Friday, February 8, 2008
A sweet enterprise: Dante Confections
This article is part of the Mosquito's occasional series on Unique Businesses in Carlisle. Although Dante Confections is now located in Billerica, it was started in Carlisle by Santi and Marisa Falcone, who still live in town.
Valentine's Day is next Thursday. How about giving your valentine six heart-shaped truffles in a pink or gold box from Dante Confections in Billerica? Making this gift extra-special is that its origins are in Carlisle — chocolatier and owner Santi Falcone and his wife Marisa live on North Road, and their chocolate business began 19 years ago in their kitchen.
Santi and Marisa Falcone came to the U.S. from Italy when they were children. They were married on Valentine's Day and have been residents of Carlisle for 28 years. They recall vividly the reasons that drew them here — the woods, great schools, small community, and their stone-front house with a cedar roof reminded them of Italy. Now the Falcones have achieved the American dream through their passion for perfection, hard work and persistence.
A start in the piano business
Before establishing his chocolate business, Santi Falcone, an entrepreneur at heart, was a piano tuner who became a designer and builder of pianos. When he suffered
a set-back in his piano business, Falcone explored other types of businesses, preferably something that was made by hand, with careful attention to the smallest details. He spent almost four months "at the Boston Public Library, reading through publications in the business and financial section, and I narrowed down my next venture to two choices: bottling spring water and chocolates." His research showed that both these choices were recession-proof, meaning that a consumer market exists for these products irrespective of the economy.
Bottled water or chocolates?
Falcone spent time studying the water bottling business, but soon ruled it out. "I visited a water bottling facility in Vermont. I was impressed by the business, but I realized to make $1,000 dollars, you have to sell a truck-load of bottled water. [The business] had more overhead, so I shied away from it." He concluded that, "Chocolate always has a steady growth, so I took this choice."
Once Falcone understood and believed in the potential of chocolate as a business, the only challenge was to learn the culinary intricacies of making and decorating chocolates. "I am always an inventor, I take things quite seriously, and I'm keen on producing top-of-the- line products." He went back to his books and researched the art of chocolate-making. He created prototypes in his test kitchen in Carlisle, and in the beginning, it was all about trial and error.
"This was in 1989," Falcone recalls, "I started making samples of truffles, and I would have my brother-in-law, John, taste them. Ultimately when he was happy with the taste, he would sell them in his bakery, called Modern Pastry, which was in the North End [in Boston]."
Determined to improve his product, Falcone continued to produce a variety of chocolates here in Carlisle in a converted in-law apartment at his home. He named his business Dante Confections after his son. But before expanding, he wanted to make sure that the business was on solid ground.
Growing the business
In 1998 the Falcones realized they loved their house and no longer wanted to mix work with home. In addition, in order to expand the business, they needed more space to accommodate larger machines and to facilitate delivery and pick-up operations. "I did not want the trucks to come over to this residential area," said Marisa Falcone, "so I found this store in Billerica which had been vacant for a long time. We signed the lease and moved our business there."
When the business moved to 199 North Road in Billerica, the Falcones bought sophisticated machinery that could produce chocolates more efficiently. But even though Dante Confections can now produce many more chocolates, the Falcones like to keep the business small, allowing for better quality control. Today it remains a family-run business that hires extra help ("up to about a dozen people") at holiday time. While Santi runs the business, Marisa helps out wherever she's needed — selling, filling orders, or packaging. Chocolates are manufactured Monday through Thursday, and Friday is reserved for cleaning and maintaining the equipment. According to Santi, 99% of their customers are gourmet chocolate shops in New England.
Falcone insists on the freshness of his chocolates. "I do not freeze any of the chocolates; we ship them out the same day they are manufactured." During slow times, Dante Confections produces all items by hand without running the machines to avoid over-production. Falcone says, with pride, that "to this day, even when machines are used during peak production times, all the inlay decorations and brushing are done by hand," referring to the specialty chocolates that are artistically decorated.
Chocolate is good for you
In recent years chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has been praised for its ability to reduce stress, strengthen the heart and ease depression. But Falcone points out that, "The cocoa in the chocolate in its purest form is a significant contributor to all these effects." So he took cocoa in its pure form and added stevia, a natural plant extract, which is 400 times sweeter than sugar. This recipe resulted in a dark chocolate bar containing 98% pure cocoa. Falcone smiles at this perfection: "The closest anyone else came to this is Lindt, which has 95% cocoa."
Falcone uses all natural ingredients to make healthful, sweet confections. About his blueberry clusters, he comments, "Blueberries themselves are loaded with antioxidants; I just want to keep sugar away from this, so I sweetened them with apple juice instead." For his almond and walnut clusters, he generally does not roast the nuts unless it is a custom order. "The oils in these nuts are good for you," he points out. "Why change the contents by roasting or adding extra salt?"
Aware that many of his clients have high levels of cholesterol and out of concern for his own health, Falcone decided to work on a cholesterol-lowering chocolate. He spent significant time in researching and developing all-natural ingredients leading to the creation of the Cholesterol Aid Bar — a chocolate bar that actually lowers cholesterol. It is dark chocolate with 96% cocoa, plant sterols and sweetened with stevia. "The ingredients supersede the FDA guidelines" says Falcone confidently.
In 2000 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) supported the claim that plant sterols can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels. Some of Dante's clients (and, in fact, Falcone himself) claim that with diet and exercise and by eating two little cubes of the Cholesterol Aid Bar twice a day, they have reduced their cholesterol levels.
Dairy-free chocolate bar
Falcone's most recent invention is a dairy-free chocolate bar. "It was hard finding the perfect ingredient to replace milk," he says. "I went through many alternatives like rice and soy, but threw them out. Finally I hit a home run with almonds." The outcome is a smooth blend of cocoa, almond cream and stevia, and a bar that just melts in your mouth. Falcone is excited by the feedback so far: "I did a small batch to get people's reactions; they loved it, and were really upset when they heard that the bar was not ready for production yet."
Both the Cholesterol Aid Bar and the dairy-free chocolate bar sell well in the store, but shipping them out requires machine wrapping. Falcone recently purchased a wrapping machine, but he needs 60 days before it is fully operational. Once the packaging process is complete, he plans to present the beneficial chocolate to national health-food chains, many of which are already knocking on his door.
For more information on Dante Confections, check out their web site at www.danteconfection.com. And the Billerica store is only minutes away for that Valentine's Day treat.
199 North Road (Treble Cove Plaza)
Store hours: Mon. — Sat., 9-6
Holiday hours: Mon.— Sat., 9-7, Sun., 9-5
Valentine week special hours — Mon.—Thurs., 8-8
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito