Durango Launches Worldwide Candy Empire

Kelly Neidlinger manages the store in downtown Durango, a few doors down from the first Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory location.

Chris Amundson

People just can’t help asking the question, but no, there are no Oompa Loompas at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s production facility in Durango. The hundred-plus workers on the factory floor are standard-issue human beings wearing hairnets, though if you squint hard enough, the green hairnets the supervisors wear might resemble the green hair of Willy Wonka’s employees just a little.

Health codes and the laws of physics prevent this real-world operation from living up to the psychedelic spectacle of the beloved cinematic chocolate factory. However, from an olfactory standpoint, the factory far surpasses the imagination. The smell of chocolate instantly overwhelms the rare outside visitor to the factory, which, like Wonka’s, isn’t normally open to public tour. 

The mouthwatering aroma issuing from the twin tanks of dark and milk chocolate, each containing as much 13,000 pounds of the molten stuff, gets more intense the farther one goes into the factory. A surprising amount of willpower is necessary to avoid simply grabbing chocolates off the conveyor belt and wolfing them down on the spot.

Such a test of will isn’t needed for longtime employees: After three or four months working here, most can no longer smell the chocolate. But even if they can’t smell it, they all still love to eat it. 

Plant manager Cindy Kennemer has worked for Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory since 1985, and though she goes through phases of preferring one variety or another of the more than 300 types of confections she produces, she always returns to the company’s signature treat, the chocolate-caramel-pecan conglomeration known as the Bear. How many Bears has Kennemer consumed over the past three When nine semi-trucks depart the production plant every two weeks to supply hundreds of franchises with chocolate, the first stop is Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s retail store in Durango, nestled in a storefront within the historic General Palmer Hotel in the city’s Victorian downtown.

Just down the block on Main Avenue is the chuffing steam locomotive at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad station. Across the parking lot is a Thai restaurant called Sizzling Siam, whose building in 1981 was the site of the first Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory that founder and CEO Frank Crail opened. In fact, that first store was the only one Crail originally planned to have.

“When we started, we had no intention of opening a chain of chocolate stores across the United States,” Crail said. “We just said, ‘Let’s open a small business and get to know people in the community.’ ”

Crail and his wife had come to Durango for the first time the previous year and fell in love with the people, the steam train, the San Juan Mountains and the Animas River running through town. Within a few days, they decided to move here.

Originally from San Diego, Crail had served in an Army intelligence unit in Okinawa during the Vietnam War and later worked for the CIA’s computer department in Washington, D.C. For most of the 1970s, he and a partner ran a company that specialized in billing systems for the cable television industry. By the 1980s, the Crails moved to Durango because it seemed the perfect place to raise a family – their daughter, the first of seven eventual children, was then a toddler. 

Crail wanted to open a business, so he went door to door on Main Avenue asking shopkeepers what kind of business Durango needed. “The consensus was that they needed a car wash in this town,” Crail said. “That just wasn’t something I thought I wanted to do. But one person I talked to said, ‘We sure could use a candy store.’ ”

Selling candy in Durango seemed perfect. Local business owners told him that tourists kept them incredibly busy from May through September, but that it was much harder to find customers during the slower winter months. Chocolatiers, on the other hand, typically do their best business in colder months during the Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter seasons. He thought it just might work.


For the rest of the story see the January/February 2018 issue of Colorado Life.


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