By Joan Wilder
I know that life isn't a movie and that running a business is work, but when I think about Puopolo Candies in Hingham Square, I picture a cheerful place where busy people with happy hands make delicious chocolates in a fairy factory.
And, really, it is an elfin manufacturing plant, equipped with small, old-fashioned tools and machinery: a copper caldron, a four-foot wooden spoon, a complex, yet miniature conveyer belt, a tiny chocolate waterfall.
And many of the hands that take each individual chocolate through the stages of its making belong to family members, starting with the couple who opened the shop 22 years ago: master confectioner Richard Puopolo and his wife, Debbie.
"We're like Cake Boss," said Debbie Puopolo, referring to the television reality show that chronicles the exploits of a family-run bakery in New Jersey. "My sister-in-law Elva works here, my sister-in-law Barbara works here, and my mother-in-law used to work here."
Other family members are involved, too. Richard learned the trade from his uncle, Fred Levaggi, who founded Levaggi's candy store in Weymouth, which is now run by Richard's nephew, Jim Puopolo. Another uncle, Richard Gowell, founded Brockton's Gowell's candy store, which is now run by Gowell's son, Richard.
"It's a dying thing," said Richard. "That's what sets us apart. We make everything right here. People don't realize the amount of hand labor involved – how many times each candy is handled."
Making chocolates starts with making candy (the filling) that is later dipped in chocolate.
All the work is done on premises, in a maze of rooms behind the retail store.
On a recent afternoon, Richard was busy cutting coconut candy into hundreds of tiny squares – while a 20-pound batch of caramel set in a shining copper kettle atop an old gas stove. In the next room, fudge was getting covered in chocolate, while Debbie and a shop girl packed pretty sampler boxes between customers.
Some of the candies are made by pouring a cooked liquid into trays to harden – like the coconut – then cut. Others, like the flavored cream centers, get poured onto a large stainless steel table where Richard works them like bread dough as they cool and harden to a malleable consistency. Richard then uses a dye to press the large balls of candy dough into molds that form confections in different shapes.
After the candies are shaped, they travel along a 15-foot conveyer belt undergoing several procedures that ultimately cover them in chocolate. (This is called dipping.)
On the first step of the dipping process, the candies are placed in a shallow pool of liquid chocolate to coat their bottoms (ensuring that their creamy insides won't leak out later). From there, they cool and harden on a stretch of conveyor belt as they move forward. After another set of hands positions the candies correctly, they pass under a chocolate waterfall onto a vibrating wire rack that allows the excess chocolate to drip off.
Moving along, the little nuggets pass onto another rack, where another hand "writes" a symbol on top of the wet chocolate before it hardens. Finally, the chocolates pass through an air-conditioned tunnel, and emerge finished and ready for storing.
While Richard makes the chocolates, Debbie oversees packaging and all front-of-house operations. As I watch her tie ribbons around heart-shaped boxes, I can't believe she makes the bows by hand.
"The truth is people love it, that touch, that homemade touch, so that's what we do," said Debbie.
Customers are loyal – including several celebrities (Michael Keaton, Harrison Ford, Goldie Hawn) -- and Puopolo's has a thriving mail order business, as well as its walk-in trade.
"We always have samples and people love that," said Debbie. "It's a happy business. People come in and they're excited, they're excited to be around the candy. It's satisfying to know that your product makes people happy. That's what keeps us going after 22 years, I guess: It's a good atmosphere."
Puopolo Candies, 222 North St., Hingham, MA 02043; 781-749-6638.