Last year, Glenn Mueller created a monster. As befits a man whose nom de guerre is Dr. Chockenstein, his monster is of the edible variety.
Officially called the Monstrosity of Chocolate Proportions, Mueller’s latest contribution to the confectionery his parents started 35 years ago is a combination of various sweets — namely, a Rice Krispie treat, a chocolate chip cookie, an Oreo, a marshmallow and a peanut butter cup — hand-dipped in chocolate and stacked together to create a tower.
Right now, the towers come decorated for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Philadelphia, crowned by a cross or a ferula. Themed or unthemed, each one retails for $10, and they’ve been selling well.
The towers don’t sell anywhere near as briskly as Mueller’s chocolate-covered pretzels, which are made one tray at a time from Tom Sturgis twists, and fly off the shelves almost faster than staff can hand-dip them. They come in milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate or peanut butter, and they’re the Reading Terminal Market shop’s best seller.
Hold the onions
The towers are also outsold by one of the most unlikely confections ever created: the chocolate covered onion.
“I guarantee you we sell at least one every day,” said Mueller, who officially took over as president of the company a year ago. “People stand out there and eat them, laughing their asses off.”
Why would anyone voluntarily bite into a raw onion, even if it is coated with a chocolate shell? The challenge. In 2012, TV star Andrew Zimmern filmed an episode of Bizarre Foods in Philadelphia, and the onion was one of his finds. Thanks to the show, the chocolate onion went semi-viral — it even got its own Twitter page — and people regularly buy and try the sugar-coated allium on a dare.
“It’s one of the only ‘weird’ things Zimmern eats on that show that you can easily go and buy,” Mueller pointed out. “If he’s eating cow intestines on some Wisconsin farm, the farmer isn’t going to make that for a regular customer. But with the onion, you can just walk up to the window and buy it.”
TV is responsible not only for the onion’s popularity, but also for its origin. In 1983, a comedian named Bob Nelson produced a half-hour-long show in Philadelphia called Double Muppets Hold the Onions. The film studios were right across the street from the Bourse, where Mueller Chocolate then had a storefront. Nelson asked Mueller’s father, Glenn Mueller Sr., to create the chocolate covered onions so he could use them in the show’s opening gag: the onions were held like a bouquet by a hand that smashed through the title card.
“My dad thought it was really hilarious, so he kept making them,” said Mueller, who confirmed the confection is built around a garden-variety yellow onion from fellow RTM merchant Iovine.
Chocolate covered onions aren’t even the most interesting thing Mueller sells. There are chocolate cheesesteaks garnished with a white chocolate streak of Whiz and chocolate handcuffs that are equally appropriate for cops or fetishists.
Eat your heart out
But the creativity prize would have to go to the anatomically correct body parts — solid chocolate in the shapes of human organs.
Foil-wrapped chocolate hearts from your beau? Ho hum. Anatomically correct chocolate heart? Now you’re talking.
That’s what Mueller’s mother Terry was thinking when she first came up with the idea 15 years ago. After confirming proper dimensions and going over correct physiology with a surgeon friend, she had a custom mold created from food-grade plastic, and introduced her anatomically-correct hearts just in time for Valentine’s Day, 2000.
They were a smash hit. After the Associated Press picked up the story, Terry’s photo was featured on the front page of an Australian newspaper — right next to an article topped by a photo of President Bill Clinton.
“It never slowed down after that,” laughed Mueller. “We’ve sold thousands of them.”
Now the heart is just one in a series. You can buy a chocolate brain with the label, “You’re always on my mind.” A chocolate eyeball is tagged, “I only have eyes for you.” Chocolate feet bear the tagline “Open mouth, insert foot,” and a chocolate palm and five fingers sits in a box with a cheeky message: “Hand over all your chocolate.” There are chocolate lungs and chocolate kidneys and chocolate noses.
Now ear this
There are also chocolate ears, which are hailed as the “Mike Tyson Special — Ears that are OK to bite!” On January 1, 2014, Iron Mike himself even got in on the joke, tweeting a photo with the message, “Happy ‘New Ears’!!!”
Although Tyson’s tweet went viral, and media outlets around the world picked up the story, Mueller Chocolate Co. (then called Chocolates by Mueller) was rarely mentioned.
That’s fine by Dr. Chockenstein, who’s already struggling to keep up with ever-growing demand. On July 4, he launched a second Mueller Chocolate storefront on the Huntindgon Pike in Rocklege, a location that also houses a 3,000-square-foot production facility (previously all production was done in the relatively tiny space at Reading Terminal Market).
Asked why his product is so popular, Mueller pointed to its accessibility.
“There’s all this snobby chocolate out there now, but this is not that. This is true American chocolate — it’s not cheap and grainy or sugary, but it’s not super rich. It’s not above the average person’s palate. And people line up for it every day.”