In 1960, Frank Sarris started making chocolates in the basement of his home. By 1963, he had built a store adjacent to his home and eventually, knocked down the house next store and built an apartment upstairs.
“We lived above the candy store for years as we expanded and added another extension on the left side, which included the ice cream parlor, and then expanded on the right side for an additional production area,” said Frank’s son, Bill Sarris, who grew up as a literal kid in a candy store and is now the president and CEO of Sarris Candies.
Today, the family-run business is planning yet another expansion, this time to a 135,000 square foot facility in downtown Canonsburg that will serve as the company’s new production headquarters. Sarris said that this was an excellent opportunity for the thriving company.
“We’re growing, and we needed space for supplies and finished products. We needed to buy more equipment and be more efficient, so we had an opportunity to purchase a building in Canonsburg that used to be the former Fort Pitt Bridge Works, almost in the center of town,” he said. Construction is underway now, and the facility is set to be up and running in September of 2024.
While western Pennsylvanians might want to keep their favorite hometown chocolate all to themselves, the move will enable the company to increase production and continue to expand the brand outside of the Pittsburgh area. Sarris already sells products online, shipping out thousands of packages daily to customers around the country, but the ability to increase production will help keep up with demand. The company already ships out thousands of packages daily to customers around the country.
“When you have a business like ours,” observed Sarris, “it’s like throwing a rock in the pond, and the ripples get smaller until they are gone. We have to let people on the outskirts enjoy our product as well. Our market is slowly expanding like that.”
Customers who visit the store and ice cream parlor will not notice any changes to their experience. However, visitors will be welcome at the new facility as well. “People will be able to come in and tour; we will have a mezzanine overlooking the whole plant. They can come in, see our story, and see how we produce our products. We will have a small store there as well, just for people touring. We’re pretty excited about that,” said Sarris.
Although they will be streamlining operations with state-of-the-art computerized machinery to make production more efficient, the new facility will still create job opportunities for the area. Sarris said that the company will still be making products in batches, by hand, upholding the standards Frank set over 60 years ago. Sarris added that the existing factory will be utilized to produce only solid chocolate items, meaning it will be a nut-free facility.
Already heavily involved in the Canonsburg community, it was important for Sarris to keep his family’s operations running in that same town where it started and where he and his father both grew up.
“We never even considered moving out. Could we have? Yes; there were opportunities to do that, but we did not. This facility that became available was an ideal opportunity and a stroke of luck. All of our employees live around here, and you can’t do that to your employees. That is probably the biggest consideration of all. Whatever you do, how will that affect your employees? They are the key to your business,” he said.
In fact, he believes that the secret to his company’s 60+ year legacy is the 200+ employees who support the business, which allows them to make the best product possible. The company also owns Gardners Candies, headquartered in Tyrone, PA, with stores throughout Central Pennsylvania. That segment of the business accounts for almost another 200 employees.
Sarris Candies is not all sweet talk—the company generously engages in the community, focusing on health, education and culture. For example, kidney disease runs rampant through the Sarris family, so Sarris donated money to name the Frank Sarris Outpatient Transplant Clinic at UPMC Montefiore after his father. In the same hospital, the Athena Sarris Café, honoring his mother, offers free candy and sweets to patients and families. His company also sponsored the naming rights for the Frank Sarris Public Library in Canonsburg as well as the Frank Sarris Orchid Room at Phipps Conservatory. “This has made us part of the community in Pittsburgh, and hopefully people understand how important that is to us; giving back to the community is huge,” said Sarris.
Another key to success is staying true to what works, and building on that while maintaining consistency.
The Borough of Canonsburg is steeped in a rich coal history, and while it may not be a destination in and of itself, thousands of yearly visitors from all over the country have transformed the Sarris Candies store and ice cream parlor into a must-visit spot.
It was Frank’s idea to open an ice cream parlor, even though he did not know anything about making ice cream at the time. But Frank connected with a Canonsburg-based dairy farmer who shared his recipes. “That was such a big help in going in and learning the process of making really good ice cream, in 1985,” said Sarris. The old-fashioned ice cream parlor is a throwback to a simpler era, with such homemade flavors as Peanut Butter Cookie Dough, Irish Cream, Deep Dish Apple Pie and Double Chocolate. Their menu also features sundaes, floats, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream cakes, milkshakes and a myriad of toppings, like their signature chocolate hard cap.
The candy shop itself, the literal stuff that sweet dreams are made of, carries much more than what you can find at local stores, from boxed assortments to chocolate bars to seasonal delights to the ever-popular chocolate covered pretzels, peanut butter meltaways and pecanettes. Even though chocolate hits the sweet spot any time of year, Sarris also does a large seasonal business, especially at Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.
And while Pittsburghers can buy Sarris chocolates in stores across western Pennsylvania, many still make the trip south on 79 to Canonsburg to see where the magic happens in person.
“I think it’s an experience when you come in. It’s a joyful place, it’s a happy place, it’s a family-oriented place. You can bring children, and they can run around; there are a lot of things for them to see. It’s a nice destination stop that is unique to the area, and we’ve been established for a long time,” said Sarris.
He said that he sometimes sees three generations of a family visit the store together, with the grandparents telling him that they grew up with Sarris Candies.
Though the company has experienced the sweet smell of success for more than six decades, they’ve also experienced challenges, such as the current issue with cocoa beans, which have increased in price dramatically. “Here at Sarris, we use a specific cocoa bean grown in a certain part of the world; the production of that particular bean is shrinking. Instead of replanting cocoa trees, they are planting other items that take less work that they get more money from, like rubber trees,” said Sarris, adding that this has caused the cocoa bean price to double, resulting in candy and chocolate prices going up.
There’s no danger at the moment of Sarris Candies becoming unavailable. “We’re not going anywhere, and I don’t think the industry is going anywhere. It’s a happy food. Nothing makes you smile like a piece of chocolate.”