Open up a heart-shaped box of chocolates from ethel's chocolate, and you'll find some surprises. The unusual flavors include Key Lime Limbo, which combines dark chocolate and key lime juice, and Cinna-Swirl, a tangy cinnamon-infused ganache. The chocolates are visually stunning, too: A deep-red piece of Passion Rumba (filled with passion fruit ganache) resembles a ruby.
The biggest surprise, though, is that ethel's isn't a small artisanal candy company. It's the new premium line from McLean (Va.)-based Mars, maker of Snickers and M&M's. Other mass-market companies have introduced upscale lines in the past few months. That's why, in advance of Valentine's Day, we put these new delights to a taste test. Our 12 testers from BusinessWeek's staff not only tasted ethel's but also evaluated the latest premium offerings from Russell Stover Candies, whose candy can be found in drugstores across America; truffles from Joseph Schmidt Confections, an artisanal chocolate maker acquired by Hershey (HSY) last fall; and Godiva Chocolatier's (CPB) Platinum Collection, launched in September.
The winner was ethel's, at $25 for a 6.9-ounce box (20 pieces). While ethel's has a motto of "No mystery middles," some of the funkier flavors such as peanut butter and jelly didn't go over well. But the unique choices as well as the chocolate's silky, smooth taste are what ultimately won the crowd over. "These are the best-looking and the best-tasting," one reviewer said. Another appreciated the small size of the pieces: "You can taste it without going overboard."
Although we had only a photo of the Valentine's Day packaging, our reviewers deemed the pink satin box and brown ribbon "hip." Available online at ethelschocolate.com, you can also find the candy at department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Macy's (FD), and Marshall Field's (FD). Ethel's has a chain of chocolate lounges in Chicago and is looking to expand the stores into other cities.
The runner-up was Godiva, which is $25 for a 6.25-oz. box (16 pieces). Most reviewers were satisfied with the "rich and creamy" texture of the chocolates. Favorites included flavors with expensive-sounding names such as "Nocturne," which is filled with a 72% cocoa ganache, and "Orangelide," dark chocolate with a tangy orange filling. But a few reviewers griped about the sweetness of Godiva's fillings, which include raspberry and spicy ginger. And while Godiva (godiva.com) boxes usually look understated and elegant, everyone agreed that the new silver box adorned with a pink ribbon wasn't too special.
Our testers had no problem identifying Russell Stover's new Private Reserve line, which had a familiar sugary taste and watery fillings. We liked the solid chocolates best, especially those made with flavorful 70% cacao dark chocolate. The chocolate-covered butterscotch creams and caramels seemed pleasant "but nothing special," one tester said.
A box of Private Reserve, available at major retailers such as Wal-Mart (WMT) and CVS (CVS), costs double the price of the Russell Stover mass-market brand (russellstover.com). That's because the candy is made with high-quality Swiss Callebaut chocolate using a special molding process. Even so, at around $9 for 8 ounces (16 pieces), everyone agreed with one tester's comment: "These are great for kids on an allowance who want to buy something for their mom."
The priciest box in the bunch, at $33 for 7.5 ounces (12 pieces), came from Joseph Schmidt. The "sexy-looking" truffles certainly caught everyone's eye: Cream-colored mounds with a brown dot in the middle looked very provocative. Some testers were overwhelmed by the huge size and gooeyness of each piece. When it comes to rich chocolate confections, dainty is often better.
To see a taste test of many of the chocolates featured here, watch our weekly TV show, BusinessWeek Weekend (check your local listings), or watch it on your PC by going to businessweekweekend.com
Corrections and Clarifications
"Candy's getting dandier" (Personal Business, Feb. 13) incorrectly stated that ethel's chocolate is available in department stores. It is available at ethelschocolate.com. Joseph Schmidt Confections are available at josephschmidtconfections.com and in some department stores.
By Lauren Young