Redstone Candy thrives in sweetest season
A few days ago, George Bashour shipped a package to North Pole, Alaska.
Yes, Virginia, there really is a North Pole -- and some of its residents are enjoying Redstone candy this holiday season.
Alaska is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where Redstone's candy is shipped at Christmastime.
With its familiar red poinsettia-decorated boxes, Redstone is a Southwestern Pennsylvania yuletide icon.
"Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are UPS's largest customer in Fayette County," said George Bashour. He and his brother Dave and their cousin Jim are co-owners of Redstone Candy and its sister company, Redstone Distributing Co., both in the same building along New Salem Road in Republic, Redstone Township.
Tons of chocolate are produced and packaged at the family owned factory starting around Labor Day and ending a few days before Christmas Day.
Candy and coal mines
It all began when an ice cream parlor in Republic and the United Mineworkers Union crossed paths 65 years ago and made sweet history.
Dave and George Bashour's grandparents, the late Albert and Josephine Bashour, opened a confectionery on Main Street in Republic in the late 1930s when Main streets were "the" place to go to have a fun time.
"They made homemade ice cream and sold candies. They also sold sandwiches," George Bashour said. "It was like the place on 'Happy Days' (the 1970s TV show)."
After World War II, Albert and Josephine began experimenting with homemade fudge, as well as hand-dipped chocolate nut clusters.
People enjoyed the treats and the word spread in Fayette County. In those days, the region's coal mines were operating at full tilt. The Bashours were approached by the local UMW.
"One of the mine unions wanted to give candy to their workers for Christmas," Dave Bashour explained. "They asked Grandad (Albert) if they could buy it from them."
He agreed and that's how the company started.
Blue collar roots
Dave and George Bashour are proud of their company's blue-collar roots -- roots so deep they remain entwined on a simple, heartfelt premise.
"Redstone Candy has always believed in a high-quality product at a fair, consistent price," George Bashour said. "Everyone should be able to enjoy great chocolates at Christmas."
He and Dave remember their grandparents fondly. The Bashours immigrated to America from Syria in the 1920s, bringing their young son, George, (Dave and George's father) with them. Eventually, the family settled in Republic, where Albert decided to open his store.
"Grandpa wasn't a tall man, but he was a sharp dresser. He had a good head for business," George Bashour said.
"They were dedicated, hard workers," Dave Bashour added. "My dad, George, spent many 15-hour days at the factory when they first started the business. My mom, Agnes, also helped. She was in charge of the packing crew."
In 1947, the Bashours sold their retail chocolate shop and moved to a another building in Republic to produce their candy. Several years later, they opened a second business -- Redstone Distributing Co., which operates as a wholesaler of Redstone's products, as well as many other types of confections.
Premier assortment born
During the business' early years, Albert designed Redstone's Premier Assortment for Christmastime. Today, that assortment is basically the same: three types of nut clusters (peanuts, cashews, pecans); coconut clusters, chocolate squares with almonds and Brazil nuts, and peanut butter logs.
Albert's sons George (now deceased) and Henry (now retired and in his 80s) worked alongside their father to grow the business.
When Dave and George were youngsters, their family lived in an apartment above their first factory. They grew up smelling chocolate even in their dreams because the candy was made at night.
"I can still hear the sound of the machines in my head," George Bashour said.
As boys, they grew up helping in the factory, as in most family businesses. "We came home from school, changed clothes and went to the store to help out," Dave Bashour said.
The Red Poinsettia
The first batches of candy for the coal miners were packaged in plain white cardboard boxes. But as popularity grew, the Bashours wanted a unique holiday logo. They turned to Joe Hovanec, Dave and George's uncle, who was a graphic artist in New York City. Hovanec designed the red poinsettia artwork that is so recognizable today.
"We modernized it a bit a few years ago, but we'll always keep the poinsettia," Dave Bashour said. "It's Redstone Candy's symbol."
Tens of thousands of the familiar poinsettia boxes are manufactured each year by a Pittsburgh company. Dave Bashour said they buy their raw materials and packaging from local firms whenever possible. "Our local residents support us, so we, in turn, want to do business with them."
"Even though the majority of our candy is sold stateside, we do ship our Christmas candy overseas, especially to the military," George Bashour said. "Those military personnel look forward to their shipment of Redstone Christmas candy. It's part of their hometown tradition."
Redstone Candy and Redstone Distributing Co. have been at their current location along New Salem Road since 1985. Built in the 1960s, the structure was previously occupied by Redstone Sportswear Co. It was refurbished and retooled for the candy business and has been able to handle the growing demand for Redstone's seasonal products. They have added onto the structure three times and now have nearly 40,000 square feet of manufacturing, office and storage space.
Year-round, they employ 10 people full time and seasonally, they add 20 part-time workers. "We have some people working here as older adults who started working here seasonally when they were in high school," Dave Bashour said.
Many varieties available
Redstone offers many variations of its familiar products at Christmas. They listen to requests and have added items, such as chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolate-covered marshmallows and chocolate-covered Oreo cookies.
This year, they produced a dark chocolate line of products, which has been well-received. However, the original Premier Assortment remains its mainstay. The biggest seller -- both in retail outlets and mail-order Internet sales -- is the one-pound Premier Assortment, according to Dave Bashour .
The "little candy company that could" is now selling chocolate by the tractor-trailer load, but it has kept its homespun traditions. Workers still hand-dip each nut cluster. The chocolate squares are made by depositing chocolate into molds filled with nuts using a machine called a chocolate depositor. Each candy box is packaged piece-by-piece by hometown workers.
As George Bashour pointed out, "Four generations have grown up with Redstone Candies. It has become a Christmas tradition in this area and has now expanded nationally."
Partners in Time
Redstone Candy began as a mom-and-pop shop that sold chocolates to local coal mines as Christmas gifts for mining employees.
Sixty-five years later, it has expanded into a bustling manufacturer that distributes candy throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as parts of West Virginia and Ohio.
Business has never been better, according to co-owners Dave and George Bashour.
"We are a seasonal business," said George Bashour. "Unlike most local candy companies, we don't sell chocolates year-round."
Although Redstone does a brisk business at Easter and, to a lesser extent, for Valentine's Day, it's Christmas that keeps it thriving.
Tons of chocolates are produced at the Fayette County factory between late summer and Christmas. Their mail and website orders are shipped across the country and around the world. But its retail accounts eclipse all shipments, comprising 88 percent of total receipts.
The retail success can be traced back to another Fayette County business icon: Pechin's Grocery of Dunbar. Both Redstone Candies and Pechin's were founded in 1947 -- and they've been doing business together almost that long.
"Pechin's was our first major retail account," said Dave Bashour. "We've been dealing with them for more than 50 years."
According to the Bashour brothers, the late Sullivan Damico (Pechin's founder), expressed an interest in stocking Redstone's candy at his grocery story during the Christmas holiday.
"We created a special four-pound box for Pechin's. That's what Mr. Damico requested," Dave Bashour said.
Today, Redstone's Premier Assortment comes in four sizes: one-, two-, three- and five-pound boxes.
"But Pechin's was our only retailer who ever carried the four-pounder," said Dave Bashour.
Redstone remains a holiday mainstay at Pechin's, according to Amy Damico, who owns and operates the store along with her father, Don Damico Sr., and her brother, Don Jr. "People come from all over to buy it. They wait for it. They really love it."
The growing retail trend helped Redstone to weather the demise of the region's coal mines.
"We also lost a lot of organizational business in recent years," added George Bashour. "Fire companies that held bingos often would order candy as gifts for their players. So would social clubs. That's not as common today."