Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Map of Ethel M Chocolates
2 Cactus Garden Drive, Henderson
Beyond the Sun
When billionaire candy tycoon Forrest Mars Sr. retired and moved to Henderson in the late 1970s, the man who invented M&Ms and the Mars bar wanted to make chocolates distinct from the ones that made him a fortune.
The man, referred to as a “modern day Willie Wonka” and the “Howard Hughes of candy,” chose a spot near Sunset Road and Mountain Vista Street and opened a gourmet chocolate factory named in honor of his mother.
When Ethel M Chocolates opened in 1981, it was surrounded by desert. Henderson’s population was a fraction of what it is today. Although the city around it has changed dramatically and its proprietor has died, 30 years later the factory is still making high-quality chocolates using the same recipes as the day it opened.
“The colors in the store may have changed. What happened outside of the building has changed. But inside here, nothing’s really changed that much,” said Jennifer Gudgel, Ethel M’s director of gourmet chocolate.
Over the years, Ethel M has become part of the flavor of Southern Nevada. It has retail stores throughout the valley, including four at McCarran International Airport; out-of-state tour buses frequently visit the factory; and the annual lights show on its three-acre cactus garden has become a holiday tradition for many.
The store has, of course, added candies along the way, but the chocolates that made Ethel M famous — the satin cremes, the liqueur-filled chocolates and almond butter crisps — are as popular as ever.
“The classics are still there,” Gudgel said. “The American palate loves caramels, nut clusters, and milk chocolate. You hear a lot about people liking dark chocolate now, and we see a bit of that trend, but ultimately people love what they love.”
Ethel M is quietly celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, marking it with a commemorative tin. Although there hasn’t been a lot of fanfare, the small factory is proud of its three decades in Henderson.
It’s unclear why Mars chose to settle here. Some speculate it’s because Nevada’s lax regulations allowed him to sell the liqueur-filled chocolates, which were illegal in other states. Gudgel said Mars was a savvy businessman, and knew he could make the chocolate factory a destination to capitalize on Las Vegas’ tourism industry.
“It’s one of the only Mars factories you can see into … Putting a chocolate store in the middle of the desert, you probably want to create some kind of attraction,” Gudgel said. “Here in Las Vegas, the whole world comes to us.”
The factory is designed to be tourist-friendly, with long windows giving visitors a look at the entire chocolate making process, from cooking the cocoa beans to packaging the finished product.
All of the chocolate, peanut butter and caramel is made in-house, and the factory also houses a test kitchen to innovate new candies for its parent company, Mars Inc.
Ethel M focuses on making fresh, high-end chocolates in small batches without preservatives. A typical day will see the factory producing 20 varieties of treats.
“All Ethel M Chocolates are made right here. They’re not made anywhere else,” Gudgel said.
Many of the recipes are the same Ethel Mars, Forrest Sr.’s mother and the factory’s namesake, used in her kitchen in 1911.
During the early years of Ethel M, Forrest Mars kept an apartment atop the factory and often worked on the lines with his workers, Gudgel said. Legend has it that on early mornings, he could be seen wandering the floor in his robe and slippers, doing quality control.
Gudgel said his work ethic and high expectations have left an impression.
“He set the bar high. We’re still a family-owned business, and our philosophy is if your name is on it, we want to put out the best product,” she said. “We give people what they’re looking for, and deliver it exceptionally.”