Inside the walls of Nestle’s Toronto factory, the smell of chocolate is inescapably thick.
Its six floors and four buildings produce more than 3.5 billion Smarties, as many as 500 million Kit Kat fingers and 23 million Coffee Crisp bars a year.
In all, 18,000 tonnes of confectionary are made here every year, around the clock, 364 days a year — closing only for Christmas.
The plant, located at 72 Sterling Rd., stands as a symbol that Toronto is still a place that not only makes and manufactures things, but does it proudly.
Massive long sinks and lint rollers line the hallways that feed into each chocolate bar’s floor. Hair nets, plastic glasses, slip-on shoes, hard hats and coats further protect from unwanted hair falling into the product. Earrings and wedding bands aren’t welcome, either.
Everything that comes into the factory is swabbed and tested to preserve its peanut-free environment.
The process is complex, overseen from central control rooms that map out floor plans with green and red lights that indicate malfunctions.
“It’s like a nuclear station,” jokes factory director Jamie Geddes.
The chocolate’s liquor (not in the alcoholic sense but rather meaning “liquid” or “fluid”) is imported and then custom-made for Canadians.
Not all Kit Kats, the company’s largest brand, are created equal — recipes vary by country, and Canadians prefer a lighter eat than their neighbours to the south, staff say.
“I’m not a big fan of American chocolate, let’s just leave it at that,” said Geddes.
“Once we get it (the profile) right, which we have, then it rarely changes,” echoed Chandra Kumar, who runs the confectionary side of Nestle’s business in Canada.
As a result, all of the chocolate made at 72 Sterling stays in Canada.
The Smarties undergo a 12-hour process that ends with spraying, coating and glossing in a floor-to-ceiling drum and begins with liquid chocolate pouring into cold, dimpled rollers before being shuffled down a conveyer belt to tumble in rotating buckets that remove rough edges like cement mixers.
The final product’s eight colours are volumetrically weighed and dumped in 45-gram batches into a turnstile of boxes, which machines then fold and seal.
Down a floor, the Kit Kat team prepares for Halloween. Thousands of bite-sized red packages flow off of conveyer belts and into industrial carts. Across the room, massive trolleys are stacked five feet high with fresh, yet-to-be cut wafers.
On the fifth floor, the smell of coffee from Nestle’s uniquely Canadian Coffee Crisp brand intoxicates. Here, a belt slices the wafers and feeds them under dripping warm chocolate and into a cooling tunnel.
Machines take care of a lot of the work, but more than 500 Torontonians work at 72 Sterling, packaging boxes, cleaning and monitoring. They rotate on 30-minute shifts to limit boredom and repetition.
And they are proud.
Lila Naraine and Mark Gouthro speak of “living five minutes away” while they pull defective bars that cooled too quickly or stuck together off the line and into soon-to-be recycled tubs.
Kumar glows speaking of the generations of people who have come and gone on the Nestle manufacturing lines since the early 1900s.
“The line is like your home. This is the place you work — you own the line, you see what’s happening and you try and course correct. It’s your house and you’re taking care of it,” he said.
They’re considering opening an outlet store in the city to give back and provide fresher chocolate to Torontonians than the products that end up on retail shelves.
And Nestle isn’t alone.
French’s has been manufacturing its restaurant ketchup in Toronto for years and began making its retail ketchup in North York this spring.
“It was a commitment to local, to closer to the farm, and to the communities that we work in, said French’s president, Elliott Penner. “It’s this whole sense of community, and Toronto’s got a great community. Our employees, when we talk about it, they lean in.”
And local breweries old and young are thriving, too.
Mandie Murphy lives in the east end of the city and started Left Field Brewery in 2013. Two years later, they moved into an old brick factory at 36 Flagstaff Dr., a couple of blocks from Murphy’s home, to meet demand.
“We’re literally embedded right in a residential neighbourhood. When you look out our front door you see the backyards of homeowners across the street, and that is quite rare,” Murphy said. “I think there’s a big resurgence right now of consumers that are interested in knowing where the things that they consume are made and meeting and knowing the people that make the things that they consume.”
Bellwoods Brewery owner Luke Pestl, who has lived in the Ossington area for 12 years and grew up in North York, now has business ties to both of his “hometowns.” Bellwoods opened on Ossington in 2012 and expanded to an industrial brewery in North York last year.
“Beer blurs the line between a straight commodity. It’s something you’re consuming and in a way it’s a romantic product people want to be tied to,” he said. “It’s not some prepackaged product that’s shipped across the world.”
Great Lakes Brewery’s roots go back much further. They’re celebrating their 30th anniversary, most of them in Etobicoke.Troy Burtch, Great Lakes’ spokesperson, snakes through mazes of beer fermenters wearing a Blue Jays jersey because he’s going to the game later. He jokes about how Great Lakes’ 40-plus employees have fun drinking the Kool-Aid their “fiercely independent brewery” makes just off of the Gardiner Expressway at 30 Queen Elizabeth Blvd.
Thirty years later, they still take pride in a local brewery’s little details; the “packaged on” dates at the bottom of their cans, the cartoon characters a Toronto artist creates for each of their brews, and the malt, hops and yeast they pay more for to get locally.
Great Lakes recently bought fermenters from a manufacturer four kilometres down the road, rather than cheaper Chinese alternatives.
“It’s one of my proudest things to be able to support another local business by buying these tanks up. It’s amazing that we can be so close,” said owner Peter Bulut.
“It cost more money, but at the end of the day we feel the quality is better and we’re supporting a local company the way we always tell people to support a local brewery,” echoed Burtch.
In 2017, they’ve already released 55 one-of-a-kind brews from their three new experimental fermenters, taste-tested before hitting the market by loyal regulars on their new patio.
“If they say, ‘Oh, I think you’re onto something,’ then we’ll ramp it up,” Burtch said, smiling.
Inside, they’re constantly expanding while still attempting to hold it together in a 1950s building.
Much of their kegging still isn’t automated, which is now the industry norm, leaving Torontonians to work long night shifts lifting 200-pound kegs for cleaning and tapping. Their “event room” can’t currently welcome guests. It’s overflowing with excess parts and packaging.
“We’re not a spit and polish brewery, we’re a nuts and bolts brewery. We’re a real working brewery and there are some warts to the building,” Burtch said.
Like Nestle, none of the things they make are sold outside Canada.
Cheers to that.