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When the going gets tough, the tough eat chocolate

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Katharine Hepburn's favorite almond truffles at Mondel Chocolates in New York (Photo by Daniele Pinto/CNS)

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A Ghiradelli Chocolate display at Westside Market in New York (Photo by Daniele Pinto/CNS)

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A Ghiradelli Chocolate display at Westside Market in New York (Photo by Daniele Pinto/CNS)

With customers continuously stepping in and out, Mondel Chocolates is not feeling the bite of the recession. For the Upper Manhattan store where Katharine Hepburn used to buy chocolate turtles and almond truffles to ease her love pain—describing them as “the best in the world”—business is just fine.

“We’re as busy as always,” manager Paula Blat said, standing between the chocolate counter and a cabinet full of flower-printed tin boxes, ready to be filled with delicacies. “There is always an excuse to buy chocolate.”

In this wilting economy, consumers might find more than one excuse not to. As Americans across the country rediscover the art of belt-tightening, abandoning the idea of a new car or a nice relaxing cruise to the Caribbean, truffles might seem to be something that many would do without. But in fact, consumers are spending more.

According to a report issued by Mintel, a market research company, chocolate sales rose steadily by more than 4 percent in 2008, reaching an estimated total of $17 billion. Despite the continuing economic crisis, the report forecasts this year’s chocolate sales to rise even further, to $17.7 billion.

These scrumptious numbers represents an unusual countertrend at a time of shrinking consumer spending. Chocolate, confectioners say, is the last easy indulgence at a time of deprivation. Some industry leaders and analysts even suggest that Americans could be gobbling more of the velvety sweets to ease their anxieties about the future.

“Finding a really nice piece of chocolate that you love is something really affordable,” said Susan Fussel, a spokesperson of the National Confectioners Association. A good piece of chocolate, she continues, can cost less than a dollar and people can indulge without unduly affecting their budgets. “You feel like you did something good for yourself.”

In addition to the overall chocolate market, Fussel’s association reports a dramatic sales spike in gourmet chocolate, a higher quality and more expensive product. Sales of premium chocolate—which has a minimum price of $8 per pound and can reach $60 per pound—grew by 30 percent both in 2007 and in 2008, Fussel says. Sales are expected to increase 20 percent this year.

“People are buying more expensive chocolate,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel International Group, highlighting a consumer shift from lower quality to a more sophisticated chocolate product. Her firm’s report shows that only 31 percent of consumers prefer “regular” chocolate brands—such as Hershey’s and Nestlé—to fancier names such as Ghirardelli and Godiva.

Fabrizio Parini sees the same trend. He is the senior vice president of marketing for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., one of the fastest growing U.S. confectioner companies. When Swiss chocolate giant Lindt & Sprüngli bought the company in 1998, it had a clear vision: to make the California-based Ghirardelli an American chocolate leader. Premium chocolate sales, Parini says, aren’t shrinking in these hard times because of what he calls “psychological compensation:” consumers make up for what they’re giving up in the recession by gobbling more expensive chocolate.

“There is a huge price difference between a premium car and a standard one,” he explained. But with chocolate, he points out, the difference between low and high quality chocolate amounts to a few dollars. “When people are cutting anywhere else, at least they can have a good piece of chocolate as a reward.”

William Zuerlein shares Parini’s opinion. “It’s comfort food,” explained the 47-year-old furniture retailer while biting into an oval-shaped bonbon outside of Li-Lac Chocolates, in Greenwich Village. “People are depressed, they’re unhappy with their job, and they want a little chocolate to make them feel better.”

Godiva Chocolatier Inc., one of the world’s most renowned gourmet brands, also registered a consistent increase in sales in its 275 North America boutiques. “America’s appetite for chocolate remains strong,” said Jim Goldman, president of Godiva Worldwide. With the recession, he says, consumers are demanding superior quality in products as a prerequisite to purchase. “Consumers are coming to treat themselves to a piece or two, indicating that there is still a need to treat yourself despite the economic downtown.”

Although scientists disagree on the mood-boosting effects of cacao on the brain, some consumers and doctors insist that chocolate has physical and psychotropic properties, making it the best answer to sadness and anxiety.

“You don’t need to eat a lot of chocolate to feel better,” said Jackie Gordon, owner of Divalicious Chocolate in Manhattan.

Her cozy store in the trendy area of Nolita is both a sit-down café, with anything chocolate on the menu— from fondue to mocha drinks—and a shop that specializes in chocolate as comfort food. The shelves are stacked with treats that reach to Americans’ childhood memories, such as chocolate-covered graham crackers, rocky roads and Oreos.

“A little goes a long way,” said Gordon. “It’s the last luxury.”

E-mail: dp2421@columbia.edu