South Bend entrepreneur blends chocolate with love of dinosaurs as he realizes plans for museum
If Mark Tarner’s life story were turned into a movie, the result might be a combination of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Jurassic Park,” with a touch of “Knute Rockne All-American” mixed in.
Tarner is president of the South Bend Chocolate Co. and is a loyal Hoosier with a passion for paleontology. But he also sees a lot of George Bailey in himself — especially since the South Bend community is helping him realize his dream of a dinosaur museum when he thought the project faced extinction.
The South Bend Common Council committed $2.7 million, and Tarner committed $15 million of his own money to build the Indiana Dinosaur Museum. It also will include a new chocolate production plant, a South Bend Chocolate Co. Museum, and restaurant on an 88-acre site at the southwest corner of U.S. 31 and U.S. 20 west of the South Bend International Airport.
The museum project has good bones — it will contain fossils Tarner has collected over the years.
“Anyone that looks at this project can truly say it’s one of a kind,” said South Bend Mayor James Mueller, who believes it will “bring people here and capture visitors that are passing by.”
“He is an entrepreneur and in many ways a pioneer,” Mueller said of Tarner. “He is a businessman, but he is also a good community member who wants to go beyond just selling products.”
Tarner’s passion for both chocolate and collecting is a legacy passed down from his father, Don. He ran the Sugar ‘N Spice Chocolate Factory but “was always poking around, hunting for arrowheads.”
Tarner is also by nature a collector.
“I’m the guy who walks on the beach and has to collect every shell,” he said.
After graduating from Eastern Illinois University, he began working in his father’s candy company.
“I wanted to do everything else but the business,” he said.
He even played basketball in the early years of the university’s leap to Division I.
But with a master’s degree in European history, “there weren’t many jobs,” he said. “So, I went into making candy.”
He started the South Bend Chocolate Co. in 1991 and gained national prominence by entering into a licensing agreement with Notre Dame University.
The company produces such Notre Dame-themed products as the Domer, a chocolate truffle honoring students and alumni; the Rockne, a confection that might please the Gipper himself, a mound of premium American chocolate blended with coconut, almonds and a cherry flavoring; and Nuts for ND, which combines chocolates with cashews, almonds, pecans and filberts.
The company was also one of the first to coat caramel corn with chocolate, inspired by a suggestion from a woman visiting the Valparaiso store during the Popcorn Festival.
The company’s 60,000-square-foot factory at 3300 W. Sample St. in South Bend produces more than 500 different chocolates and sweets, which are sold in 11 company-owned stores in Northern Indiana and four franchise locations throughout Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
Tarner certainly puts his money where his mouth is — he eats about a quarter pound of chocolate every day.
His pursuit of fossils, he said, is not an academic one — it is a passion that stems from his entrepreneurial spirit.
“Entrepreneurs,” he said, “don’t follow the same paths and the same routines as other people.”
He does most of his digging in Montana in a high-plains desert area that is subject to erosion, exposing remnants from such periods as the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs lived.
Tarner said he has turned up such finds as what appears to be a new species of sauropod, which were characterized by long necks, long tails and bodies weighing up to 100 tons.
“The skull doesn’t look like any other long neck,” Tarner said.
Peter Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, is optimistic about Tarner’s find.
“Where he’s digging is a place that really hasn’t been looked at very much, and so the chances of it being new are pretty good,” Larson said.
His organization works with museums all over the world and has its own museum in Hill City, South Dakota.
“We always called him the ‘chocolate man’ because of his business,” Larson said.
Larson, who has helped Tarner identify his findings, just finished preparing a giant cast of a turtle, dating from a period about 80 million years ago, for the new museum.
“It’s the largest rain turtle that’s ever been found,” Larson said.
The museum project should be complete by March. Among the wonders will be the skeletons of 40-million-year-old dinosaurs. The combination of dinosaurs and chocolate will add up to a natural roadside attraction, Tarner said.
“I think chocolate is irresistible to mom. And dinosaurs are irresistible to the kids. So, dad’s going to have to pull over and suffer through it,” he said.
The project almost didn’t get off the ground. In 2017, the South Bend Redevelopment Commission gave Tarner the land, while South Bend invested $1.4 million for infrastructure improvements, which Mueller said will benefit other developments.
But the pandemic shutdown sent his company’s sales plummeting by 97 percent. As a result, he had to take money earmarked for the museum and use it to keep his company afloat. Meanwhile, construction costs soared 30 to 40 percent.
Fortunately, the federal government stepped in with about $1.76 million in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans, while South Bend’s Common Council approved the $2.7 million to build the museum and factory.
For Tarner, it’s truly a wonderful life in South Bend.
“When George Bailey had trouble, people came to help him. And I feel like that happened to me,” he said.
Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.