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Sweet success: Lake Champlain Chocolates expands its horizons

Jim Lampman
Jim Lampman photo © Jeff Clarke

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted September 22, 2006

Jim Lampman knows indulgence. But when he needed more space for his growing business, Lake Champlain Chocolates (LCC), he didn’t look out of town for the nearest open field — or out of state.

He looked up the street.

At a time when politicians are trying to lure companies from out of state and complain that businesses are fleeing Vermont, the Lake Champlain Chocolates story is a lesson in how a community made sure that a strong business stayed in town and got stronger.

For nearly 25 years, Lake Champlain Chocolates has made its home somewhere on or near Burlington’s Pine Street, a former regional manufacturing hub. Today, the area is still home to a few manufacturing firms, as well as a mix of artist studios, cafés, and other businesses.

Next month, Lake Champlain Chocolates will move its packaging, warehousing, and shipping divisions into a building that formerly housed Specialty Filaments, a plastic brush maker.

Along the way, Lampman decided to replace the roof, much of the building’s insulation, and build in enough other improvements to become a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient building that will meet or exceed the Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) standard. LEED is a voluntary green building standard developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The 47,000 square foot building is expected to earn LEED certification based on qualities such as energy-efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; lighting fixtures that incorporate daylight and occupancy sensors, and utilizing natural light through energy-efficient skylights and windows; high-insulation values for the walls and roof; water-efficient plumbing fixtures; improved ventilation; Forest Stewardship Council-certified finished woods; recycling and bike rack areas; and the contractors’ efforts to recycle building materials during construction.

One older building was torn down to make room for employee parking, and the material from that building will be sold, Lampman said. He also had contractors buy most of their building materials locally.

The building is 27 percent more energy efficient than one built to code, saving the company thousands of dollars annually, said Chris Burns, an energy efficiency specialist with the Burlington Electric Department (BED).

“It will pay us back over time, but more importantly it’s just the correct thing to do,” said Lampman, adding that he feels even more sure about his decision after recently watching the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth.

When completed, the building will be the third LEED-certified structure in Burlington, Burns said, with potentially more on the way.

The other two are on the city’s waterfront — ECHO at The Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, and housing units owned by the Burlington Land Trust. The University of Vermont hopes to have several of its new buildings, including laboratory space for its nutrition and food science departments and a student center, also meet these high standards, Burns said.

It’s not clear exactly how many green buildings exist in Vermont, according to Tom Good, an architect and president of the Vermont Green Building Coalition, a group of architects, builders, and others interested in promoting green construction.

There are six buildings in the state, including the LCC site, awaiting LEED certification, he said.

Doing the right thing

LCC began looking to expand a couple of years ago and has been taking up space in nearby buildings for some of its warehousing and distributing needs. But it found it hard to expand on its current site.

“You’ve got to have parking, and with employees and the people who come to our factory we just don’t have enough room here,” said Lampman. “We are a Vermont attraction just like Ben & Jerry’s and the Teddy Bear Factory.”

LCC has daily tours, often accommodating busloads of out-of-state visitors who come to see how the chocolate treats are made and to sample some of the company’s delicacies.

While Lampman owns half of the building, the other half is owned by a separate developer, Redstone. Originally, Burlington’s YMCA was looking to move into that half, but that deal fell through.

When Lampman wanted to find more space, he turned to Burlington’s Community and Economic Development office and Bruce Seifer, who helped Lampman find the site and get the right permits.

“We met with him and talked about his space considerations and then provided some resources to him to help Jim figure out how to make the move work,” said Seifer.

A pair of energy efficiency specialists at BED were able to help Lampman figure out not only how to become more energy efficient, but also how to qualify for LEED certification.

LEED certification, Lampman said, was an important undertaking because it ensures his building is meeting the highest energy efficiency standards, and will lower his overall power costs by 42 percent per year.

BED did offer Lampman financial incentives to go green, enough to cover about one-third of the upfront costs to go for LEED certification.

BED experts showed Lampman what it would take to meet the city’s energy efficiency code. “And he got it. Then, while we have their undivided attention, we show them what it would take to go beyond code and what we’re willing to do,” said Burns.

