Rachael BaileySALEM, Mass.—Chocolate, October, and Salem, Massachusetts, might bring to mind Halloween for most. But for Harbor Sweets Handmade Chocolates of Salem, this time of year doesn’t mean trick or treats but planning for winter holidays.
That’s good news when jobs can be tough to find. During the shop’s peak production from October through December, nearly 100 employees will fill the red brick building on Leavitt Street in Salem as they prepare thousands of decadent chocolates for the holiday season. During the rest of the year, the company employs around 20 workers.
“Harbor Sweets is not the first chocolate one thinks about at Halloween,” said Billie Phillips, vice president of marketing. “It’s a gift item, so it’s a little different.”
The company began in 1973 when Marblehead, Massachusetts, resident Ben Strohecker produced the candy in his basement. Harbor Sweets now inhabits 25,000 square feet in the same location Strohecker moved to from his basement. Long-time employee, Phyllis LeBlanc bought the company after 23 years of working there. She has since been CEO and owner of Harbor Sweets.
Harbor Sweets is one of many businesses in Salem that rely heavily on seasonal help.
“All of the attractions and October-related businesses need extra help during the busy season,” said Ben Bouchard, assistant director at the Salem Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not just the Halloween-themed businesses. Retailers need extra cashiers, so it’s really across the board.”
For Halloween or not, the month of October is the busiest time for retailers, hotels and restaurants on Boston’s North Shore. “For us we look at it as Salem has an extra season—spring, summer, winter, fall, and October,” said Bouchard.
Businesses like Harbor Sweets have their own reason for success even in difficult economic times. “We do a really good job of monitoring what’s happening,” said Phillips about the recession. Which is why she also says October is a great time for tourists to come and see the handmade chocolates in production.
“There is a tremendous amount of planning that goes into being able to fill the orders that we get for the (December) holiday season,” said Phillips. “We have a catalogue produced in the fall and once that is in the mail, that’s it. We’re out of the gate.”
The company’s largest channel of distribution is through mail orders, most of which come from corporate offices that give to clients. These make up about half of the sales for the year. Harbor Sweets’ wholesale channel—selling to other shops and gourmet stores—extends throughout New England and in a total of 20 states. But 15 percent of its business is done at the retail shop in Salem.
Among the 100 employees during holiday preparation, a core group comes back every season. “These employees are very well-versed in Harbor Sweets,” said Phillips. The number of new hires during the months of October through December is dependent on the seasonal group that returns, said Phillips.
For long-time employee of 28 years, Eileen Shambaugh, the ever-popular “sweet sloops” are the key to business year-round. The sailboat-shaped almond butter crunch with white chocolate, dark chocolate, and pecan coating, are the top-sellers at Harbor Sweets.
“I’ve had many people come in saying they never eat chocolate and they don’t like chocolate,” said Shambaugh. “I get them to try a sloop. Then they buy a bag.”
According to Phillips, during this chaotic time of production when it feels like “things might crack,” they maintain their momentum and fulfill holiday orders. She credits the group of people at Harbor Sweets for the upkeep of the young business and has confidence in the company’s success every holiday season.
“We really work like a team,” said Phillips. “And I don’t say that loosely. Everybody is so committed to making sure that we don’t disappoint a customer.”