Photo: Julia Birnn Fields, Owner of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont. Photo by Katie Kittell.
Birnn Chocolates of Vermont, a fourth-generation company, weathers an uncertain year
by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine “I remember the last day of manufacturing, and we just brought everyone together and said, ‘this is an unknown right now,’” said Julia Birnn Fields. “Our number one priority is your safety, and so until we know more, we’re going to shut down production.”
Birnn Fields co-owns Birnn Chocolates of Vermont, a fourth-generation chocolate company which produces truffles for the wholesale market from their factory in South Burlington.
She and husband Mel Fields joined the company as employees with Birnn Field’s father and uncle in 2010. They took over the business in 2016.
Sending employees home in March for what would turn into a long six weeks felt like a complete 180-degree turn from how 2020 had begun.
2020 started strong for Birnn Chocolates. The company was meeting its projected growth.
The holiday season’s sales had been good. Sales for the second biggest holiday, Valentine’s Day, had also been good. The company was preparing for the next big candy holiday, Easter.
Birnn Fields and Mel were speaking — in person — with a Burlington marketing team Pivot Marketing about new marketing strategies.
Photo: Julia Birnn Fields, owner, does trade shows, HR, sales, and customer service with husband Mel Fileds, right, who is in charge of operations, IT and computer systems. VBM Photo.
Then, the pandemic hit. Birnn Chocolates’ sales dropped 90 percent.
According to Birnn Fields, their customers base essentially shut down.
“We have a lot of mom and pop shops,” Birnn Fields said of the businesses who buy from her. “They don’t have an online presence, and they don’t have the capacity to just pop up and start selling and pivot in that way to get sales.”
Birnn Fields said in order to keep employees safe early in the pandemic, the factory closed.
“Which is just very eerie,” Birnn Fields said. “I mean, we don’t ever even shut down for a week.”
Luckily, the company had enough truffles in its cold storage to continue filling the orders it did receive, she said.
For approximately a month, Mel Fields was the only person in the factory filling orders and providing customer service, she said.
“We lost our childcare so I was home with our son,” she added.
Manufacturing is not remote work, she said.
Birnn Fields said federal and state COVID funding made the company whole financially.
The company received funding through the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and funds through the Vermont Economic Recovery Grant program. The money helped the company feel more stable and allowed Birnn Fields to pay employees.
“A lot of our employees are our new Americans,” she said. “English is not their first language. So we knew unemployment would be very difficult for them.”
“I think it proved very difficult for anyone during this time, so you can imagine not speaking the language, not having access to a computer, not understanding a lot of the ins and outs of this paperwork,” she added. “We really felt it was important to do anything we could to not have them have to go through that.”
Birnn Fields said she and her husband checked in with employees through email and phone calls.
The company also took advantage of the downtime to send employees a detailed self-assessment asking questions like, “Do you feel valued?” And “How can we do better?”
Manufacturing by its nature is a business that never stops, she said. The company rarely has the time to pause, reflect, and solicit employees’ feedback, she said.
Employees’ responses were thoughtful and many offered suggestions that the company is in the process of implementing, she added.
“Our employees who have made suggestions and have seen the change really know that we were not only willing to listen, but we want to learn and hear from everybody, because we really value that,” Birnn Fields said. “I guess it’s one of those silver linings.”
Like many Vermont manufactures, Birnn Chocolate is experiencing supply chain issues. Birnn Fields attributes some, but not all, of her struggles finding enough chocolate to the pandemic. Some of the company’s long-time suppliers have undergone changes in their own businesses and workforce, she said.
“For the first time ever in our existence we have been out of stock of items,” Birnn Fields said. “That has never happened. And it’s due to an increase in demand, and also supplier issues, and workforce issues, but I would say supplier more than workforce.”
Some customers who have purchased from Birnn Chocolates for 20 years tease Birnn Fields and say they have never heard employees utter the phrase out of stock.
Photo: Birnn Chocolates of Vermont makes 154 different types of truffles. The most popular is raspberry dark, with caramel milk second. Shown here are a few varieties. Photo: Brent Harrewyn.
