Candy Land: Southwestern Pa. chocolate producers dot the map
For many Pennsylvanians, the phrase “home, sweet home” has a whole other meaning.
The region is home to a chunk of companies specializing in chocolates and candies, many with recipes rooted in family history. These purveyors of treats concoct creations ranging from the decadent, such as hand-dipped, half-pound truffle eggs, to the whimsical, such as bunnies in every shape and size.
Each Easter, consumers comb this real-life Candy Land to find the just-right gifts for the treat lovers in their lives.
“We are the world's biggest sweet tooths!” says Pamela Whitenack, director of Hershey community archives, a resource for the study of famed confectioner Milton S. Hershey, his legacy and the community. The town is home to Hershey's Chocolate World, where guests can get a firsthand look at the history and creation of one of the country's most popular brands.
Whitenack says Pennsylvania is attractive to chocolatiers because of its many dairy farms and railroads. Both were key in Hershey's decision to start his business here, she says.
Pennsylvania has a rich history as a chocolate hotspot, says Clay Gordon, industry consultant and author of “Discover Chocolate.”
“The original colonies were enjoying chocolate from the very beginning,” he says. “It's not surprising a state like Pennsylvania continues that heritage.”
Benjamin Franklin sold chocolate in Philadelphia, and the city's port provided easy access to resources, he says. After Hershey's success based on his product's sweetness and affordability, more people began to produce chocolate locally.
“It makes sense there are a lot of highly thought of smaller chocolate makers in Pennsylvania,” Gordon says.
According to the National Confectioners Association, Easter is the second top-selling confectionery holiday behind only Halloween, with 88 percent of adults creating Easter baskets for their children. To keep those baskets stocked, companies make 90 million chocolate Easter bunnies and 16 billion jelly beans each year.
Here's a taste of the places where much of the region's Easter candy is made:
511 Adams Ave., Canonsburg, Washington County
724-745-4042 or www.sarriscandies.com
The chocolate-covered pretzel is synonymous with Sarris Candies Chocolate Factory & Ice Cream Parlor in Canonsburg. Double-coated with delicious Sarris chocolate, it's the company's biggest seller.
But, it's far from the only sweet treat in this place.
You can smell the chocolate the minute you step foot in the store. Just in time for Easter, shelves are lined with chocolate bunnies, crosses, peanut butter and fruit-and-nut eggs, jelly beans and baskets full of some of each.
In the next room, visitors admire the 2,600-pound, 8-feet-long, 12-foot-high chocolate and candy castle created by Bobby Veras, a confectionary designer who has worked there for 47 years. It gets changed for every season. It took three months to build after last year's fire. The cost of the candy ingredients in the castle is $130,000.
The candy is handmade and hand-packed. Creamy fillings are all made on-site. Bunnies can be 28 inches high and taller if they are custom ordered. New items include the bash cake, which is made of chocolate and comes with a toy hammer, so when you smash it, candy falls out. There are candy bars and candy shaped in the form of hockey pucks, golfers and basketball players. There are letters formed from chocolate and wrapped boxes full of peanut butter meltaways and caramels. Varieties include milk, dark and white chocolate.
They go through 5 million pounds of chocolate a year. During the busy season, Sarris ships 30,000 packages a month all over the world. In addition to the store, there are 1,300 locations that sell Sarris, from Giant Eagle to Hallmark to CVS.
— JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Betsy Ann Chocolates
322 Perry Highway, West View
412-931-4288 or www.betsyann.com
From the sugary, rich scent of warm chocolate in the air to the sight of speckled, malted milk eggs tucked into a chocolate bunny's basket, Betsy Ann Chocolates is about evoking memories of family traditions.
“We want your child to remember this 30 years from now,” owner Jim Paras says.
With eggs of all sizes, bunnies galore and a slew of other melt-in-your-mouth selections, Betsy Ann Chocolates is hard to forget. Generations of chocolate lovers have turned to them for their sugar fixes for 75 years.
