John O. Gilbert was inducted into the Heritage Hall of Fame by the Jackson Area Manufacturer’s Association on January 11, 2016. Here are some acceptance comments given by Brian Krichbaum, co-owner of Gilbert Chocolates with his wife, Sally
Tonight, John Gilbert is being honored by being named to the JAMA Heritage Hall of Fame. And it is fitting, as Gilbert Chocolates has been manufacturing candy right here in Jackson for 116 years. Many of you use aluminum, zinc, steel or maybe plastic and paints as raw materials to make your products. We do the same thing, but we use raw materials like sugar, butter, peanut butter, pecans and peanuts; and I’m guessing our finished products taste much better than yours.
John Gilbert moved to Jackson from Findlay, Ohio in the late nineteenth century, and in 1900 opened a diner and established Gilbert Chocolates in downtown Jackson. Keep in mind that milk chocolate was invented in 1875, a mere 25 years previously. This makes Jackson the proud home of not just the finest, but one of the oldest chocolate companies in Michigan, in the United States, and even the world.
John’s German mother was a noted candy maker, and John Gilbert adapted her recipes and techniques to his plant. All the recipes focused on the taste of the finished products, the wonderful blend of chocolate and the creams, nuts, toffees and caramels, not precise measurement of ingredients. If you ever have the privilege of touring our factory, make sure to ask our staff about the joys of making candy with measurements like “five large handfuls” or “fill the red bowl to the line”. At Gilbert Chocolates, we still use those 100-year-old recipes every day. We cook our candies and mix them by hand, just like John Gilbert did 100 years ago.
John Gilbert was a hands-on manager, handling sales, procurement, and production. Quality was most important to him as is evidenced by his quality policy. When he needed to buy marble tables for his candy making, he travelled to the quarry in Italy and picked out the slab himself. I’ve got to say he made pretty good choices, because we use those very same marble slabs every day as we carefully follow John Gilbert’s cream, toffee, caramel and cherry cordial recipes.
In fact, nearly every piece of equipment we use was originally purchased by John Gilbert himself. Our cream extruder was made 100 years ago. Two years ago we got around to Teflon coating it. Our caramel cutter has seen thousands and thousands of pounds of caramels over the years. Nearly every month someone comes into one of our stores and tells us how they, or their mother, or their aunt used to be a “cutter” at Gilbert Chocolates.
We do have one new machine, the chocolate enrober; it’s only 51 years old.
One of the most lasting elements of John Gilbert’s legacy is his influence on our commitment to quality and to our customers. Quoting from the 1926 Gilbert Policy:
- To make package chocolates of only one quality – the finest;
- To use none but the best materials regardless of cost;
- To exercise unusual care in every detail.
Over the years, Gilbert Chocolates has produced A LOT of chocolate candies. During World War 2, Gilbert’s chocolates were given to thousands of American soldiers as they marched across Europe. During the war, this added up to more than 250,000 pounds per year. 250,000 pounds just to the troops, do you have any idea how much chocolate that is – we only make and sell about 25,000 pounds annually today.
But John Gilbert’s chocolate legacy extends beyond Jackson. In the 1920’s Gilbert Chocolates opened a factory in southern California. And while the plant is long since closed, the impact John Gilbert had on California candy making continues to this day. While he was in California, John Gilbert met and became friends with Mary See, the founder of See’s Candies. In fact, Mary asked for his help in setting up her commercial candy making operation, which he gladly did. Today See’s Candy’s has over 200 retail stores, mostly on the West Coast. And it is still good candy, in fact I’d say it is the second best candy I’ve had.
But we wouldn’t be here tonight honoring the legacy of John Gilbert without the commitment of two very important Jackson families. Helga Austin worked for John Gilbert at Gilbert Chocolates for years, and she tells us that John Gilbert would be standing there at the door each morning welcoming the employees to work; I suspect he was making sure they were all on time. (Pause)
After John Gilbert died in the 1960’s, Helga purchased Gilbert Chocolates, and moved it to our current location on Ackerson Lake Drive. She preserved the recipes, and the equipment, and the quality that was, and is, Gilbert Chocolates. In 1991, Helga opened a new store in the Packa Plaza, now Jackson Crossing Mall, and kept the Gilbert Chocolates name strong and growing here in Jackson. Without Helga, John Gilbert’s legacy would be lost.
Bill and Scott Blakemore picked up the mantle of Gilbert Chocolates from Helga Austin in 2003. They expanded the wholesale line, modernized and standardized the packaging, and because of their efforts, Gilbert Chocolates remains a Jackson icon.
And now it’s our turn. Sally and I have picked up the mantle and are determined to stay true to the legacy of John O Gilbert. What does that mean? Well for one it means that we are committed to quality and to our customers, Gilbert Chocolates will continue to be the Best Chocolate in Michigan, 116 years and counting. It means we are committed to restoring the name of Gilbert Chocolates throughout southern Michigan. So today there is a Gilbert Chocolates store in the Meridian Mall in Lansing.
And it means that Gilbert Chocolates is committed to Jackson. Our employees and their families live here. We purchase our ingredients from Dawn Foods, another iconic Jackson Company. Anderson Printing makes our inserts, our candy wrappers, and our flavor guides. Polly Food Stores sell our candy and sells us other ingredients that our customers love to see covered in our fine chocolates. Can anyone say “Chocolate Covered Potato Chips”?
And our customers live here. From the corporations that use us to supply their Christmas gifts, to the small child who comes into the factory every summer Friday morning for “just a small piece Sir”. Gilbert Chocolates belongs to Jackson.
So the legacy of John Gilbert is part of the legacy of Jackson. And Gilbert Chocolates is proud and honored to belong to both.