Mark Tarner’s office is a little messy.
Blueprints, posters, memos, a dinosaur fossil or two, and, of course, remnants of chocolate treats are strewn such that Mark jokes his employees have referred to his office as “hell.”
Depending on who and what one reads about what clutter and disorganization say about a person, one will find some studies and articles indicating a little mess is correlates to creativity, intelligence, multiple interests and even genius.
While Mark likely does not consider himself a genius, he does not shy away from identifying himself as a creative, an innovator, a man with diverse interests and an advocate and example of experiential learning. The founder and owner of South Bend Chocolate Company has been building his Michiana chocolate empire since the early 1990s, guided by what he calls a “just doing it” philosophy.
“Everybody is always curious,” he says. “They say to me, ‘Well, how can you do this?’ And I just do it. People are always attracted to people who have success in their mind and seem to do the impossible, but it’s just hard work.”
Now with more than a dozen SBCC locations and shipments that reach all 50 states, Mark is turning his creativity, ingenuity and eclectic interests back to South Bend.
This spring, Mark hopes to break ground for SBCC’s new factory on a property off the intersection of US-20 and US-31 near the South Bend International Airport. The factory is to be the home not only of SBCC’s chocolate production and museum of chocolate memorabilia, but also the home of South Bend’s own dinosaur museum, featuring Juliet, the skeleton of a duckbilled dinosaur dug up in Montana by none other than Mark himself.
The destination of sweet treats and paleontology is a Mark original representing a crossing of his work and his play, the combination of his profession and his hobby and the next phase of South Bend’s economy and tourism.
“I think if I do it right, I think it’s really going to increase tourism in South Bend and the region,” Mark says.
The idea for a new factory and tourist destination began with an offer from the state of Michigan. According to Mark, he was offered land and a special deal by the state to build a tourist factory. Although he did not take the offer, it planted a “kernel of an idea” that Mark entertained for the last several years.
As he thought about his company’s home base in South Bend and all the city had to offer visitors, let alone its own citizens, Mark realized it might be time to offer Michiana more than just chocolate. Why not some dinosaurs?
“My goal sort of evolved into growing a one-of-a-kind, year-round attraction,” Mark says.
Summer is SBCC’s slowest time of year, according to Mark, even for the Chocolate Café in St. Joseph, Michigan where beach goers flock to Lake Michigan’s shores. Mark wants to direct summer tourists and travelers getting off at the airport to South Bend, where there are candies to be devoured and fossils to be admired.
“We’ll have one of the largest tourist attractions. Moms can have chocolates, and the kids can scream and yell and be scared by dinosaurs,” Mark says.
For Mark, building the new factory and museum is not just an effort to bring more tourist traffic to South Bend, or even to solidify his company for the coming years. Mark is looking at a larger portrait of a changing economy and the interests of younger consumers in an attempt to guide South Bend’s business focus and inspire coming generations to take risks.
“Our economy is constantly changing and evolving faster than ever before. Younger people want to pay for experiences. Experiences drive their buying decisions,” Mark says. “It seems like the logical thing to do. It’s risky, unique and it combines both my vocation and avocation.”
Mark is a believer that education systems fail young people by inadvertently making them believe there are only a handful of career paths, or that divergent work and creating niche projects won’t serve them. By pursuing the construction of the new factory and museum, Mark hopes to change that narrative for South Bend’s future entrepreneurs.
“Our society is skewed toward test scores and degrees being a measurement of your intelligence. I think curiosity, tenacity, risk taking, negotiating skills and all these other things might be a little more important than if you know advanced trig,” Mark says. “I think this generation is the most educated generation ever, but we’ve lost the fact that we’re mammals, and the number one way mammals learn is through mimicking their parents. I’m very convinced that regardless of where you come from you’ll mimic your parents. So if your dad is a business man, you’re likely to be a business man. My dad was a candy maker.”
Mark has found younger generations that work for him are drawn to him because he shows them how to work hard and play hard and achieve their goals along the way. For Mark, his employees are like his family, so he tries to be the surrogate parent they can “mimic” and look up to. In his experience, building a chocolate company and digging up dinosaur bones have been more than methods for making money, they have been tools for equipping South Bend for the future, even if his office gets a little messy along the way.
“I think a lot of millennials like me because I teach them things, and nothing’s beneath me. I think in many ways the younger generation has been one that has grown up without heroes,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll be able to inspire a bunch of [them] to go out and change the world.”