Philly and the Chocolate Factory: The Berley Brothers and Shane’s Confectionery

In an era when big-box megastores are calling the candy shots, Philly’s renegade chocolatiers are intent on doing it their way. Sweet.

 

When the Berley brothers opened the door of Shane Confectionery to the public on December 5th, they were opening the door to the past.

What you notice first about Eric and Ryan Berley is their facial hair, which is defiantly out of fashion. The whiskers are an anachronism, and the Berleys are, too. Their new candy shop at the foot of Market Street, in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge, is really an old candy shop—the oldest in the city, selling sweets since 1863. After they bought it in 2010, they meticulously restored it to ornate pre-World War I splendor, from the curved display windows to the turn-of-the-century chandeliers.

“The storefront was last redone in 1911,” Ryan says. “Market Street went all the way to the river then. There were 20,000 people a day commuting back and forth to Camden on the ferry. This neighborhood had a very high profile.” There were four confectionery shops on the block, and several coffee roasters: “There was lots of manufacturing in these long, narrow buildings,” Ryan says. Today, Old City’s known more for raucous nightlife. But party animals eat buttercreams, right?

Neither brother looks like he eats buttercreams. Eric, 31, is rail-thin and friendly; Ryan, 35, is just as lean, but craggy and intense. Eric was once a philosophy major at William & Mary; Ryan used to be an antiques dealer. They grew up in Media, in a house with one of those 1970s retro-soda-fountain kitchens. Something about it took, because in 2004, the pair opened the Franklin Fountain, a whimsical retro ice-cream shop at Market and Letitia. It proved wildly popular. Last year, as they were looking to expand, two-doors-down neighbor Barry Shane, who’d succeeded his father and grandfather in the candy shop, was looking to retire. None of his kids were interested in the business. The Berleys, however, were. They could use the extra space to stir up more ice cream, and make candy on the second floor.

But they wouldn’t just make candy. In a flight of wild-eyed fancy, they decided to make candy the old-fashioned way, on the same equipment Barry Shane’s grandfather once used. They’d cook it on an ancient Vulcan candy stove in antique copper kettles, then sell it in the shop downstairs, just as though it was the turn of the century again.

Historically, Shane’s specialized in buttercreams. It still does, thanks to the two-and-a-half-ton buttercream beater on the second floor. “You’re more or less bound by your equipment,” Ryan says. The Berleys’ buttercreams taste fresh and clean, not at all like CVS candy. They’re pricey, at a buck apiece, but they’re supposed to be. “If you sell by the pound, customers see candy as a commodity rather than as art,” Eric explains. “We’re giving people an experience­—like going to a Broadway show in microcosm.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the Berleys’ new chocolate theater will prosper. While Philly seems poised on the edge of a cacao-bean moment, it’s also seen some high-profile­ flameouts. (Can you say “Naked Chocolate”?) It’s hard to understand why anyone would start such a risky business now.

But for Philadelphians, chocolate has always had a seductiveness all its own.

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