Chocolate maker shares vision for unique museum
South Bend businessman, chocolatier and restaurateur Mark Tarner is also a non-degreed dinosaur expert with more than two decades of experience searching for prehistoric bones. Tarner, who launched the South Bend Chocolate Co. three decades ago, is using his savviness for sweets and his passion for paleontology to create an agritourism destination in St. Joseph County. The Indiana Dinosaur Museum will feature his collection of ancient discoveries along with a new chocolate factory to manufacture those signature treats.
“It’s going to be like the Disneyland of agritourism,” touted Tarner in an interview with Inside INdiana Business.
Construction has already begun on the 90-acre complex located on the northwest side of South Bend. It will include a 60,000-square-foot factory, an 18,000-square-foot museum, as well as a restaurant, farmers market, hiking trails, and room for supporting retail.
“I want to create a year-round attraction where hiking and sustainability are a part of that. I think it’s going to be agritourism on steroids,” explained Tarner, who sees strength in the agritourism industry in northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
LISTEN: Tarner provides details of the property layout.
The South Bend Chocolate Co. is building a 60,000-square-foot plant on the northwest side of South Bend. It’s part of a 90-acre campus that will include the Indiana Dinosaur Museum. (image provided)
Aerial view of the new South Bend Chocolate Co. plant in South Bend. It’s scheduled to open in early 2024. (photo provided)
Artist rendering of the new South Bend Chocolate Co, factory under construction in St. Joseph County. The plant will be located on a 90-acre site that includes the Indiana Dinosaur Museum, which is also under development by South Bend businessman Mark Tarner. (image provided)
The location will have the added attraction of candy production that offers an industrial tour. He says the new plant will replace the current production facility that is located in a 100-year-old building. Total investment will be approximately $20 million, of which $15 million comes from Tarner and his wife. The city of South Bend has also provided approximately $4 million.
Tarner explained the concept of fossils and fudge is not so far-fetched.
“Everybody thinks you’re crazy. It’s probably a strange thing. Chocolate is my profession, and paleontology is my passion. And I’ve combined the two. One kind of fed into the other,” said Tarner.
Tarner started South Bend Chocolate about 30 years ago, opening additional locations in Indianapolis, Michigan City and southwest Michigan. He also created a successful wholesale candy business. If that weren’t enough, he started a new restaurant two years ago called the South Bend Public House. Just this week, the company opened another location in Mishawaka. The Indiana Dinosaur Museum complex will include a third location.
That active schedule requires some “shut down” time for Tarner. He says spending time out west each year gives him a break from his profession to pursue his passion.
“I have a camp out in Montana, and I can’t get cell phone coverage,” said Tarner. “The paleontology gives me something like an internal peace. It gives me quiet. It’s a completely different field [than chocolate]. And it’s been very personally satisfying. It’s like woodworking,” Tarner explained.
Like many construction projects, Tarner has faced the supply chain challenges over the past two years. But the real challenge came on the heels of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The pandemic hit, and our sales dropped 97% in 96 hours. We were in three hospitals, the airport, some of my larger accounts didn’t pay me, because they were having problems,” shared Tarner.
Undeterred, he kept pushing forward on his plan for an agritourism destination with a planned opening in early 2024.
Tarner expects to create 144 full-time jobs and attract roughly 150,000 visitors a year.
“Northern Indiana is a neat place. I love it. A lot of people drive thru and yawn. I’m going to get them to stop pay attention. Understand that this is a great place,” Tarner said.
He wants visitors to see, touch and learn about the Jurassic finds resulting from his decades in the dirt.
“When kids come into that museum, I want them to be excited and realize that anybody can do it, you don’t have to have a fancy degree from an Ivy League school. It’s something that you can be passionate about,” shared Tarner. “I’m going to bring evolution to life. So, when you walk out of that museum, you aren’t a little bewildered. You’re informed and you’re excited.”