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Easter a busy season for Perryopolis chocolatier

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 6:09 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Cheryl Potter trims the excess chocolate from a molded bunny at Gene and Boots Candies in Perryopolis on March 26, 2014.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Betsy Brown hand-dips Brazil nuts in sugar-free chocolate. Brown has been employed for 25 years at Gene and Boots Candies in Perryopolis.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Irma Strother decorates solid chocolate bunnies at Gene and Boots Candies in Perryopolis on March 26, 2014.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Peanut butter eggs are covered in chocolate at Gene and Boots Candies in Perryopolis on March 26, 2014.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Peanut butter eggs are made for Easter at Gene and Boots Candies in Perryopolis on March 26, 2014.

Her fingers functioning like paintbrushes, Betsy Brown deftly slathers Brazil nuts with chocolate one by one in preparation for the crush of candy-craving customers at Easter-time.

She works inside the cavernous factory of Gene & Boots Candies, the 83-year-old Perryopolis-based business that prides itself on old-fashioned techniques and personal customer service.

At Gene & Boots — with stores in Charleroi, Salem Township, Latrobe, South Union Township and West Mifflin — Easter-time is like other retailers' Black Friday.

To prepare for the store's busiest season, a dozen workers produce more than 6,000 chocolate eggs, along with personalized chocolate bunnies, a $480, 20-pound “super bunny,” and specialty nuts — all homemade.

Eric Ferguson is the third generation in the Madigan family to run the business. He calls Brown's handiwork “an art.”

Her fingers constantly monitor the vat of chocolate's temperature, making sure it's just right. She then dips each nut in the sugary concoction and marks it with a “B” for Brazil nut.

“This is probably one of the hardest jobs in the factory,” he said.

To Brown, freshness is key.

“When Wal-Mart (already) has the candy on the shelf, we're still making it,” she said.

Preparations for the busy Easter season begin months in advance.

“When Christmas is here, we're already thinking about Easter,” Ferguson said. “I kind of rely on Easter to keep (us) going through the summer.”

For Easter, “Hockey Pete,” a chocolate bunny holding a hockey stick is a fan favorite, along with chocolate bunnies personalized with customers' names.

“Chicks, ducks, lambs — anything that has to do with Easter,” office/factory manager Cindy Meyers said.

An employee trims each molded chocolate by hand, then carefully swipes away any sugary dust with a soft-bristled brush. The factory is home to thousands of molds, ranging from dinosaurs to bears to motorcycles.

Workers mix delicacies by hand, rather than with a machine. They cook ingredients in a copper kettle over an open flame. They cool the chocolate on marble tables.

“We try to be hands-on, more old-fashioned style,” Ferguson said. “They'll actually hand roll the eggs. Every egg is hand-done.”

After each gooey hunk of peanut butter is rolled into an egg shape, it rides along a conveyor belt to be showered in chocolate. Then, an employee delicately affixes floral decorations by hand before sending the eggs along a refrigerated conveyor belt.

The handful of machines in the factory are decades old and painted in bright purple and magenta hues.

The company began in the 1930s when two young friends sold popcorn, peanuts, soda and ice cream near the Coyle Theater in Charleroi. The company soon began experimenting with a new, revolutionary product at that time: the chocolate bar.

These days, the store sells more than 100,000 pounds of milk chocolate per year.

Peanut butter chocolates are big sellers now, compared to the fruit-nut-and-fondant chocolates that patrons used to crave.

The family has always had a penchant for experimenting with new culinary concoctions. They've doused in chocolate everything from spicy potato chips to pickles to bacon.

“That's the fun of the business,” Ferguson said, “you get to try different things.”

Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.