A Salem company has hit upon a sweet idea: making money from air.
Bubble Chocolate - chocolate infused with air bubbles - is looking to make its mark as the first successful aerated chocolate bar to hit the American market.
Bubble Chocolate, launched last year and nudging its way onto stores shelves across the country, is led by Paul Pruett, the man who helped turn ZonePerfect nutrition bars into a dietary sensation a decade ago. This time, Pruett is banking on the growing demand for premium chocolate and Americans' increasingly sophisticated cocoa palate to make his all-natural bars a sweet success.
"The U.S. is the last frontier for this type of chocolate," Pruett said. "The premium chocolate category is looking for something new. There's not a lot of newness in the confection business."
Bubble Chocolate is the first new aerated chocolate bar to hit the American market in decades. Previous attempts by other companies to bring this light, airy confection to the U.S. consumer have largely flopped - despite the huge popularity of Nestle Aero bars and other aerated treats in Europe and around the world.
The Salem company sees early signs of success. Whole Foods has begun stocking its shops with Bubble Chocolate, and Duane Reade recently signed an agreement to carry the company's two flavors: milk and dark chocolate. Bubble Chocolate also is in talks with big-box chains such as Wal-Mart and Target. The 2.8-ounce bars, currently in about 1,000 retail stores, cost $2.50 to $3, on par with what a consumer would pay for lower-end premium chocolates. The bars use less chocolate, but foodies pay a small premium for the novelty aeration process.
Whole Foods associate grocery coordinator Rachel Forillere said aero chocolate is incredibly popular in Europe, and the grocer wanted to introduce the unique style of chocolate to shoppers in this market.
"The product tasted great and met our quality standards, so we decided to carry it," Forillere said.
Retail analysts say the timing makes sense for Bubble Chocolate to expand. Chocolate, the king of comfort foods, is seemingly impervious to the recession: U.S. consumers purchased 2.6 percent more chocolate in 2009 than the year before, according to market research firm Mintel. Moreover, American taste buds may finally be ready for a new cocoa experience.
"Earlier efforts did not do well, because the texture of the chocolate was just too different from what was acceptable and mainstream," said Marcia Mogelonsky, Mintel's global food and drink analyst. "Now that we have broadened our chocolate horizons, we are more accepting of new experiences, tastes and textures."
Most of the small team of Bubble executives - many of whom worked on the Zone bars - are based in Salem. But Bubble Chocolate is manufactured overseas, in Belarus, because there is no technology in the United States to make the aerated chocolate, according to Pruett.
Creating Bubble Chocolate apparently is a delicate balance of art and science. Bubbles are infused throughout the chocolate at just the right time and temperature, followed by molding and cooling the chocolate so that the bubbly structure remains inside as a smooth outer shell is formed. Bubble Chocolate has a light, airy texture that is slightly chalky when you bite into the bars. On the website, the chocolate company recommends the "time-tested method" of eating aerated chocolate: breaking off a small piece, letting it melt in your mouth for a few seconds, and, as the bubbles soften, chewing the bar gently.
Bubble Chocolate has the same number of calories per ounce as other chocolate bars. But because the Bubble Chocolate bar is packed with air bubbles, it's one-third larger than a typical candy bar and has one-third fewer calories by volume.
The aerated chocolate has won over Phil Lempert, who founded SupermarketGuru.com and rates new products every week. He recently highlighted Bubble Chocolate's dark bar as one of his top picks.
"You get a lot of chocolate in this bar, and from a health standpoint, having it with less fat and calories is great - albeit because there's more air in it," Lempert said.