When Frank Sarris started making candy in his basement more than 60 years ago, he had no idea that it would grow into the hugely successful business it is today with products in more than 1,800 stores throughout the country. The key to its success, according to his son and president of the company, Bill Sarris, is that they have found what works for them and stuck with it.
“Surprisingly, we do everything the same as we did in the past,” he explained. “For example, we still make our caramels one batch at a time. We have more cookers so we can make more, but we use exactly the same recipes.
“We don’t do fad chocolates,” he continued. “People grew up eating our chocolates, and they want their favorites—their peanut clusters or turtles or caramels. So, we stick to what we know.”
Sarris said that the secret to their chocolates—and what has brought generations of customers back to their stores—is the combination of special cocoa beans that they use combined with fresh whole milk. “That’s what makes our chocolate rich and creamy, and creates the flavor tones that people love,” he said. “It’s why they always want one more bite.”
Family and Community
Sarris Candies has always been a family-run business, and today includes Bill, his 92-year-old mother, Athena Sarris, his sister and brother-in-law, and his two daughters. “We also have exceptional employees,” he said of the 400 people who work for Sarris Candies in Canonsburg and at Gardners Candies (which Sarris owns) in Tyrone, PA.
The company is currently in the process of adding another location, a 135,000 sq. ft. building in Canonsburg in the old Fort Pitt Bridge Works location, which will soon house its production facility.
When his parents knocked down the home they lived in to expand the candy-making plant in the 1960s, Bill grew up living above the store, staying in the family apartment until he went to college in 1971.
“Everybody’s parents always wanted them to be doctors or lawyers; I grew up helping my dad make candy,” said Sarris. “I went to Washington & Jefferson eight miles away so I could come home and help on the weekends.”
The company has expanded in numerous ways over the years, growing in small, calculated steps.
“When an opportunity came up, we talked about if we should do it, and if we wanted to do it,” said Sarris. “The answer was usually, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
In the early ‘80s, the company added an ice cream parlor, despite the fact that at the time, they did not know much about making the product.
“When I was younger, my grandmother made cream pies and would send me to the dairy to get milk in a metal container,” said Sarris. “Years later, I called that old dairy farmer and told him that we wanted to make ice cream and wondered if he could help us out. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting 50 years for someone to ask me,’ and pulled out a folder of handwritten ice cream recipes.”
The Sarris’ bought an ice cream machine and started following those recipes, which they still use. “The key at that time was fresh cream, and we still do the same thing today,” said Sarris. “We make ice cream one batch at a time.”
Products have also evolved to meet customer and seasonal needs. Sarris now offers sugar-free, vegan, and nondairy products, and holiday items that include hand-decorated chocolates and gift items in all price ranges. In addition, Sarris has expanded into corporate gifting, offering customized products for businesses to give to its employees or clients.
One of Sarris’ most well-known collaborations, however, is with local nonprofits and school groups that use its products for fundraising. There probably is not a parent in Pittsburgh who has not bought at least one of their chocolates for a worthy cause.
“Groups will sell our candy bars and pretzel rods to raise money for their organizations, and this was especially helpful during COVID, when kids weren’t in school but could still raise money for their organizations with a holiday fundraising online program,” said Sarris.
“Fundraising was always the key to our growth,” he added. “When you have elementary and high school kids and nonprofit groups selling your candy, people buy from them and then, because we make a good product, they continue to buy from us after that.”
The company also gives back to the community, and is heavily involved in contributing to health, education, and cultural initiatives. The Sarris name is on the kidney transplant clinic at UPMC, and they also support the National Kidney Foundation and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
“Even though my dad didn’t graduate from high school, education was hugely important to him, which is why he made sure his kids had the opportunity to learn,” said Sarris, noting that the public library in Canonsburg is named after him.
Even as it continues to expand, Sarris Candies plans to remain an integral part of the community.
“When people want you, that’s a blessing,” Sarris said. “What amazes me the most is that people come into the store with their grandkids and tell them, ‘I used to bring your mom here,’ or ‘My pap used to bring me here.’
“When I hear that, it’s humbling,” he added. “That we’ve been a part of all of those generations.”