Sarris Candies Inc.
Sarris Candies Inc.
Sales: $112 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 311320 Chocolate and Confectionery Manufacturing from Cacao Beans; 311330 Confectionery Manufacturing from Purchased Chocolate
A family-owned-and-operated company based in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Sarris Candies Inc. makes premium chocolates and other confections and also operates a candy store and ice cream parlor located next to its factory. All told, the site is about an acre, or the size of a football field, and has become a tourist destination that includes a statue of singer, and Canonsburg’s favorite son, Perry Como. The company buys its own cocoa beans, which another company makes into chocolate according to a family recipe and ships to Canonsburg.
Sarris products include boxed chocolates, chocolate bars, chocolate-covered pretzels (a specialty), chocolate-covered popcorn, brittle and roasted nuts, mints, chocolate-covered cookies, fondue and break-up chocolate, and baking chocolate. The company also makes specialty holiday products, such as chocolate roses for Valentine’s Day; Easter eggs, chocolate bunnies, and other shapes for Easter, and a variety of chocolate shapes for Christmas and Halloween. The company also offers a wide variety of car, sports, and animal shapes.
A large percentage of Sarris’ business comes from the fund-raising sector, selling candy bars, boxed chocolates, and chocolate-covered pretzel rods through schools, churches, youth sports leagues, and other nonprofit organizations, primarily in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Sarris also operates a corporate gift program. The massive Sarris candy store offers a complete line of the company’s products as well as penny candy, plush animals, and gifts.
Sarris products are also sold on the company’s web site and through some 400 retailers (supermarkets, gift shops, and pharmacies) in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, serviced by a fleet of about 100 company-owned trucks. The attached ice cream parlor, despite its large size, emulates establishments of a bygone era, complete with brass-ornamented booths and period-style chandeliers. About two dozen flavors of ice cream and another half-dozen seasonal flavors are produced on the premises. Sarris also does private-label manufacturing and owns Gardners Candies, another Pennsylvania, family-run, full-line chocolate maker. While the founder, Frank Sarris, remains president, the second and third generations of the family are also heavily involved in the running of the business.
FOUNDER’S CHANCE INTRODUCTION TO CHOCOLATE MAKING: 1959
The son of Greek immigrants, Frank Sarris was born during the Great Depression and never finished high school, quitting in his junior year to take a job to help support the family. In the spring of 1959 he was working as a forklift operator at an RCA plant in Canonsburg, making less than $50 a week, when he was offered a chance to make a quick $100. More importantly, he spotted an opportunity to start his own business. A local candy maker who served A&P supermarkets in West Virginia asked him to step in to deliver chocolate bunnies to his accounts. Sarris took and job and began thinking about chocolate as a different way for a high school dropout to make a living.
“I knew I wanted some kind of trade,” he once told Candy Industry, explaining, “I thought about being a barber because you don’t need too much schooling. But when I delivered that candy, I thought that was a good deal. I only needed a marble table and a copper table.” He learned the basics of chocolate-making after completing his deliveries, asking the man who hired him to show him his operation.
Rather than bank the $100, as his wife Athena suggested, Sarris bought the ingredients needed to make chocolate, along with a book on candy making and a copper kettle. A Greek coffeehouse provided the only other item he needed, a marble table. In his spare time he began cooking up batches of chocolate confections in his basement. Because he was teaching himself, the early results were not very encouraging. In fact, he was so embarrassed that he buried the results in his backyard, lest the trash collectors discover the evidence of failure. He was also afraid that because he was buying sugar in 100-pound lots he might be raided by the government, which might suspect him to be a bootlegger. He was paid an official visit one day when the fire department descended upon his house because Sarris was so unfamiliar with what he was doing that he did not keep a close eye on a pot of sugar and corn syrup that boiled over and almost burned down his house.
SARRIS MAKES CANDY FULL TIME: 1963
Despite the setbacks, Sarris persevered, supported by his wife. A natural perfectionist he insisted on using the best ingredients and kept tinkering until he settled on a chocolate recipe that met his satisfaction, one that he was not ashamed to share with others. In 1960 he began to sell cream-filled chocolates and peanut clusters on a limited basis. By 1963 he had outgrown the basement, and his wife persuaded him that now was the time to quit his job at RCA and devote himself full-time to his budding chocolate business. He agreed and to help ends meet, she went to work as a secretary.
Sarris then arranged for a $15,000 loan from a local bank in order to open a 1,600-square-foot candy store next to his house where he could make and sell his chocolate confections. Before the bank would lend him the money, however, Sarris had to sell his car for $900 to demonstrate good faith. Less than two months later he returned to the bank, asking for another $20,000 to buy the equipment he needed to grow the business. The bank agreed, but only after Sarris convinced the equipment manufacturer to waive the shipping charges and have a representative provide a week of onsite training on the proper use of the equipment. It was slow going at first. Sarris, with the part-time help of his wife, the occasional aid of friends, and a lone employee, generated just $600 in sales the first year. With hard work and countless 18-hour days, however, Sarris grew the business, and within two years he paid off the bank loans.
Many family members helped to build the business which has turned into a Canonsburg landmark. Today, the Sarris Chocolate Factory and Ice Cream Parlour fill an area the size of a football field with over 100 yards of chocolate, penny candy, ice cream and lifelike plush toys.