Best-sellers are the half-pound American Original truffle eggs in flavors such as pecan caramel and cookies and cream. Other selections include marshmallow Peeps nestled into chocolate coconut nests, hollow egg halves holding a handful of jelly beans and creamy coconut Irish potatoes.
The Betsy Ann factory and retail store is in West View. Another retail location is at 4960 Route 8, Allison Park, plus the candy is sold in more than 50 retail and grocery stores, such as Macy's and select Shop N' Save stores.
— Rachel Weaver
Edward Marc Chocolatier
1705 E. Carson St., South Side
412-488-1808 or www.edwardmarc.com
This longtime Pittsburgh candy-maker has a few different names, which can be a little hard to keep straight. It began as a South Side soda fountain in 1914 run by Greek immigrants, and it is still known as The Milk Shake Factory for its ever-changing array of 55 flavors of milkshakes.
That, in itself, would be reason to visit. But this is also the main retail operation for Edward Marc Chocolatier, a high-end candy-maker with a national reach.
They do a bit of everything and specialize in customized chocolates. Particularly interesting is “The Capitol Collection” — chocolate representations of the White House and U.S. Capitol. This may have something to do with the fact that Edward Marc has a location inside the Pentagon. They also have a shop in Monroeville.
For Easter, they do all kinds of chocolate bunnies in some unique designs. The Split Eared Bunny Jr. ($4.50) and Floppy Ear Bunny ($4) are particularly nice. For more sophisticated tastes, put some Salted Caramels ($12) in your basket.
— Michael Machosky
Gene & Boots
2939 Pittsburgh Road, Perryopolis, Fayette County
800-864-4222 or www.geneandboots.com
Gene & Boots, a regional chain with a Fayette County factory, offers numerous chocolate bunnies in mostly milk chocolate, both hollow and solid, and the sizes range from a few inches to more than a foot tall; prices range from a few dollars to more than $65. Top sellers are the big chocolate eggs ($15.95 to $26.95), which come with fillings such as fruit and nuts, peanut butter, pecan turtle and maple walnut.
During the Easter season, Gene & Boots makes other seasonal chocolate figurines — including lambs and ducks — along with chocolate Kewpie dolls. Some Christian-themed chocolates — such as a rectangular chocolate re-creation of The Last Supper and chocolate crosses — also sell well during the early spring, says Ruth Bossart, an employee at the Gene & Boots in Century III Mall in West Mifflin.
Gene & Boots has six locations in Westmoreland, Washington, Fayette and Allegheny counties. The factory and headquarters are in Perryopolis, and you can order many items to be shipped by mail.
— Kellie Gormly
36 Prospect St., Etna
412-781-1499 or www.pollakscandies.com
From plates of truffles to solid-milk-chocolate tool kits, the counters at Pollak's Candies are filled with hundreds of ways to feed a sweet tooth.
But the big items this time of year are bunnies and eggs. Each store raffles off a 20-pound, 3-foot bunny. The shops also are filled with eggs. Prices start at $1.50 and move to $8.50 for a half-pound egg, $15.95 for a pounder and $79 for a five-pounder. Boxes of chocolate generally sell for $22.50 a pound.
Beth Weidner, one of the owners, says one of the more popular items year-round is the strawberry cordial, a good-sized treat filled with a berry and a runny sauce. They sell for $16.95 a pound, for which a buyer would get eight to 12, because they vary in size.
In addition to a shop at the factory in Etna, there are Pollak's Candies shops in Northgate Plaza in Harmony, Butler County and Pittsburgh Mills Mall in Frazer.
— Bob Karlovits
1228 Long Run Road (Route 48), White Oak
412-678-2723 or www.dorothyscandies.com
Long before Dorothy's Candies opened as a business in 1947, Dorothy Gastel was learning to appreciate finely crafted chocolates by her mother's side during the Depression. Now, the Swiss chocolate candies are made in White Oak, where they are created in the same building as the store. Although the company does a large volume of business, every piece is still handmade to a standard that takes three years of training to achieve.
