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Trafford chocolatiers invade Pentagon armed with candy

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi buys them.

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin loves them, too.

Chocolates, truffles, fudge and nut brittles, handcrafted in Trafford for nearly a century, have made their way to the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.

Pentagon employees have been on the customer list of Sherm Edwards Candies since its upscale Edward Marc Chocolatier store opened there Feb. 1.

The shop's prime location at the main entrance in one of the world's largest office buildings gives the thousands who pass through daily a whiff of fresh chocolate, said Chris Edwards, one of three siblings who run the company.

"They come past the chocolate shop and the smell hits them," he said.

Edward Marc Chocolatier is a brand of the Pittsburgh-based company, which includes the factory in Trafford, where all the candy is made, and the Milk Shake Factory in the South Side.

The fourth generation of the family to run the company -- Chris, Mark and Dana Edwards -- grew up in Hampton, Allegheny County, but eventually moved to the Washington area to work. Chris was a special assistant to President George W. Bush and served as director of press advance, and Dana was an associate director of public liaison for the administration.

When the siblings decided to get back into the family business, they opened a sales office in the nation's capital.

"The Department of Defense actually contacted us and said, 'We love your product and we want you to bid on this space," Mark Edwards said of the 10-month bidding process for the Pentagon store. "We were going up against all the big dogs in the industry. We're a relatively small company.

"They really loved the family idea," he said. "They loved the fact the family was going to be operating the store as well as the factory here in Pittsburgh."

Mark Edwards, who oversees production and finances, said the Pentagon store averages 600 to 1,000 transactions a day.

"Unbelievable," he said. "We had our projections based on our other stores. We've been tracking about three times the amount of sales we've had in the Pittsburgh store."

The Pentagon shop gives the chocolatiers a captive audience in about 23,000 employees -- military and civilian -- in the massive complex that houses the Defense Department. "It takes about 20 minutes to just go somewhere," Chris Edwards said of the Pentagon, which has 17.5 miles of corridors.

The Edward Marc store is in an area the size of a shopping mall that includes retailers, fast-food restaurants and delis. "Employees don't have the chance to go out to eat," he said. "Everything's pretty much right there."

The candy already was known in the D.C. area, and personalized chocolate medallions have been given as gifts at White House state dinners.

Chris Edwards, who oversees marketing and sales, said Pelosi is known to love dark chocolate and Palin has an affinity for peanut butter meltaways.

In her book, "Going Rogue," Palin said Chris Edwards kept her 2008 campaign bus stocked with chocolates, "and we loved him for it."

"What a great way to top off an energizing day on the trail, with a milk chocolate truffle or peanut butter meltaway," she wrote.

The top sellers at the Pentagon are vanilla salt caramels and terrapins. For a taste of history, the company molds chocolate pops into the shape of the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House, the Washington Mounment and the military seals of the five armed service branches.

Mark Edwards, who works with his father, Jeff, in the Trafford factory, said his great-grandparents would be proud.

In 1914, Orania and Charlie Sarandou, Greek immigrants, moved to Pittsburgh and perfected their chocolate-making skills.

"If they see that my dad and myself are still working together, that would be the whole idea," Mark said as he placed dollops of caramel atop pecan terrapins. "Brothers and sister are still working together with the parents. That's what they would be so excited about -- that we are carrying on the family business."

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