In Chocolate, a Durable Business

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Tom Krustangel delivered plenty of sweetness to last week’s Democratic National Convention – 250 pounds, to be exact.

Krustangel, who owns Montana Tom’s Chocolate Factory and Cannery with his wife near Columbia Falls, sent 2,400 chocolate animals and 1,000 other cocoa delights to Denver for Montana’s delegates to nibble on during their stay. Though the Democratic Convention was a first for Krustangel, he has grown accustomed to a diverse clientele. His chocolate is in high demand, no matter how bad the economic times are.

He likens chocolate to alcohol and cigarettes, both of which have recession-resistant qualities.

“People have a hard time giving up their chocolate or their smokes or their booze,” Krustangel said.

According to the National Confectioner’s Association, chocolate sales generated $23.5 billion in the United States last year. Krustangel said his business has remained steady throughout the recent turbulent financial times. Part of that, he said, is people’s persistent desire for chocolate, but another factor is the consistent stream of tourists coming to the Flathead. Also, he said his local base is always strong.

Chocolate Grizzly Bear Paws point the way into the kitchen where Nancy Martin is breaking up peanut brittle at the Montana Tom’s production building off U.S. Highway 2 near Columbia Falls.

“People might not spend as much, but nevertheless they are spending money in Northwest Montana,” Krustangel said.

A peek inside Krustangel’s two manufacturing facilities off of U.S. Highway 2 is a lesson in efficiency and a glimpse of how large operations can thrive without fancy machinery. One building is for chocolate, fudge and ice cream while the other is for baking and canning. Everything at Montana Tom’s is done by hand, from the chocolate to the barbecue sauces to the actual packaging. Chefs cook down fruit on stovetops while flaky piecrusts bake in nearby ovens. Everybody’s busy.

When the finished products are ready for packaging, workers apply each individual piece of foil, paper or cellophane without mechanical aid.

“This is a labor of love,” Krustangel said. “We put out an amazing amount of product from this small facility.”

While Krustangel is in charge of manufacturing, his wife, Carol, manages the retail end of the business. The company has retail available both online at www.montanatom.com and at the manufacturing facility, as well as at a store in Whitefish, which Carol operates.

Montana Tom’s is known not only for its chocolate, but also a variety of other sweets and gourmet foods, ranging from his ready-to-eat “Pie in the Jar” to a zesty mustard sauce to a smoky four-pepper salsa. The “Pie in the Jar” has been featured on the Food Network three times, Krustangel said. It is exactly what it sounds like: home-baked piecrust intermixed with one of five fruit fillings, packaged conveniently inside a jar. Krustangel said people can remove the pie from the jar and eat it heated or cold, or they can just “open the jar and attack with a spoon.”

Among Montana Tom’s other goods, which are mostly natural and often organic, are fudge, huckleberry barbecue sauce, garlic marinara, a variety of fruit vinegars and vinaigrettes, and more. His ice cream, which he says “taste like ice cream used to taste,” is gaining popularity, having landed on the menus of various local restaurants.

Tom Krustangel describes how insulating his shipping boxes with Styrofoam creates a mini cooler which help his product reach its destination without melting.

“Our reputation is based on chocolate but our other food products have created their own reputations,” Krustangel said.

Eleven years ago, Krustangel had grown tired of the constant travel required by his manufacturing jobs, which included a stint at Semitool. Seeking a career change, he said cuisine was an obvious choice. He was always a fan of food, stemming from when he was a young boy and his father, who was a merchant mariner, returned regularly with chocolate and goodies from around the world. Krustangel said he has been cooking since he was 4 years old.

Using his background in food and the organizational skills he learned in manufacturing, he began researching chocolate and purchasing samples from respected chocolatiers in Korea, Mexico and, of course, Belgium. Today Krustangel still only uses famous Callebaut chocolate. People can taste the quality, he said.

“There’s no such thing as bad chocolate,” Krustangel said, “but there are different magnitudes of excellence.”

Krustangel has 250 regular accounts nationwide and has shipped to 68 countries. He installs Styrofoam liners inside the shipping boxes, which allows him to send his goods to almost anywhere at any time of the year, as long as it arrives within three days. But he said the heart of his business requires no shipping: It’s right here in the Flathead.

From Oct. 1 to Nov. 15, Krustangel said Montana Tom’s will have a local appreciation sale where all products are 25 percent off.

“I’m saying thank you to the Flathead Valley for these last 10 years,” he said.