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Easter season gets a little silly for Choco-Logo

It's a tough job but someone has to do it.

All day long, five days a week, Dan Johnson thinks about chocolate, dreams about chocolate, makes wonderful confections from chocolate. And he even eats chocolate.

As the owner and chocolatier of Choco-Logo, 141 Broadway, Johnson turns out upscale, specially designed "private label" chocolates for large companies. The Big Brown Bar at Bloomingdales is one of his creations, and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is a customer.

He creates candy for fundraisers for local charities such as Roswell Park and Gilda's Club, and he also runs a charming retail shop.

The company goes through some 50,000 pounds of fine quality raw chocolate, 10,000 pounds of butter and 30,000 pounds of cane sugar every year. And right now, as Easter approaches, the pace is quickening.

Johnson knows how to handle masses of ingredients. A working chef born in the Bronx, he had traveled the country extensively and cooked at the well-known Ice House Restaurant in Burlington, Vt., as well as serving as chocolatier at Lake Champlain Chocolates in that city.

In 1991, he opened the Choco-Logo Buffalo plant in partnership with Western New York chocolate maker Jim Watson of Watson's Chocolate, which Choco-Logo later bought out.

The historic turn-of-the-century structure housing Choco-Logo had long been involved with food. It once housed the Nut-to Corporation, now located in West Seneca, and before that the legendary Onetto's Restaurant. Choco-Logo's retail store opened in 2004.

Johnson is a dedicated man who loves the candy he works with. "I feel most creative when I overdose on chocolate," he says. And creative he continues to be.

He's all set up for Easter, although he keeps the holiday in perspective. "We're not terribly competitive," he says. "A place like Watson's makes thousands and thousands of bunnies while we make hundreds."

But Johnson is excited about some of the unique candies he does have.

There are the chocolate-dipped Peeps, for instance. Choco-Logo coats the ubiquitous marshmallow bunnies with milk and dark chocolate. "They are dark and crunchy outside," Johnson explains. "And mushy inside. The chocolate takes care of the Peep flavor," he laughs.

There are unique orange chicks made from European white chocolate, mandarin orange oil and vanilla. "This creates a sort of Creamsicle effect," he says.

There's a bird's nest made from cornflakes and milk chocolate and orange chocolate on a stick.

But the absolute high note in creativity has to be the Dodo Bird. It's no longer extinct. Johnson did research in order to revive the poor thing and has formed a huge dodo egg out of milk chocolate. Inside are a dozen baby dodo birds -- when the egg is cracked open all the babies fall out.

Choco-Logo's main business is fine chocolate, but it keeps a sense of humor and stays current too. Fans recall the chocolate caramel bark sprinkled with sea salt called "Waves Of Change." President Obama supposedly loves the flavor combination.

And then there was "Pezzy Up the Bark," dedicated to Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls and his renowned Pez collection. Large bits of cherry Pez scattered over chocolate bark that has been sweetened with almonds and sour cherries. Proceeds went to the charitable organization Music is Art.

There is the Burger and Fries Bar made from beef jerky, deep-fried russet potatoes, and malt to approximate (well, sort of) the flavor of a fast-food lunch. It's a hit -- the bar sold out within three days on the Internet. (The beef comes from Idaho, in case you wondered.)

"I think this is a better pairing than the chocolate with bacon bars that are so trendy. Potato chips have always been a good food pairing with chocolate," Johnson says. But then he's witnessed a lot of unexpected flavor combinations on his culinary travels, and not always happily. "There have been some bad ideas," he admits. "But chocolate is infinitely more complex than wine," he adds.

"Wine is just a grape."

But chocolate does go well with wine, Johnson insists, although popular wisdom has claimed otherwise. And to prove it, he holds Wine and Chocolate Pairings from time to time in which he offers four or five different wine/chocolate comparisons.

"A good Riesling will really bring out the pepper in a Wasabi chocolate filling," he says. Johnson may kid around a bit, but no one doubts he takes chocolate seriously. In the small Choco-Logo factory, behind the store, they make their own blend of chocolate from two esteemed European manufacturers Valrhona and Callebaut; employees temper that blend melting and cooling the chocolate to exact temperatures so that it becomes malleable and glossy.

The firm employs between 15 and 40 people, depending on season, all of whom are happy as their endorphins release. (Employees can snack on as much chocolate as their little hearts desire and comparisons with the famous "I Love Lucy" chocolate factory episode keep coming to mind.)

Not that the employees have that much time to snack, of course. "Easter is a major chocolate holiday."

And it's getting close.

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