$270 Million Chocolate Plant Is Proof of U.S. Sweet Tooth

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, left, Victoria Mars and Debra Sandler, right, push a button that starts production at the Mars Chocolate North America Topeka Plant near Topeka, Kan., Thursday. Victoria Mars is the Chairman of the Board, Mars Inc., and Sandler is president of Mars Chocolate North America. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Americans aren't losing their taste for chocolate. Need proof? Look to Kansas, where candy giant Mars Inc. is opening its first new plant in 35 years to churn out millions of sweets every day.

Company officials had a grand opening Thursday for the sprawling, $270 million chocolate plant -- which they say exists mostly to meet U.S. demand for its M&M's and Snickers-brand candy.

The plant, built south of Topeka, will be able to produce 14 million bite-sized Snickers each day, as well as 39 million M&M's, enough to fill 1.5 million fun-sized packs. The company expects the plant to be filling orders for another 50 years.

With the scent of chocolate in the air, dozens of workers in white uniforms and hairnets cheered as Gov. Sam Brownback helped turn a lever that brought the machines to life and signaled the official start of production.

"Somebody doesn't put this kind of money in, without having a long-term strategy," Brownback said after the ceremony. "They see a long-term, solid play."

It's a sweet deal for state and local officials, too. The 500,000-square-foot facility is bringing about 200 jobs to the Topeka area, and the company plans to open a store downtown for several weeks.

Local officials, who joined the company at the grand opening, also are earning the right to brag that Topeka's work force, central location and accessible site enabled the region to win the plant over several dozen other communities.

Matt Hudak, who follows the U.S. market for "impulse" foods as an analyst for market researcher Euromonitor International, said candy makers can expect to see annual growth in chocolate sales stay above 3%, making chocolate "a continual bright spot." He also said Mars has been good at introducing new products, such as pretzel M&Ms and bite-sized Snickers to keep consumers interested.

Even in uncertain economic times, he said, chocolate remains an "affordable luxury."

"There is little reason to suggest that, all of a sudden in the U.S., people will start to dislike chocolate," he said.

The new chocolate factory is a sign that Mars officials are well aware of the trend and are bullish about future sales. Mars Chocolate North America President Debra Sandler said nine other plants are operating at full capacity, and Mars Inc. Board Chairwoman Victoria Mars said the new plant will allow the company to end "bottlenecks" in getting its products to market. The new plant will operate 24 hours a day for five days a week.

"I don't want to say to my customers that I can't fulfill their orders," Sandler said during the ceremony "Topeka will allow me the freedom to build the business in the U.S."

The company's New Jersey-based chocolate unit, Mars Chocolate, has 16,000 employees in 21 countries. It produces 29 brands that include M&Ms and Snickers, which it says are billion-dollar brands, but also Milky Way, Twix and 3 Musketeers.

The family-owned Mars Inc. also has its Wrigley division, which produces gum, hard candies and chewy candies. It also has non-candy food products, produces pet foods and runs pet hospitals.

Before the Kansas facility was built, the company's last new plant in North America was in Cleveland, Tenn.

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