Points in Pittsburgh: Sarris Chocolate Factory
The chocolate and ice cream shop invokes a sense of childlike wonder
When recently presented with the opportunity to visit an ice cream shop and chocolate store founded by a machinery operator located outside Pittsburgh, I went along and with low expectations. I love chocolate. I figured it was probably going to be an enjoyable experience for the chocolate. The visit was more than a treat, however; it was an experience in childlike wonder.
Sarris Candies’ chocolate factory and ice cream shop is located on a hillside road off the highway 18 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. It’s a stand-alone anchor store for a business founded in 1960 by Frank Sarris and you can tell that it’s been there for a while. The entranceway, above, was decorated for a nostalgically industrial and commercial American Christmastime. This should have been my first clue that Sarris Candies wasn’t the typical retail store.
The long, horizontally designed Canonsburg, Pennsylvania store, factory and ice cream parlor (which opened in 1979) is a burst of color, design and display. The variety of candies, chocolates and ice cream is abundant. The homemade ice cream shop—envisioned by Frank Sarris as a red and brass replica of the ice cream shops of his youth—is located at the far end. Ice cream scoopers keep a brisk pace as they keep up with demand. There are some tables where you can eat your ice cream. On the other end of the Sarris candy store is the chocolate shop, pictured here.
In the middle, cashiers trade money for chocolate, candy and gifts. The wonder of the place lies in the elaborate, meticulously planned and designed decorations, display and merchandising. I’m happy to share some of my snapshots here.
It turns out the attention to detail is a Sarris family legacy—an example of self-made American individualism and capitalism—which continues in this 21st century after Sarris Candies founder Frank Sarris died in 2010. As the Sarris Candies website says:
You might say it all started when Frank Sarris found a sweetheart. As a young man trying to win the affections of the lovely Athena, Frank presented her with a gift as sweet as she was, a box of chocolates. Athena's face lit up as she lifted the lid and Frank knew he was in love. He also knew he could make better chocolate.
Frank began by producing small amounts of chocolate in his basement for friends and family, and then as word spread, he began making more and more for the local market. Frank and Athena married soon after and Sarris Candies was born in the basement of their Canonsburg home.
Working as a forklift operator by day and candy maker by night, the son of Greek immigrants realized that one or the other, his candy enterprise or his career, had to end. Thankfully for the thousands of "sweet-tooths" that enjoy Sarris chocolate, Frank Sarris quit his job and started stirring batches full time.
A chocolate castle, which cost $130,000, was developed by Frank’s widow, Athena Sarris, for this year’s Christmas. It took three months to build during over 2,000 estimated hours of labor by finishing artists Jeanie Higgins, Christi Hoffman and Eva Delvecchio with design by Keith Evans and novelties and figures by Laura McMurdy. The Sarris chocolate castle, which weighs 2,600 pounds, is three feet deep, eight feet long and 12 feet tall from floor to ceiling. The head chocolatiers are Lee McMurdy and Bob Verdes. My picture doesn’t do the chocolate castle justice. I observed this sugary winter fantasy world through the display case until it was time to go.
Sarris Candies, Incorporated is located at 511 Adams Avenue in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania—the telephone number’s (800) 255-7771—with store hours from Monday through Saturday from 9AM to 9PM, Sunday from 10AM to 9PM and closed on New Year’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, America’s Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Order online or visit the website.
For his part, the late Frank Sarris—whose candy stores are located throughout Pittsburgh, including its international airport—left money as charity to Pitt’s medical center clinic for transplants, the Greek Orthodox Church, Phipps Conservatory and its orchid room, Pitt’s biology department and a Canonsburg library for the public in his name, which was, in the company’s words, “built to ensure the availability for self-education for children, young and old.”