In Lampman’s case, it was an easy sell, and some of the money he was saving up front from BED (which usually comes in the way of a check at completion of the project) is being used to pay for what it costs to track everything needed to receive LEED certification.

Lampman knows that the extra documentation isn’t easy on the construction firms he hired. But he does his best to sweeten the pot for them.

During a recent tour of the new building, Lampman carried a large box of assorted chocolates and left it on a lunch table for the construction crews to sample.

“I left some lunch on the table for you,” he told one worker. The look he got back showed it wasn’t the first time a box of chocolates had appeared at the worksite — and probably not the last, either.

For Lampman, LEED certification is not only good for the environment, it’s good for his bottom line. He’ll save money and please one of his biggest customers, Whole Foods. In recent years, Whole Foods has been leading the industry in creating energy-efficient stores, investing in renewable energy and encouraging its suppliers to do the same.

To achieve what he wanted, he also needed to make sure the building worked for his employees.

So Lampman turned to familiar face, local architect John Anderson, who had designed the factory store and two retail stores for the company.

“I know Jim and the product and the kind of environment he wants, and I understand his branding what his identity is,” said Anderson. This is his second Burlington building that is on its way to LEED certification. The other is on the University of Vermont campus and houses the school’s nutrition and food sciences labs. Still, he was excited about the LCC project as it began to unfold.

“I like big industrial buildings, and it was a reminder that this was a hard-working city and there was a lot of manufacturing activity in that part of town,” said Anderson. Part of the project will include an art installation in the front of the building that will incorporate a set of old railroad tracks that serviced the building when it was a plastics plant.

“What I like about this project is that Jim is helping to do the right thing on Pine Street and maintain a little bit of its manufacturing heritage and keep its density,” said Anderson.

Anderson also is creating some playful art in the employee cafeteria, a 3x17-foot mural that shows the story of a cacao seed in a tropical environment on its way to becoming a Lake Champlain Chocolate concoction and heading off into the Vermont landscape.

The new building will have separate areas for packaging and distribution. Most importantly, it will allow the company to better keep track of its inventory as it heads out either through online or catalog sales, or through its wholesale distribution.

On a dare

Lake Champlain Chocolates began when Lampman owned the Ice House, a Burlington restaurant. He began making chocolates on the side after he dared his chef to make a better truffle than the ones he was giving to patrons.

The homemade creations became so popular that Lampman decided to branch out and make more. Eventually, he sold the restaurant and devoted himself to chocolate making full-time.

He later moved into an incubator space off of Pine Street, now a bustling space for artists and cafés. After he outgrew that, he moved into another building along Pine Street, where he stayed until 1999, when he moved into the current location at 750 Pine St.

The company has come a long way since then; recently it launched an organic line of chocolates.

“Overall, it’s been a fun ride over the years and in some ways we’ve reinvented ourselves a number of times,” said Lampman.

Today, LCC operates three retail stores — one in Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, one at the factory, and one in Waterbury — and sells to more than 1,500 stores directly, including Whole Foods. It employs about 80 people. Roughly half of those employees will move into the new building. The other half will remain in the current building to handle administrative and production work.

“And the advantage is we can stay in Burlington,” said Lampman. “The thought [of moving] had crossed my mind, but I like Burlington and the proximity of the workers.”

For years, Lampman has reached out to the growing Vietnamese community in Chittenden County, and many of them comprise the employee base of the company.

Moving some of his distribution and packaging out of the current building will allow him to expand his production area and administrative offices, as well as opening up a training and education center.

That would be used to provide classes for the general public on chocolate making, as well as classes for some of LCC’s wholesale customers — a chocolate university, of sorts.

“Whole Foods, for example, which does make their own chocolate, can’t make enough of their own to keep up with demand, and so there might be a need for them to send their chocolate makers to be trained on how to make chocolate, and we could provide the training,” said Lampman.

On top of the financial and environmental benefits, Lampman is glad he can give the community a nicer looking building.

“I think it’s great to give back to the community with a better-looking building because I think it’s probably going to enhance the Pine Street business corridor,” he said. “The company has been a part of this community since we began, and it’s a great place to be.”