Birnn Fields’ uncle engrained in her the philosophy that the chocolate company is only as good as its source of supply. As a result, Birnn Fields always keeps extra supplies in the factory. The practice has gotten tougher as the normal two-week lead time on chocolate orders has stretched to three months.
As a food product with specific flavors and qualities that customers recognize as Birnn truffles, Birnn Fields said buying chocolate from a new supplier is difficult. She must flavor-match any new chocolate she buys to the company’s recipe.
“So we’ve had to pivot right in the middle of this and do R&D with all of these different chocolates from all over,” she said. “We need a flavor match, we can’t just put any chocolate in the melter. Our customers have known our chocolate for 100 years, they have this profile that they’re expecting, it never changes and so we can’t just put in anything. There has to be a very close match.”
Approximately six weeks into the pandemic, Birnn Fields worked with the company’s leadership team to develop safety protocols. Slowly staff returned to work in phases.
“We put up the Plexiglas between our lines, and had different stations, and we had to totally re-create our break room,” she said. “It was just lots of planning, and lots of forethought, and adjusting to this new COVID world.”
Birnn Fields also spent a lot of time finding gloves and masks for employees. They traded chocolate with a local woman who sewed face masks for all the employees.
Every Sunday night, Birnn Fields would receive what she called “the COVID questions of the week” from employees. The questions usually went something like: “My brother’s girlfriend, someone she works with that tested positive, do you think I should come in?”
Birnn Fields added researching, conversations with the state Department of Health, and judgement calls to her to-do list.
As spring turned to summer and the community realized the pandemic would stick around for a while, Birnn Fields said she knew the company needed a “plan B” to survive.
She noticed that businesses that innovated in response to the pandemic were succeeding. Birnn Chocolates needed to do the same.
Birnn Fields said that she contacted Pivot Marketing.
With the intent of connecting with more companies with online stores, Birnn Chocolates, with the help of Pivot Marketing, launched Google Ads. They also updated their website for better search engine optimization (SEO), and built a digital marketing plan.
New clients started contacting them, Birnn Fields said.
Historically, the company’s primary marketing happened at trade shows. The pandemic, of course, cancelled those in-person gatherings.
Given the expense and time it takes to attend trade shows, Birnn Fields is asking herself whether the company’s future marketing budget is better spent on digital ads than in-person shows.
Yet, she adds, she values the relationships with other vendors, customers, and suppliers.
“The relationships that you build in-person are … something that you can’t replace,” she said.
Photo: Truffles decorated by hand. Hand feeding and decorating is more accurate than a machine. Simultaneously checking quality control, which is another advantage of decorating by hand. Photo by Vito Palmisano.
Business picked up again and after the winter holiday, Birnn Chocolates had returned to normal growth patterns, she said.
In Birnn Fields’ opinion, people gave more presents — chocolate included — during the pandemic. She suspects the uptick in giving helped compensate for the fact that people couldn’t see loved ones in person.
The company also took on a few gift boxing projects. Birnn Chocolates didn’t want to turn down any potential business in 2020, she said.
Birnn Chocolates employs approximately 20 people. The company hopes to bring on more for the holiday season.
Workforce issues continue to keep Birnn Fields busy.
A recent ad in Seven Days — usually a strong recruitment source for the company — garnered only one applicant, she said.
Birnn Chocolates has had better luck with the online job site Indeed.
Still, finding people qualified to work in the factory, even entry level positions, has proved difficult.
Eventually, the company turned to what Birnn Fields called grassroots recruiting. She reached out to contacts within Winooski’s New American community.
Friends at Winooski Mutual Aid reached out to the local school, who in turn reached out to parents. Four people from The Democratic Republic of the Congo were hired.
The company has also hired students and a member of a local sorority for a few part-time side projects.
“Everyone that’s been here has given above and beyond their most incredible effort and through the most challenging of times, and they stood by us,” she said.
“To feel that and to see that firsthand — that the loyalty goes both ways — and we really do feel like we’re a family here because we do help each other out,” Birnn Fields added. “Because something changes, we don’t shift all of our values.“
Olga Peters is a reporter for The Commons weekly newspaper in Brattleboro and a freelance writer based in Windham County.