By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s not Valentine’s Day without chocolate, and a Minnesota candy maker has a real love story to share.

For nearly 20 years, B.T. McElrath has produced gourmet chocolate with popular truffles, the Salty Dog chocolate bar, and artisan toffee topped with almond in Northeast Minneapolis.

“This is the finest toffee in all the land with locally churned butter, old fashioned recipes and techniques,” Brian McElrath said.

McElrath founded B.T. McElrath with his wife, Christine Walthour.

“It was something we put together. She covered the business end. I did creativity,” he said.

For nearly 30 years, Annie B’s has produced award-winning caramels and popcorn in a small factory in Kellogg, Minnesota.

In 2012, Amanda Henke and her husband decided to buy the Annie B’s brand.

“I started making caramels out of my kitchen when I was pregnant and craving them three years ago. I was kind of a mess. My husband happened around Annie B’s, which happened to be for sale, and we bought it,” she said.

She had incredible success in 2014, when Oprah’s O Magazine named Annie’s B’s caramels in her “favorite things” issue.

“That was awesome,” she said.

In late 2015, these separate companies came together, partially because of tragedy hitting one couple. McElrath’s wife died after a battle with breast cancer. Coming to work and trying to grow the company felt empty.

“It just really wasn’t the same, it really wasn’t the same. I felt working with Justin and Amanda would be a way to grow the business and I could focus on other areas of my life,” McElrath said.

That’s when a new couple formed: Annie B’s bought B.T. McElrath. Ultimately Henke hopes to have production in one facility.

“It seemed like a natural fit, chocolate and caramels, and we also have popcorn. They have a natural affinity for one another,” she said.

Annie B’s is still cranking out 18 varieties of caramels in Kellogg, and B.T. McElrath makes decadent truffles, incredible toffees, and intriguingly flavored chocolate bars.

The Henkes are looking to grow the business with new products, maybe smaller single-serve sizes.

“For people like me, if you open a chocolate bar that’s large, you have a hard time not finishing it,” Amanda said, laughing.

Meanwhile, as technical director of the new company, McElrath continues working.

“I come up with new concepts, trends, processes,” he said.

Changes in packaging to highlight the heritage of the brand and the quality of the ingredients are on the horizon. Perhaps the creation of a meal-substitute bar, something with chocolate and protein or fruits, McElrath suggested.

Both brands are part of a growing trend in the sweets business: small regional producers, using high quality ingredients.

“I think it’s getting trendier but I think it’s still growing,” said Henke.

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