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September 22, 2014

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The Innovator:

Chocolate heaven thanks to Ethel M

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Jen Gudgel is director of gourmet chocolates at Ethel M.

Jen Gudgel, Director of Gourmet Chocolates at Ethel M, started working at the Henderson-based company seven years ago, and since then, it has been one chocolate-covered success. The company celebrates 30 years in business in 2011, which is no small feat in a down economy, or, really, in a relatively young city like Las Vegas.

“We still offer a majority of flavors that we offered at the beginning,” Gudgel says, adding that her current favorite is a sea-salted milk chocolate with caramel, or the peanut butter indulgence bar—yum!

Gudgel runs the business side of Ethel M Chocolates. She says that expansion into more retail stores (there are currently eight in the Las Vegas Valley) and other states, is what’s likely next for the company. And, Gudgel says, she’s very optimistic that growth is in her company’s future.

So now, boys and girls, it’s story time:

In 1981, Forrest Mars Sr.—think M&Ms, Snickers, etc.—wanted to start a chocolate company that would solely honor his mother’s (Ethel’s) traditional way of making gourmet chocolates. So, the candy magnate decided to open up a small, family-owned shop in Henderson, still located on Sunset Road and Mountain Vista Street: Ethel M Chocolates.

“My office is actually in the old apartment where Forrest lived,” Gudgel says. “It’s so cool working in this place.”

Ever had an Ethel M’s lemon satin crème? It’s exactly the same as it was in early 1900 when Ethel herself used to make them for her kids. And, Gudgel says, they’re still a hit. “People will order 48-count boxes of it,” she says. “It’s an iconic flavor.”

Part of what sets Ethel M apart is that they don’t use any preservatives, Gudgel says. It shortens the shelf lives of the chocolate (truffles last about a month), but, as Gudgel aptly asks: “When’s the last time you had a box of chocolates that lasted more than a week?” Fair point.

The chocolate factory hosts about 700,000 visitors each year. Vacationers to Las Vegas come to the location by the busload, Gudgel says. They didn’t used to be full, but now, the visitors certainly are.

So, as any Las Vegas chocoholic will tell you, Innovation, in Ethel M’s case, certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel. It’s sticking with what works—while adding fun, new twists and trying to spread the gospel of their freshly made chocolate—that keeps Ethel M thriving.

And that’s pretty sweet.

—Erin Dostal

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