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Chicago no longer home sweet home of several chocolate, candy manufacturers

CHICAGO -- The smell wafts out among the high-rises, bridges, and overpasses like invisible, chocolaty tendrils catching passersby in every direction, drawing them toward the source -- an inconspicuous brick building on an industrial corner downtown, home of the Blommer chocolate factory.

The sometimes syrupy, sometimes burnt, but unmistakable scent from Blommer, North America's largest producer of raw chocolate, is beloved by many residents.

''It's enough to drive you nuts!" said Ken Jones, 45, an electrician for Commonwealth Edison who often works in the area. ''It makes you want it. In fact, I went in there today" -- to buy double-dipped chocolate peanuts.

Blommer, Frango Mints, Fannie May, Brach's. These were some of the names that made Chicago the chocolate and candy capital of the nation. But of those companies, only Blommer is still producing in Chicago.

''I like to say Chicago's the capital, but I don't know if we can really say that anymore," said Mark Puch, president of Primrose Candy Co. Primrose, with 79 years in the city, is augmenting its Chicago operations with a plant in China.

Producers of hard candy, such as Primrose and Brach's, which closed its Chicago plant in 2004 to move its operations to Mexico, attribute their shifting production strategies to one culprit: US sugar subsidies that keep prices of domestic sugar much higher than those on the world market.

In addition, tight import quotas make it hard to import less expensive foreign-produced sugar.

''We haven't seen a hard-candy company expansion or new factory for many years," said Rob Hoffman, director of business development for World Business Chicago.

Puch noted that Primrose has drastically reduced its production of sugary hard candies at its Chicago factory, shifting to sugar-free and chewy treats.

The company used to manufacture 8 million pounds of the red-and-white swirl Starlight mints in Chicago every year; now it makes 400,000 pounds.

The production of Frango Mints was moved to Pennsylvania in 1999. Fannie May closed its Chicago factory and more than 200 area retail stores in 2004.

But chocolate lovers are counting on the city's strong cultural identification with chocolate, and the craving for sweets and hot cocoa that a cold winter provokes, to keep Chicago's legacy alive.

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