Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
And in Durango there is an Easter Bunny too, with more happy helpers than Santa has elves.
Its a good thing, because the fat, chocolate guy with long ears has a big job this week, if hes to deliver all of the 65,000 eggs his 85 candy makers crafted in recent months.
The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factorys hair-netted crew whips out enough chocolate confections to stop a jack rabbit in its tracks. In the last few months, 32,000 chocolate bunnies ranging in size from 1-ounce cuties to nearly 25-pound trophy bunnies were bred in an environment that resembles anything but a rabbit pen. The massive 53,000-square-foot candy factory is a cherished local business and, some say, the crown jewel of Bodo Industrial Park.
But this is not a business story its a sweet-dreams story about the local folks who have their gloved hands elbow-deep in crafting nearly half of RMCFs 300 chocolate candy products. Bunnies and festively wrapped chocolate eggs are only part of the story. Five and sometimes six days a week, copper kettles sizzle, conveyor belts hum, coated nozzles drizzle, and digital scales nod before each box of delectables is hand-packed for shipment to approximately 357 stores and kiosks in the United States, Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
Last Friday, I watched as a 248-pound batch of vanilla caramel, cooked at exactly 232 degrees Fahrenheit, cascaded from a steaming copper kettle onto two 12-foot water tables, where candy makers fussed over the 5/8-inch-deep, gooey slab. From there, it went through cutting machines and extruders, where it was enrobed in chocolate pouches.
Each caramel goes through a metal detector, several quality checks and inventory controls using scales that are precise to the one-hundredth of a pound. The factory churns out 1,300 pounds of caramel each day, Quality and Compliance Manager Kent Wigton said.
From the senior candy makers who pour the fragrant torrents of vanilla caramel to the three bar-line helpers who pick up 280 pieces of chocolate a minute, theres a happy hum among a workforce that is clearly proud of what it does.
Bar line operator Harry Petitt says his I Love Lucy trio Marietta Tsosie, Linda Begay and Mandi Wilson stays well ahead of the streaming one-shot machine, which on this particular day was efficiently assembling a chocolate truffle center and its chocolate coating in a single action. But unlike Lucy and Ethel in the famous 1952 episode of the classic sitcom, no candies were popped into the mouths of these professionals.
We move 4,000 pounds of candy through this a day, 6,000 when we do peanut butter buckets, Petitt said.
His three-woman crew was juggling 14 trays of chocolate a minute. He was operating the digital scale, checking the weights of boxes the trio had packed.
Wigton said the factory this year has made 46 of its biggest chocolate bunnies, 23- to 25-pound milk chocolate jaw droppers that are used in retail store displays.
In the downtown Durango store, assistant manager Devon Dey said the enormous decorated confection is such a popular attraction that the store routinely raffles it off to one lucky winner.
Well have a random drawing on April 22, and choose a winner, Dey said, lifting an overstuffed box full of entries from hopefuls signed up to take home the biggest bunny in town.