Weighty chocolate questions

Sunlight streamed onto the huge empty factory floor in North Philadelphia Thursday.

The Easter Bunny already has come and gone at S. Zitner Co., the candy company on 17th Street just south of Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia. That’s why the mixers that produce the butter- and coconut-cream centers to the company’s signature Butter Krak, coconut cream and peanut butter eggs were clean and empty.

Gone were the long marble tables where the fillings are cooled and hand-formed into the little log-shaped centers, later to be enrobed in chocolate. Most of the 45 or so extra workers have already been laid off.

Many will return to Zitner’s later this year for the Easter candy manufacturing season, which runs between September, when the first shipments of huge blocks of chocolate are delivered, and two weeks before Easter, when the last chocolate eggs go out the door, by truck, not rabbit transit.

These days, a skeleton crew cranks up the machinery two or three days a week for yummy chocolate-covered pretzels, Zitner’s only year-round product.

 It was a good year, more or less. Even though this winter’s snows made distribution a challenge, sales were up, for the second year in a row.

With that, Zitner company finds itself on the cusp of an interesting dilemma.

“If the sales continue to grow, we’ll exceed our manufacturing capacity, which is probably a good problem,” said Dennis Palladino, the operations manager.

The factory is beautiful, in an old-industrial kind of way — high ceilings, good illumination. But the main manufacturing floor is not air-conditioned and that means there can be no summer production of chocolate Santas (He’d be a melty blob). To change it? Big job. Big, expensive job.

The equipment is old — excellent, but heavily reliant on hand labor. In other factories, much of the work is automated. That might be the way to go, but it too would cost a major bundle.

A second shift could be added, but that has its own management challenges.

So here are questions: Is growth an imperative? Is the status quo, which employs several family members among 15 full time staff, enough? And when it comes to chocolate, which is better: milk or dark?