A Vermont-based chocolate company will soon take up residence in a long-vacant building on the Colchester-Milton border.
Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates signed a lease for the Brentwood Park building that formerly housed Furniture World of Vermont four years ago. The Grand Isle chocolatier plans to move to Colchester’s Chimney Corners by September, CEO Mark Elvidge said.
“We need an efficient facility to do our work, and there’s really nothing left on the Islands that’s suitable,” Elvidge said. “Being down [in Colchester] with a little bit closer proximity to the highway is good for shipping. We feel there’s going to be a little bit larger base to pull from for employees.”
That’s an area Vermont Nut-Free hopes to grow: Within a few years of setting up shop, the business will increase its labor force by 20, from a core of 35 to 55 as it pushes more retail sales, Elvidge said.
The company first approached Kathi O’Reilly, Colchester’s economic development director, in 2015 when Elvidge realized his company outgrew its two-floor, 7,500-square-foot space on Route 2.
He had to finish out the current lease, though, and spent that time scouting out locations in Colchester.
“They were able to get all the pieces to fit, and we’re thrilled,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a double-win: We have a great company moving to our community, [and] we can use a building to its highest and best use.”
This will be Vermont Nut-Free’s second move since Elvidge and his wife, Gail, started the company 20 years ago in their South Hero home, which now houses The Blue Paddle restaurant. Vermont Nut-Free has been at its current location for 13 years.
The Elvidges started the company after their 8-month-old son, Tanner, had an allergic reaction to peanuts. They began shipping confections to customers with children their son’s age. Tanner is now 24, and his parents have catered some of their original customers’ college graduations and weddings.
“They’ve grown up on the product,” Elvidge said.
About 60 percent of Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates’ business is mail-order, and being located right off Exit 17 will be ideal, Elvidge said.
The company will take up 17,500 square feet of the 25,000-square-foot building, which is owned by Malone Properties. The extra space will allow Vermont Nut-Free to store its packaging materials – like corrugated boxes and insulated Styrofoam containers – inside, instead of in one of four trailers currently parked outside the Grand Isle plant.
The new space will also afford room for a third chocolate enrobing line so the company can run a milk, dark and white production line all day. This could add offerings like chocolate-covered raisins and fruits, Elvidge said.
He also envisions a one-shot depositor, a machine that fills chocolate shells with flavors like caramel and maple cream.
“Right now we’re making the shells and piping the product in by hand,” he said. “Having a little bit of automation will help us meet the demand without taxing our resources and our staff right now.”
Still, he doesn’t characterize the operation as a “chocolate factory,” noting that even with the impending improvements, Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates will maintain its artisan feel.
Elvidge said summer is the best possible time to move, as it’s just after the Easter crunch time but before Halloween and Christmas kick in.
He credited O’Reilly for her perseverance and helping them make connections. For her part, O’Reilly has vowed to stay in touch through the permitting process, which is ongoing.
“My job is not just to help them expand or relocate – my job is to help them stay as well,” she said. “Whether it’s the small businesses or the big businesses, I want to work with them to make sure they can sustain themselves.”
The way she sees it, Elvidge’s choosing Colchester is proof the town’s marketing and branding over the last five years is working.
“Colchester is a good place to do business,” she said. “There were times it wasn’t going to happen, but I would stay in touch with Mark – we kept a dialogue for all these years. And I didn’t want to give up.”
Elvidge is excited about the space, which he calls bright, airy and beautiful.
“We laid it out three years ago, and that layout is still pretty much what we are going with,” he said. “It’s been a long exercise but not in vain.”