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Platters Chocolates wins tax break to make more sponge candy

WHEATFIELD – Platters Chocolates, a North Tonawanda company, received a tax break Wednesday for a new plant that will enable it to ramp up production of sponge candy and try to take the local delicacy national.

“Our goal is to make sponge candy synonymous with Buffalo, like the chicken wing,” declared John DiGuiseppe, vice president of business development, at a meeting of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

The company, in business since 1938, has stepped up its game in the past few years. Its sales have increased 40 percent in the past three years, thanks to what DiGuiseppe called a more “proactive” approach to marketing. Sales are 150,000 to 175,000 pounds a year, he said.

In 2014, the chocolate maker bought out Koed Candies, a South Buffalo company which owned the web address spongecandy.com. And this week, DiGuiseppe said, Platters obtained trademark rights for the phrase “Gotta (heart) Buffalo.”

The company is now producing sponge candy in bags carrying the “Gotta (heart) Buffalo” slogan. Its decision to concentrate on that product is forcing it to move to larger quarters. The company needs a second production line because sponge candy is sponging up so much of its manufacturing capacity.

“When we’re running those other candies, we’re not running sponge, and we need to be running sponge all the time,” DiGuiseppe said.

Platters’ bid for sponge candy dominance involves a move from its current 17,000-square-foot plant on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda, where Platters has been located since 1974, to a 24,000-square-foot leased space in the Wurlitzer Industrial Park, the old jukebox factory on Niagara Falls Boulevard in North Tonawanda.

Besides allowing for more production, there are other benefits to the larger location. “We have inquiries all the time for tours, and we can’t accommodate tours where we are,” DiGuiseppe said. “I’ll have 300 tours a year.”

Part of the manufacturing process will be visible through large windows at the new plant, he said. The company also plans to open a 5,000-square-foot “chocolate cafe” and retail outlet in the building.

But another key goal is to use climate control to expand the candy-making season. At present, the company can’t make good chocolate in humid weather, except for fudge, and shuts down its chocolate lines in the summer.

“We’re working with some engineers. We’re hoping to make the site chocolate-friendly,” DiGuiseppe said. “Hopefully we can manufacture further into the summer. Nobody’s pulled that off yet.”

The IDA granted a sales tax exemption on building materials and production equipment for the new plant, which is estimated to save the company $36,400 on its $1.1 million project. There is no property tax break, because it’s a lease and because the Wurlitzer building already is under a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes arrangement, IDA attorney Mark J. Gabriele said.

The company employs 35 to 40 people at its seasonal peak, but DiGuiseppe said Platters expects to add at least 10 workers and perhaps as many as 35 in the next three to five years.

It has about 7,500 customers on its websites, both spongecandy.com and platterschocolates.com. “Most don’t have any ties to Buffalo,” DiGuiseppe said.

Sponge candy is a Buffalo thing, largely unknown elsewhere except to heavy-duty candy fans. “They call it sea foam in California, and it tastes like sea foam,” DiGuiseppe scoffed.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com