Real-Life 'Willy Wonka' Chocolate Factory Has 70-Year History in Village
GREENWICH VILLAGE — Koppers Chocolate has churned out delectable treats from its Clarkson Street factory since 1937, but it kept its location as hidden as the fictional "Willy Wonka" chocolate factory until recently.
"Lately with all the 'Brooklyn is so cool' talk, with so many items being labeled 'Made in Brooklyn,' we thought, The Village is cool, too, so we put 'Made in Greenwich Village' on our labels," said co-owner Leslye Alexander, part of the third generation of her family to run the company.
"People are always surprised that there's something like this here in New York," said Alexander, who oversees a staff of roughly 40 people as they melt chocolate from the U.S. and the Netherlands in vats that hold 5,000 pounds, spin bright coatings onto candies, hand-separate butter crunch confections from each other and package all of the treats neatly.
Koppers chocolates are sold in the Village at Porto Rico Importing Co. at 201 Bleecker St. and Murray's Cheese Shop at 254 Bleecker St. They are also sold, under their own name and under private labels, at Citarella, Fairway, Russ & Daughters and Economy Candy.
Customers can't browse chocolates at the factory, because there's no retail store, but they can call in orders and pick them up there or have them shipped, she said.
Alexander's maternal grandfather, the German-born Fred Stern, founded the business and was succeeded by Alexander's late father, Harold Alexander, who left the store to her and her brother, Jeff Alexander, when he died in 1997.
The company lays claim to having originated the candy-coated chocolate "lentil" candies in the '30s, before M&Ms went on to make the candies famous in 1941, as well as being the first to sell chocolate-covered gummy bears and espresso beans, Alexander said.
She said the name Koppers originated from the copper kettles her grandfather used to melt down the chocolate.
"When my grandfather came to this country, there was an old wives' tale that the letter K was strong. We had the copper kettles, and 'Koppers' was easy to pronounce, so that was it," Alexander said.
The three-story factory is hidden behind a nondescript set of loading docks at 39 Clarkson St., west of Hudson Street. Past a candy-striped interior door and up a flight of stairs, the aroma of chocolate floods the senses.
Koppers got its start churning up small batches of chocolates, caramels and hundreds of other treats more than 70 years ago from inside 18 Waverly Place, which is now inhabited by NYU's Torch Club.
In the early '80s, the company migrated west in search of more space, Alexander said.
She likes to experiment in the candy kitchen, but said she has had some missteps, including chocolate-covered cornichons and chocolate-covered chewing gum.
"You would just accidentally swallow it," she said about the gum.
The more successful new chocolate flavors include cayenne, sage, cinnamon, chipotle and pomegranate, Alexander said.
She said time will tell whether or not the next generation will grow up to be chocolatiers.
"My brother has two kids who come and work and play here. They're both 13 and don't know what they want to do yet," Alexander said, adding, "It will be their decision"
But she said she's planning to keep the business healthy long enough for them to find out, despite the difficulties of operating in Manhattan, including high taxes, trouble getting trucks in and out of the city and illegally parked cars that block loading docks.
The company gets solicited by manufacturing zones outside Manhattan a few times per year to move, Alexander said. But she always refuses, though it would likely be cheaper to operate elsewhere, because she's committed to the area for the long haul.
"We're part of [the Village], through thick and thin," she said.