From the beginning Sarris looked to sell his wares through fund-raising and business-to-business channels. “I went out knocking on doors to a lot of organizations,” Sarris told SBN Pittsburgh. “A lot of people switched from giving turkeys out to giving out candy,” he noted. His wife also joined a number of organizations to drum up gift sales. Sarris was hardly a polished salesman but he proved an effective one. Early on in his efforts to build a fund-raising business Sarris found himself pitted against four established candy companies, including Cargo Candy Company, which specialized in the field. The potential customer was a group of miners. In his presentation, Sarris recalled, he was extremely nervous and apologetic, acknowledging that his competitors were quite good and that he was not even sure he could get enough boxes to meet the contract that called for 800 three-pound boxes of candy. Moreover, he was asking for 20 cents more per box than the other companies. His humility—and more likely the quality of his chocolates, which he wisely had the miners taste—won the day, and to his surprise Sarris secured the contract, much to the displeasure of Jack Cargo, Cargo Candy’s owner, who was seen wagging a finger at the upstart. Even the irascible Cargo took a liking to Sarris. They eventually became friends and later when his business was failing, Cargo insisted that Sarris buy some of his production equipment before it could be seized for a sheriff’s sale.
Sarris pinched pennies and nurtured the business. After about five years he outgrew the store and expanded further by demolishing his house and moving the family into an apartment above the new shop. Here he and Athena remained long after the children grew up and moved out, and long after they had the money to buy a new home. Gradually over the next decade he bought up the surrounding property to accommodate more expansions until he finally owned the entire block. He was not interested in opening more candy stores, however, preferring to focus his attention on candy production. Instead he cobbled together a regional network of retailers to sell most of his wares.
By the late 1970s Sarris was joined by his son Bill, who came to work for the company full time. He was well familiar with the business, having helped out since he was a child, but he would bring an infusion of energy and ambition, spurring the company’s continued growth.
Sarris soon decided that the company should add an old-fashioned ice cream parlor to the candy store, primarily because all of the local ice cream parlors had closed and there was no place to buy good ice cream in town. Although intended to be a minor sideline, the ice cream parlor, which opened in 1982, grew into a significant part of the business. Rather than selling ice cream made by others, he hired an ice cream maker, Brian Mary, to oversee the in-house production of ice cream, despite the rigors of being subjected to city, county, and federal inspections. The company also produced its own syrups and toppings and roasted its own nuts for use in the ice cream parlor.
PLANT EXPANSION: 1997
The Sarris facilities continued to expand as the business grew. In the early 1990s the company acquired a storage building about a half-mile away, then added three more facilities on the property. Altogether Sarris owned 80,000 square feet of warehousing and distribution space and could eliminate the congestion at the store and plant caused by the company’s ever growing fleet of delivery trucks. Then in 1997 the main facility was expanded once again, and finally Frank and Athena moved out of their apartment; their longtime living quarters was converted into more production space. The company was now able to install shell-molding equipment to dramatically increase its ability to produce shell-molded products.
Sarris also completed it first acquisition in 1997, buying Gardners Candies, a Tyrone, Pennsylvania-based candy manufacturer that also ran 13 company-owned stores and 14 franchised outlets in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. Gardners was founded in 1897 when 16-year-old James “Pike” Gardner opened a small candy store. His claim to fame was the invention of the heart-shaped candy box. In the late 1950s his son-in-law, David Black, persuaded Gardner to begin manufacturing his own candies. Perhaps the company’s greatest achievement was the invention of the Peanut Butter Meltaway, introduced in 1976. The rights were sold to Brachs Candies in the 1980s and bought back in the 1990s. Black retired at the age of 75 shortly before the sale to Sarris, and his family would continue to run the business under the Gardners name. The Tyrone plant, along with its attached shop and candy museum, would also remain open.
The two companies were a good fit, filling in the gaps of the other’s business. Sarris, for example, did more fund-raising work than Gardners and had a mail-order program that the other lacked. For its part, Gardners did private label work that would be new to Sarris. The acquisition did not come without complications, however. Bill Sarris had done all the spade work on the deal, including the arrangement of bank financing. His father, however, at the last moment decided to pay cash, the sale price reportedly less than $5 million, because he was not comfortable owing money to the banks again. To say the least, the bankers who had spent considerable time assembling the loan package were not pleased with his 11th-hour decision.
- Frank Sarris is introduced to chocolate making.
- Sarris quits his job to launch a candy company.
- Ice cream parlor opens.
- Gardners candies is acquired.
As the new century dawned, Sarris launched a successful online business and prospered with a growing private label candy business. Frank Sarris continued to put in long hours, uninterested in retirement despite some health problems. In 2002 he received a kidney transplant, the living donor his godson, George Pihakis. Now a wealthy man, Sarris showed his appreciation by championing organ donor programs, and in 2006 he and his wife donated $5 million to the Thomas E. Starzl Legacy Endowment Fund for transplantation research at the University of Pittsburgh, where Starzl forged a reputation in the 1960s as the “Father of Transplantation” with the world’s first successful liver transplants. As a result of the transplant, Sarris was able to continue to head the business he founded. By now there were two generations prepared to carry on his legacy. Whether the company would expand beyond its original base or make further acquisitions remained to be seen.
Brachs Confections, Inc.; Godiva Chocolatier, Inc.; Hershey Foods Corporation; Wilbur Chocolate Company Inc.
Lindeman, Teresa F., “Sweet! But Be Careful About the Box,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 2, 2003, p. D1.
Marano, Ray, “Frank Sarris, Captain of Candy,” SBN Pittsburgh, May 1, 2001.
——, “Small Business Person of the Year: Frank Sarris, Sarris Candies Inc.,” SBN Pittsburgh, May 1, 2001.
McKay, Jim, “Family Firms Unite, Sarris Stirs Up Big Plans for Gardners Candies,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 6, 1997, p. C5.
Scully, Carla Zanetos, “The Sarris Signature,” Candy Industry, September 2002, p. 23.
Taylor, Lynda Guydon, “Chocolate Begets a Helping Hand, Sarris Returns Share of Wealth to His Hometown,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 28, 2006, p. W4.