TOPEKA, Kan. — Americans aren't losing their taste for chocolate. Need proof? Look to Kansas, where candy giant Mars Inc. is operating its first new plant in 35 years to churn out millions of sweets every day.
Company officials had a grand opening Thursday for the sprawling, $270 million chocolate plant — which they say exists mostly to meet U.S. demand for its M&M's and Snickers-brand candy.
The plant, built south of Topeka, will be able to produce 14 million bite-sized Snickers each day, as well as 39 million M&M's, enough to fill 1.5 million fun-sized packs. The company expects the plant to be filling orders for another 50 years.
With the scent of chocolate in the air, dozens of workers in white uniforms and hairnets cheered as Gov. Sam Brownback helped turn a lever that brought the machines to life and signaled the official start of production.
"Somebody doesn't put this kind of money in, without having a long-term strategy," Brownback said after the ceremony. "They see a long-term, solid play."
It's a sweet deal for state and local officials, too. The 500,000-square-foot facility is bringing about 200 jobs to the Topeka area, and the company plans to open a store downtown for several weeks.
Local officials, who joined the company at the grand opening, also are earning the right to brag that Topeka's work force, central location and accessible site enabled the region to win the plant over several dozen other communities.
Matt Hudak, who follows the U.S. market for "impulse" foods as an analyst for market researcher Euromonitor International, said candy makers can expect to see annual growth in chocolate sales stay above 3 percent, making chocolate "a continual bright spot." He also said Mars has been good at introducing new products, such as pretzel M&Ms and bite-sized Snickers to keep consumers interested.