For the past seven years, Dorothy's Candies has been chocolatier to Pittsburgh Opera, for which it created the Diva Divine, with walnuts and goji berries.
Shop online for the full array of Easter candies, truffles, confections, meltaways, fruit varieties, cremes, chips and pretzels, plus various assortments and gift baskets.
— Mark Kanny
Esther's Homemade Candies
1814 Brownsville Road, Carrick
412-884-4224 or www.esthershomemadecandy.com
You can call it Esther's Homemade Candies or Esther's Sweet Shop. Either way, the store in Carrick is celebrating its 40th anniversary making fine milk chocolates. Esther Wolfson's son, Robert, now adds his expertise with old-fashioned hard-tack candies.
Assortments mix pieces with fruit, nut and creme fillings, covered with milk or dark chocolate ($18 to $20 a pound). Other sweets include nonpareils, peanut brittle, caramel turtles and chocolate-covered pretzels and popcorn.
Easter candies include eight varieties of chocolates eggs, plus novelties such as bunnies running and standing. Other novelties include the Chocolate Emergency Kit, containing four each of their chocolate-covered pretzels, graham crackers and Oreos.
— Mark Kanny
209 Freeport Road, Arnold
A traffic cop helps direct customers when shoppers load up on Easter goodies just before the holiday at Valos Candy in Arnold.
Easter candy sales have overtaken Christmas at the store. Shelves display boxes of chocolate eggs, and baskets handle an assortment of small Easter shapes. Pieces range from $1 to a supersize, 10-pound decorative solid chocolate bunny for $149. Owner John Mandak says he uses 35 tons of chocolate a year to make candy. The recipe has been slightly tweaked over the years, but much of the candy is still made the old-fashioned way in large copper kettles. Some equipment is nearly 100 years old, but Mandak says using a machine for caramel would mean he'd have to change the texture of the piece — and he's not one to mess with perfection.
Mandak, who has run Valos since 1989, says most candymakers who opened shops in the 1940s in the Pittsburgh area were Greek, and owner Theodore Vasilopoulos was no exception when he opened in 1947 and shortened the company name to Valos. Valos is available in the Arnold store and in more than 50 grocery stores and card stores.
— Rebecca Killian
981 Fifth Ave., New Kensington
724-335-4371 or www.catoriscandy.com
Catoris Candy opened in 1938 in a thriving downtown New Kensington. Although walk-ins still browse for goodies, most of its business is corporate for Catoris. Two-pound assorted boxes are the biggest seller.
Current owner John Gentile says the recipe for the chocolate hasn't changed since the business opened. Just ask the 86-year-old hand-dipper employee who has been with the company from the start. The company uses 10,000 pounds of chocolate a year to make its products, including the most popular consumer item: “Mr. T's,” a chocolate-covered pecan and caramel delight. A new candy introduced this year — the “G.G.” — is named after Gentile's late mother who helped him in the shop. Layers of homemade caramel and divinity are coated in chocolate.
Catoris Candy also is available at Palmer's Drug Store in Russellton, West Deer.
— Rebecca Killian
901 Penn Ave., Downtown
412-235-7865 or www.sinfulsweetsonline.com
Downtown Pittsburgh workers heading back to the office after lunch often stop at Sinful Sweets for dessert.
Owner Christopher George Weck is ready for them with an ever-changing array of elegant, handmade chocolates, both traditional — turtles and almond bark — and new wave — chocolate-covered bacon strips or chocolate-coated peanut-butter Rice Krispie treats.
The shop first debuted in Lawrenceville but moved Downtown after it outgrew the space.
All the items are sold by weight, with prices ranging from $17.95 for a pound of hand-dipped sea-salt caramels to $60 for a pound of hand-rolled champagne truffles.
But Weck says customers are welcome to buy in any quantity — even a single chocolate-covered strawberry. Cake pops cost $1.90 to $2.40, and a large, dark-chocolate s'mores square usually weighs in at an affordable $2.99.
