It's The Chocolate Time Of The Year Valentine Hearts. Caramels. Coconut Creams. Peanut Clusters.

Posted: February 11, 1993

GLOUCESTER CITY — For the last 43 years, Helen Bengel's right hand has been covered in chocolate.

Bengel is a pro in the art of hand-coating candies with chocolate to make bite-sized coconut cream eggs, nutcups, peanut clusters, and raisin cups, to name a few.

First, she dips caramels, cream or nuts in a three-inch pile of melted milk chocolate warmed by an electric heater. Then, using the tip of her slender index finger as a brush, she draws crosses, cursive M's or squiggly lines on top of the sweets.

This is known as stringing the chocolate.

"I love working here, wouldn't think of going anywhere else," said Bengel. "It's a relaxing job, there's no tension, and I love the chocolate."

The distinctive designs decorating each dollop of calorie-laden candy is the way the sales clerks at Duffy's Delicious Candies can detect the flavor inside. "M" means chocolate-covered mints. "X" signals the gooey inside is caramel.

Bengel honed her craft at Duffy's, an old-time chocolate manufacturer in Gloucester City. Robert Duffy Sr. runs the shop these days, but his grandfather James founded the business nearly one hundred years ago when he started selling his homemade delicacies from his Gloucester City basement.

Duffy's father, Charles continued the legacy, working out of the family home until 1950. By that time the business got too big for the basement, so he set up the family store on North Broadway in Gloucester City.

Business has boomed ever since. For Valentine's Day alone, Duffy's sells more than 2,000 heart-shaped boxes of chocolates each year. During January and half of February, the shop is bathed in red and pink heart boxes with frilly white ribbons donning the fronts of one-, two- and three-feet-tall hearts.

"We've thought about expanding, but decided against it," said Duffy. "I consider the employees my family, and want to keep it that way. We pay our bills, take the summer off, and that's just fine."

Duffy's is able to compete with the big boys like Whitmans, Hershey's and Godiva because Duffy's chocolate is homemade. "We call our chocolate bedroom candies," said Duffy. "There are people who serve the cheaper stuff to their guests, and keep our chocolate up in the bedroom for themselves."

Customers from around the corner to around the world are stopping by (or sending letters) to purchase their Valentine goodies. Some want the $85, three-foot, heart-shaped box, others simply go for a $3.75, half pound of assorted chocolates wrapped in red paper with tiny white hearts.

"We send candy all over the world, especially to men in the service," said Duffy. "There are grown men who write home to their moms and say, 'It wouldn't be Easter without an egg with my name on it,' so we send them to South America, the Middle East and even Japan."

But while customers are cramming into the shop for special orders and Valentines, downstairs, and in the back room, the cooks are creating their Easter fancies. Easter is the chocolatier's dream season.

More than 10,000 coconut cream eggs, sized from 1/4-pound to five pounds, are sold each year during the Easter rush. And more than 4,000 pounds of bite- sized chocolates are purchased by calorie-counting and diet-free customers.

To meet these sweet-tooth demands, Duffy's started making Easter eggs in the second week of January. The process begins in the backroom ball beater, the name for the three-foot-tall vat where the butter and coconut creams are cooked at 242 degrees for a half hour, then cooled for a half hour.

Once the creams are cool, the chocolate fillers are kneaded like dough and shaped into bite-sized balls, bunnies, hearts or eggs.

Meanwhile the chocolates are cooked in one of three, three-foot-tall, 200- pound melters. One vat is for milk chocolate, another for dark chocolate, and a third for white chocolate.

Next, the dipping, shaping, and finishing touches are added. If you

purchase an egg, it was hand-shaped by Anne Connell. She also makes the renowned Irish potatoes, which are cinnamon-covered coconut creams that look like inch-long, Idaho baking potatoes, but taste like heavenly sweets.

"These are a big seller," said Connell, who admitted that even after working in a chocolate factory for over 15 years, she still breaks down and binges every once in awhile.

"Don't kid yourself and think you stop liking the taste," added Bengel as she hand-dips caramel morsels in dark chocolate. "We love it; after all, this is the best chocolate you can get."

The chocolate that isn't hand-dipped, is still hand-nurtured. Downstairs, at least three workers man the enrober machine, which is the official name for the conveyor belt that Lucille Ball couldn't control when she worked in the chocolate factory in a 1950s I Love Lucy episode.

Unlike Lucy, the workers don't wear huge, white, floppy chef's hats. They have no hair protection. And the white conveyor belt doesn't move so fast that the chocolatiers are compelled to shove the extras in their mouths. Otherwise, the scene is the same.

One person places the candy, cream or nut on the conveyor, dipping the bottom into the chocolate. The delicacy runs under a luscious brown waterfall of melted chocolate. From there, the chocolate-covered candy moves farther along an open-grade conveyor, allowing the excess chocolate to drip off.

Next, Mary Cowgill, a stringer, draws the identifying design on top of the candy. Finally, the goods move down the conveyor belt to Karen Pantalone. She inspects each candy to make sure it's fully chocolate-covered, has a design on top, and is dry. Then she boxes the delicacies.

The candy's entire conveyor-belt voyage takes less than a minute.

"We're the everything people," said Pantalone. "We pack, we cover, we do all sorts of odds and ends that make the operation run smoothly."

All ten workers live in Gloucester City, and say they're like a family. Indeed, some are family. They may not all be Duffys, but husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, work side by side in the Duffy business.

These days, Bengel is teaching Stacey Elder (the daughter of Marge Davids, who runs the customer side of the business) the art of hand-coating.

"We've all known each other for years, we socialize together, we work together, we get along," said Bengel, who, like all the other workers, had nothing but praise for their soft-spoken boss, Robert Duffy Sr.

Aside from running the business, Duffy's main job is to design the tops of candies, another dying art. Duffy said his father was the better artist, but it's hard to imagine more artful designs than those etched in icing covering his hearts and eggs.

The business is open from October until the last week of May. It closes for the summer for vacations and maintenance work inside, such as painting the walls, a job which obviously cannot be done while the chocolate is on the shelves.

But as soon as Duffy's opens in October, customers such as Gerry Connor come pouring in.

Connor, of Gloucester City, said she always buys her holiday candies and housewarming gifts at Duffy's. "I especially like their dark chocolate, but then again, l love their chocolate-covered nuts," she said. "It's all so good."

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