Business is sweet for candy-making family

March 30, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK — These may be high-tech times, but for a small family-owned candy company with decades of ties to Frederick, as well as customers around the world, "low-tech" means business is, indeed, sweet these days.

So much so that in these busy pre-Easter weeks for all candy-makers, the Leos family's Candy Kitchen is shipping boxes of its products to loyal fans in all 50 states and as far away as Germany, Japan, Russia and Greece.

Most candies made for the family's two shops -- in Frederick and Waynesboro, Pa. -- about three miles north of the Maryland line -- are made from recipes that have been long unchanged.

"Our candy is very, very traditional. It hasn't changed since the early 1900s," says John Leos, a third-generation chocolatier who, along with other family members, runs the business now. "We still make things in very small batches. It assures freshness and quality -- something we're very proud of."

Each month, the Leos family hand-dips thousands of pounds -- they won't say exactly how many -- of chocolate creams, assorted nuts and truffles in a workshop near their grandfather's original store in Waynesboro.

The company's perennial best-sellers -- vanilla butter-creams; chewy, chocolate-covered "turtles"; and caramels -- are made three or four times a week in small batches of about 25 pounds and then delivered to the two stores.

That method is not uncommon among the 2,400 small candy-makers and retailers in the United States and Canada who offer neighborhood and regional customers direct contact and products "that can be unbelievably fresh," says Van Billington, executive director of Retail Confectioners hTC International, a trade association based near Chicago.

Mr. Leos declines to discuss his privately-held company's sales. The Candy Kitchen employs seven people, including Mr. Leos' mother, Despina, his sister, Elaini, and brother-in-law, George Tsoukatos.

Word-of-mouth sells the Leos family's chocolates. But there is talk of producing a mail-order catalog later this year.

"All over America, you see mass-produced products," Mr. Leos says. "So, as small confectioners and chocolatiers, we develop a real rapport with our customers. Big is not always better."

Even at Easter, when shelves are brimming with solid chocolate rabbits, lambs, ducks, hens, crosses and such novelties as decorative chocolate eggs filled with jelly beans, the Leos family does little advertising. But then they have a host of loyal customers.

One of them, Margery Harriss, of Baltimore, has been buying chocolates from the Leos family ever since family members ran the candy department at the now-closed Hutzler's department store in Towson years ago. She orders by phone.

"The candy is just delicious," Mrs. Harriss says. "I always buy 50 to 60 boxes at Christmas and give them to people with other presents. Everybody I give that candy to loves it better than Godiva. It just has a lot of appeal, and it's quite varied."

At the Candy Kitchen, little has changed since James Skaves -- an older uncle to Mr. Leos by marriage but affectionately called "grandfather" -- opened the first store in 1902. As a Greek immigrant, he started out selling peanuts in Baltimore, but eventually turned to candy-making and moved to Waynesboro because the rolling terrain reminded him of home.

Today, chocolates and brittle still are rolled out on marble flats. The caramel cutters and candy-cane scissors are the same ones Mr. Skaves used. A mixer and a candy melter are the only concessions to modern life.

And the family still follows recipes from an early-1900s family cookbook and ledger. Most recipes aren't exact, calling for a pinch of this or a pinch of that. A caramel recipe, for example, calls for corn syrup "the size of a lemon."

Ingredients remain traditional. Real butter; no margarine. Blends imported Swiss, French and Belgian chocolates. The family roasts its own nuts.

Chocolate baskets are hollowed and filled with candies, wrapped in pink and blue foil and cellophane and decorated with silk flowers -- a style popular in Europe now and in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

Many molded chocolates -- sitting rabbits, rabbits playing saxophones, rabbits pulling carts -- are made from decades-old molds. The family's collection of molds numbers some 2,000, with some dating as far back as the turn of the century.

The more obscure include the Statue of Liberty, zeppelins, the Spirit of St. Louis, and Kewpie dolls.

During holiday seasons, candy is boxed no earlier than the evening before it's to be sold. Each box is hand-packed and topped with a cover that bears the name of Despina Leos and her signature, "My own confections of love."

The care the family members take in making chocolate also is shown to customers.

"My mom, my brother-in-law, or I am out there in the shops every day," Mr. Leos says. "We're here to tell you about the products -- how they'remade, what ingredients we used. We know the products inside and out."

Mrs. Leos, who has been making and selling chocolates since she immigrated to the United States from Greece after World War II, is behind the Frederick shop's counter nearly every day. She rarely lets a customer pass without offering a handful of chocolate samples.

"Come here, come on, my girls," she might call to a pair of women shoppers. "What kind of candy you like? Dark chocolate? Try this chocolate mousse. You like it."

And the women -- not unlike throngs of other customers -- oblige.

"I come from a big family. I like to share," Mrs. Leos says. "[If] I don't give you candy, I feel terrible."

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