— Alice T. Carter
500 Grant Ave., Millvale
412-821-1387 or www.yetterscandies.com
This family-run business has been creating chocolate confections for 63 years.
In 1976, owners Ed and Arlene Carr took over the business from Arlene's parents, Elmer and Gert Yetter, who opened the store in 1950.
Yetter's decor hasn't changed much since then, which gives it a vintage feel. You can grab a stool at the counter and slurp up a milkshake or a sundae or buy sliced-to-order lunch meat from the deli case.
But handmade candies are the big draw. Most of the year, customers favor the classics — dark- or milk-chocolate turtles or chocolate-covered cherries ($23 per pound) and coconut clusters and peanut-butter meltaways ($21 per pound).
But around Easter, the must-have item is the store's soft-centered, chocolate-covered fruit-and-nut eggs ($15.95 per pound).
All of Yetter's candies are sold by weight, making it possible to buy a single piece or a 2-ounce portion of that fruit and nut egg.
— Alice T. Carter
621 E. First Ave., Tarentum
724-226-0866 or www.clarkcandies.com
A Tarentum institution for 76 years, Clark Candies is known for its pecan turtles, cordial cherries and other favorites, including its French chocolate Easter eggs, so soft they can be sliced.
Bob Clark, owner and president, says it's a good feeling to be a link in a chain of this family venture, started in 1937 by his father, Marlin “Bunny” Clark and his uncle, Joe Clark, both steelworkers.
“You are not going to find our chocolate formula anywhere else in Western Pennsylvania,” he says. “People got the taste of it and liked it.”
The manufacturing operation and store is at only one location, but Clark ships its array of chocolates throughout the country. “People who moved away say they can't get good candy where they live now,” Clark says.
“People know they can depend on it,” he says.
— Rex Rutkoski
408 Harrison Ave., Jeannette
724-523-3151 or www.wilsoncandy.com
For 66 years, Wilson's Candies in Jeannette has been turning out luscious milk, dark and ivory chocolates in a variety of shapes, sizes and packaging configurations, straight up or filled with fruits, nuts and creams.
Also available to satisfy the sweet tooth are chocolate-covered pretzels, graham crackers and potato chips; nonpariels; malted-milk balls; and coconut clusters.
“Everybody loves peanut butter,” owner Doug Wilson says, and accordingly, peanut-butter meltaways are the company's best sellers, with raspberry and strawberry cordials as close runners-up.
Easter season specialties include chocolate bunnies, chicks, eggs and other barnyard dwellers, and even exotica such as alligators and dinosaurs.
The factory and store are in Jeannette, with another store at Eastgate Plaza, Route 30 East, Hempfield.
— Shirley McMarlin
1010 W. State St., Baden
724-869-3018 or www.andersonscandies.com
Anderson's Candies, which will sell Easter candy through April 14, offers an array including 1-pound eggs ($14.95) with fillings including coconut, peanut butter and raspberry truffle. Anderson's also makes Easter-themed items such as crosses ($4.95) in milk and white chocolate, colorful foil-wrapped chocolate eggs ($8.50 for 7 ounces; $15.95 for 4 ounces), chocolate fish in milk, white or dark, with jellybeans ($7.75). Anderson's also makes the requisite chocolate bunnies: 6 ounces of milk, dark or white chocolate for $7.50; and white- or milk-chocolate sitting bunnies ($8.50 for 8 ounces, and $15.50 for 15 ounces). Anderson's Candies has been in business since 1916.
— Kellie Gormly
9717 Steubenville Pike, Bulger, Washington County
For more than 50 years, Andy's Candies has provided its signature chocolate to generations of sweet-toothed consumers. The Mizenko family has run the business for three generations, making a variety of year-round and seasonal specialties.
The company is known for a wide range of offerings, from pecan turtles to peanut-butter meltaways, assorted nuts, creams and caramels — even ice cream. This time of year, chocolate bunnies make their annual appearance, as do a wide variety of eggs in flavors such as chocolate pecan, fruit and nut and cashew meltaway.
— Rachel Weaver