Sarris Candies' Sweet Success

Sarris Candies owner Bill Sarris has helped introduce Sarris fans to new products (hello, 100-calorie pretzel packs!) while leaving beloved aspects of the company untouched.

Photo by Renee Rosensteel

A river of chocolate flowed through Sarris Candies back on Feb. 3, but the family-owned company (known for creating delectable dipped pretzels and so much more) wasn’t trying to recreate a scene from the 1971 flick Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

An electrical fire was to blame for melting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of treats, forcing staffers to shutter the second-generation business (open since 1963) for almost a month.

Three weeks after the fire, owner Bill Sarris, 59 — a lifelong employee who officially took over in 2010 after his father, Frank, passed away — sat down with Pittsburgh Magazine to tell us what it’s like to be a real-life Willy Wonka.

How are you doing after the fire?  
We lost everything in our retail store and ice cream parlor — but we were able to reopen on March 1. The fire showed us how much people care about us. This place, it says “Sarris Candies,” but it belongs to the customers.

Despite the recent setback, how’s business?  
We keep growing and expanding our sales. We are in Hallmark stores, Giant Eagle and Bed Bath & Beyond. We have 200 employees at the Canonsburg location alone. We also own Gardners Candies in Tyrone, Pa., [a company established in the late-19th century that’s known for its creamy, dreamy Original Peanut Butter Meltaway].

Did you have any hesitation about taking over the family business?  
It’s a huge responsibility to carry on my father’s name and company. This was my parents’ baby. My mom is still our CEO, and I handle the day-to-day operations. My dad was 20 when I was born. We built full-time jobs out of candy. He grew up scrubbing the floors, cooking the chocolate and bagging it in the basement of our house — and I would deliver it in a station wagon.

How much do you sell annually?  
We sell three million pounds of chocolate every year.

How do Pittsburghers’ taste preferences compare to people’s in other cities and countries?  
Every place has its own local preferences. In New Orleans, they like pralines — but we couldn’t sell them here, even if we handed them out for free! In Europe, they like their chocolate with hazelnuts, to have an almond taste. Here, our customers prefer sweet and salty treats, like chocolate-covered pretzels or peanut-butter meltaways; those are our best-selling items.

Tell us about your brand of chocolate. You make it yourself, right?  
Everything that’s chocolate gets done here. Our non-chocolate candies — for example, our jellybeans — are made for us. Our milk chocolate is very light, caramel in color. We use a special cacao bean from one source called a single-destination bean.

Where does the bean come from?  
If we have one secret, that’s it.

Are you so tired of looking at candy that you aren’t tempted to eat it?  
I wish! I eat it at work and sneak it home. My wife sneaks it, too.

Are there any misconceptions about candy you’d care to correct?  
People tell me they can’t eat chocolate because it contains caffeine. But there’s more caffeine in [some bread varieties]than in a piece of chocolate.

As a candy man, do you feel any sense of pleasure — or is it like running any other business?
It’s not the same as selling paper, tires or widgets. This is something that makes people happy; there is joy in it — seeing kids, old people, people of all ages smiling.

What’s next? Any innovations or candy experiments?  
We have a new item, a 100-calorie pretzel slim. We may go national with it. It’s been endorsed by the “Hungry Girl” show on Food Network. We’ve also introduced a milk-chocolate grilling fondue.

Categories: Community Feature