Director of Research & Development at Harry & David
When people hear the name Harry & David, they often think “fruit,” but the gourmet gift company that has been around since 1934 also crafts scrumptious chocolates and sweets, that are, yes, often delivered with fruit, but fully deserve our attention in and of themselves. We sat down with Steffanie Wolf, Director of Research & Development at Harry & David to get a peek at how chocolates are dreamed up and created there.
A typical day for me usually involves a lot of people stopping by from production. Among many other things, the R&D team oversees follow-through and helping the production team make the concepts we’ve dreamed up. On days when a new product is being launched, I spend a lot of time on the production floor to ensure everything goes smoothly. The rest of my time is spent either coming up with new candy creations or fielding requests, prioritizing, analyzing, and figuring out where everything fits into the general workflow.
Some days I get to work closely with the photography department, getting new products ready to be photographed so that they look great when we put them up on the site. Currently, about 20% of my week is spent on developing our next round of new products. I like to alternate between working on chocolates and bakery goods, so I can really focus on the materials. I’m the most experienced in chocolate on my team, so I handle creating all the new chocolate pieces.
I’ve been with Harry & David for over 12 years now, but I haven’t been in R&D that whole time! I started out working on the floor and slowly worked my way up. For a few years, I ran the bakery and then for a few more, I ran sanitation before adding baking back into the mix. Then, when the R&D directors for both the bakery and chocolate were retiring, I thought it would be a good idea for me put my love of food and exploration to work by transitioning into R&D.
Because my dad is in the baking trade, I grew up with someone who knew how to really bake. It’s part of who I am. Before the previous candy maker, Charlie, retired, I took advantage of his presence to learn everything I could about chocolate. While he handled chocolate by feel, taste, and smell, I prefer to approach chocolate from a scientific angle and focus on temperature and how to best combine ingredients. Our departments aren’t really segregated, so I worked alongside Charlie for years, but it wasn’t until his last year and a half that I became intentional about training with him. He recommended a few chocolate schools where I could deepen my knowledge and reinforce everything he had taught me.
Now that Charlie is no longer with Harry & David, I’ve taken his place as head candy maker. I also took on running R&D for the bakery side of things. Before he left, I worried about how I was going to step into the shoes of someone who had 37 years of experience under his belt. Then I realized that I wasn’t going to replace him, I was just going to be the best person I could be and do my best to learn every day.
The greatest thing about chocolate is that when you’re working with it, there’s never a dull or predictable moment. I like to joke that they call it tempering chocolate because chocolate has a temper. It has a mind of its own and really keeps you on your toes. Somedays chocolate will react exactly the way you anticipate and others it’ll do something completely out of the norm. I love it and I just know that I’ll work with chocolate for the rest of my life, whether it’s professionally or not.
Many of our new flavor ideas come from our merchant team. As our core chocolates tend to be more traditional, their ideas tend to align with those flavor profiles. My assistants and I also interject modern and trendy ideas based on our research like matcha green tea or orange ginger spice, to appeal to a wide range of generations. Once we decide on new flavors and concepts, the marketing team weighs in. They need to believe in the product so that they can sell it!
Our client base leans towards the more traditional, so when we create something a little more exotic or different like balsamic or lemon verbena, we usually do it in smaller batch sizes. The most out-there chocolate we’ve ever created was a blue cheese caramelized pecan dipped in dark chocolate. It was surprisingly good!
When it comes to chocolate, I love dark chocolate/salty combinations like our amazing sea salt caramel bar that contains 72% dark chocolate. I’m not a huge fan of super sweet treats, but I find the mix of sweet and savory irresistible.
Our customers love our signature truffle collection, our chocolate covered fruits, and our peppermint bark. Some years people seem to prefer dark over light and then there are the surprising years, like this one, where flavors like lemon cream are the popular choice!
My go-to Harry & David gift usually depends on the person I’ll be giving it to. If it’s a peer, I usually show up with some moose-munch. It’s snacky and always a welcome treat. If I’m visiting someone older or going to a nicer dinner, I reach for one of our wine-based combinations.
Our team recently took on the most astounding project; we attempted to break the biggest cinnamon bun world record. We were successful, but it took much more work than anyone realized. The fun part was in figuring out how to scale our existing cinnamon bun recipe into something that would be record breaking while still tasting delicious. The second part, the administrative part, was much less fun. None of us realized the sheer amount of paperwork involved when trying to break a world record. In the end, the cinnamon roll weighed in at 1149 pounds, blowing the previous record of 609 pounds out of the water. We sold pieces at the annual Pear Blossom Festival. It was a huge hit!