ever used, Blommer's probably had something to do with.

PUENTE: And that's true, because Blommer's is a wholesale chocolate manufacturer, says, historian Leslie Goddard.

LESLIE GODDARD: One company executive famously said, you might not know it, but you've probably eaten our chocolate if you've ever eaten chocolate. They were the ones supplying the chocolate that a lot of bakeries were using, a lot of confectioners were using.

PUENTE: Goddard is author of the book "Chicago's Sweet Candy History."

GODDARD: We were the candy-making center of the United States. Chicago's total candy output was double that of the second biggest candy-making city, which was New York at the time.

PUENTE: In fact, from the 1930s to the '60s, Chicago was the nation's candy capital, and one of the executives at the top was Henry Blommer, Sr. He started the chocolate company with his two brothers in 1939. As Blommer grew, so did the neighborhood around it. However, what served the plant well in the past, being close to the Chicago River and railroad tracks, is no longer an advantage. Now Blommer is surrounded by high-rise trendy condos, a dog park, and just modern-day hustle and bustle. And the plant is just old - a reason why the company's Japanese owners announced it's going to close it very soon. That's disappointing to Samir Bhala, who used to live close by.

SAMIR BHALA: Yeah, it's 85 years old. So I understand. That said it has said, I do enjoy the smell of chocolate when walking around in River North and West Loop.

PUENTE: Blommer's will transfer that chocolatey scent and its candy-making to its factories located in Pennsylvania, California, and Canada. The plant's closure in Chicago means 250 people will lose their job. And historian Goddard says, when Blommer shuts its factory doors for good, it will follow a long line of confectioners that have closed up shop here over the years.

GODDARD: It's just a huge part of what made Chicago such a unique city.

PUENTE: Blommer's headquarters will remain here, and its research and development division too, which may mean something delicious is yet to come. But with Blommer's factory leaving, it means the city becomes a little less sweet home Chicago.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Puente in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Puente
Michael covers news and issues primarily in Northwest Indiana, Chicago’s Southeast side and South Suburbs.The first 13 years of Michael’s journalism career was in print. He’s worked for the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana (part of the Sun-Times Media Group) and the Daily Herald based in Arlington Heights, Ill. Michael got his start in radio as co-host of the Latin Lingo Show on WJOB AM 1230 in Hammond. He joined WBEZ in 2006.The NWI Studio in Crown Point is WBEZ’s only studio outside the City of Chicago. He earned a B.A. in Communications from Calumet College of St. Joseph in Hammond, Indiana where he now teaches as an adjunct professor.Michael’s stories on WBEZ have earned more than three dozen awards including from the Indiana and Illinois Associated Press broadcasters associations, Indiana Society of Professional Journalists, the Chicago Headline Club, and National Headliner Awards. Michael is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a former board member of the Latino Council on the Media of Chicago.Michael is an avid White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks and Bears fan. He also acts on occasion in community theater in Northwest Indiana.