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Our Very Own Sweet Spot: Dreams Drenched in Chocolate

The distinct smell of renewal wafts from the old Shane Candy Co. store on the 100 block of Market. It's the smell of paint – the walls in the back office area have just been coated with Malt Powder and Marshmallow. The trim, of course, is Chocolate. Eric Berley, who bought the business last May with his brother Ryan, picks his way over electrical cords and around paint cans to inspect three shades of greenish white that are being considered for the wall-to-wall retail cubbies. He isn't happy with any of them. Dressed in a three-piece suit and sporting his signature handlebar mustache, Berley announces, "We may have to mix our own color."

It wouldn't be the first time Berley went with the idiosyncratic option. In 2004 the brothers transformed a nearby space formerly occupied by Eroticakes into a turn-of-the-century soda fountain. Franklin Fountain has been a great success – revenue has multiplied four times since opening. Restoring Shane Candy Co. is a bigger commitment to the tune of roughly $1 million for the building and the business, complete with circa 1900 machines that beat butter cream from scratch, agitate vats of caramel, and enrobe morsels in melted chocolate. Included in the price were recipes for homemade goodies, including the butter creams that have famously sweetened the centers of Shane Candy Co.'s chocolates for nearly a century.

Philadelphia itself has always been a sweet spot. Whitman's and TastyKakes are made here, while Hershey's and Just Born Candy, famous for its ubiquitous marshmallow Peeps, are based just outside the region. More cocoa beans are shipped to the nearby port in Pennsauken than to any other port in the country –the beans go mostly to Hershey; Mars; and Barry-Callebaut, the Swiss chocolate giant with a major U.S. plant located in Delaware County. These companies are big enough to withstand fluctuations in the economy, but local confectioners and chocolatiers like Shane's and Young's Candies, a neighborhood institution near 28th and Girard until it closed four years ago, find it harder to compete with the mass market.

"When people need Halloween candy, they go to CVS," points out Eric. "There are a lot of places that have dipped into the candy business that weren't competitors when Shane's was first around." But as the old guard closes up shop, a boomlet of new, startup chocolatiers and confectioners is making and selling sweets across the city. In a few cases, the legacy lives on in the old places: When the new Shane's opens, the Berleys will stay true to original techniques, including keeping up the tradition of making Pennsylvania-German clear toy candy whose molds they purchased from Harry Young of Young's Candies. And two notable chocolate producers-- Lore's Chocolates and small, artisanal John & Kira's—have made their home in a venerable sweet spot, the former Goldenberg's Peanut Chew factory in North Philadelphia.

Others have started from scratch. Marcie Turney, the chef at Lolita and Bindi, recently introduced her Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates, featuring exotic flavors like tahini and rosemary. Shoppers can watch the chocolates being made through a picture window at the back of Verde, the Center City gardening and housewares shop Turney owns with her partner, Valerie Safran. Master chocolatier Christopher Curtin produces the much-acclaimed Éclat Chocolate in West Chester. Earlier this year former Le Bec-Fin pastry chef, Antoine Amrani, launched an eponymous operation out of a suburban office park in East Norriton.

The difference between buying from these boutique makers and from CVS is the story behind each small producer. Buy an Urban Garden Bar from John & Kira's and support the student-run urban gardens in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. that grow the mint and rosemary. Buy a box of Antoine Amrani Chocolates and own a piece of Le Bec-Fin back when it was still Le Bec-Fin -- and the impeccable training of Amrani, who learned his trade at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris.

And the act of buying proves to be much richer than the crude exchange of bills for bags of "fun-size" candy bars. John Doyle (the John in John and Kira) sells his gourmet, socially conscious morsels at farmers' markets around town, and Amrani offers chocolate-making classes and factory tours. As for the Berley brothers, they're doing their painstaking best to recreate the feel of turn-of-the-century Shane's. Bare fixtures await the delivery of gas-lit chandeliers, and the storefront bays flanking the front door will soon be fronted with panes of curved glass.

"I think people are willing to pay for quality," says Eric, "and for the experience." He and his brother plan to enrich that experience even farther when they set up a museum dedicated to Philadelphia's history of sweets on the second floor of the Franklin Fountain building. The project is next on their list, once Shane's is finished. "And once I move out," says Eric. "Right now, that's where I live."

CAROLINE TIGER is a Philadelphia-based freelance author and journalist who writes often about design. Read more of her work here. Send feedback here.


Marcie and Valerie at Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates in Philadelphia

Erin Stafford working in the Marcie Blaine Studio Kitchen at Verde on 13th Street

Stafford works on different varieties

Finished chocolates on display at the Marcie Blaine counter

Behind the counter at Marcie Blaine

John and Kira's packaging

Caramel Bees ready for packaging

Katie Levins filling figs with chocolate

Jess Newquist, head chocolatier at John and Kira's

All photos by Michael Persico

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