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Entrepreneurs
Business Observer Thursday, Jul. 2, 2009 8 years ago

Choco-preneur

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A physicist set out to create something kids can use to help them eat healthier. He ended up inventing a natural kind of chocolate, which is now made on the Gulf Coast.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A physicist set out to create something kids can use to help them eat healthier. He ended up inventing a natural kind of chocolate, which is now made on the Gulf Coast.


Healthy eating and lots of chocolate are two concepts that are tough to sell in one package.

But Aharon Friedman, a physicist-turned-entrepreneur, believes he's up to the challenge. Friedman recently launched Healthy Chocolate, a Bradenton-based manufacturing company that makes a sugar-free dark chocolate nugget.

It took Friedman, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Tel Aviv University, three years of trial and error to come up with the precise formula. “It was a real pain in the neck,” he says.

The ultimate recipe, Friedman says, includes seven herbs and xylitol, an organic compound made from a birch tree that is sometime used in chewing gum. Friedman says his product is the first on the market to use xylitol as the primary sweetener for chocolate.

The trick in making the chocolate, however, is in the step-by-step mixing system, says Friedman, as opposed to simply using xylitol as a sugar replacement.

“Making chocolate is a very sophisticated and complicated process,” says Friedman. “It's not unlike wine.”

Then consider that a 6,000-square-foot factory and warehouse in a Manatee County industrial park acts as Friedman's cocoa vineyard. The facility, which Friedman and the company's dozen or so employees moved into in April, is a chocolate lover's paradise. It includes:
• A computerized chocolate mixing vat, which cost $110,00 and can mix up to 150 pounds of chocolate at one time. Friedman plans to upgrade to a machine that can do five times as much once sales pick up;
• An automated conveyer belt system that can wrap 400 chocolate nuggets a minute at full capacity. “It will shoot them out like a machine gun,” says Friedman;
• A molding system that can fill 1,200 bags of nuggets an hour; and
• A 72-foot long refrigerator and coolant system to store the products.

Friedman had been running the company out of a smaller factory in New York City through late last year. But Manatee County Economic Development Council officials convinced the company to relocate to the Gulf Coast. The
EDC then assisted the company in receiving build-out permits quickly, which Friedman says was key to starting production as quick as it did.

Friedman says the factory is currently pumping out about $500,000 worth of chocolate a month. He hopes to double that number by early next year.

Somewhat ironically, Friedman came up with the idea to start a chocolate company not long after he was diagnosed with diabetes about five years ago. It wasn't for him to eat, but in his research on the disease, he was stunned to see the amount of obese children in the U.S. He thought he might be able to use his physics background to create a dietary supplement that could control children's blood sugar levels.

Says Friedman: “We wanted to develop a product that children would want to take that would help them.”

But the product they came up with is one many adults will also enjoy, Friedman hopes.

The company is taking an umbrella sales approach so far, going for a diverse lot of potential customers. It's seeking retail partners, such as CVS Pharmacy drugstores and it's also looking for sales in places such as diet supplement centers, doctors' offices and health food stores. Friedman can even envision a time when fancy hotels dump their mints and place Healthy Chocolate nuggets on the pillows.

In addition to the physical characteristics of chocolate, Friedman has experience in the entrepreneurial side of growing a company: He co-founded Oldsmar-based Fortress Technologies in the 1990s, which has since grown into one of the leading companies providing wireless network products to government entities and the military.

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