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.

BACK IN BEN FRANKLIN’S DAY, our city’s sweet shops sold confections remembered from the old country: licorice, pralines, marzipan. Ingredients were relatively cheap, since Philadelphia was the nation’s foremost port. The city burst with sugar refineries; you could buy Havana white, Havana brown, three grades of muscovado, West India clayed white or clayed brown. … And you didn’t need a lot of room to stir up a tray of brittle, just favorable weather and a knack.

But Ben Franklin never ate a buttercream. Chocolate was still being drunk, not eaten, in Colonial times—a bitter brew the Aztecs introduced to the Spanish. It was more popular in laid-back southern Europe than in the Protestant north, where merchants jolted into their workdays with coffee. The Industrial Revolution turned liquid chocolate solid: In 1828, a Dutch chocolatier patented the process of making powdered cocoa, opening the door to new uses. A Quaker family of English entrepreneurs mixed sugar and chocolate to create the first chocolate bar; more Quakers, the Cadburys, came up with the Valentine’s candy box. A Swiss chocolatier blended a new milk powder invented by Henri Nestlé with his own specialty to make “milk chocolate,” setting off a rapid burst of European innovations in candy manufacture. Nineteen-year-old Milton Hershey, who’d already opened a candy shop in Philly, saw the new inventions in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was inspired to buy machines to coat his caramels with chocolate. He became very rich.

For Philly, the 20th century brought a chocolate explosion. Most of the cacao beans arriving in the United States were processed here. (They still are.) Besides Hershey’s, our town birthed such major players as Wilbur Chocolate (known for the famous Bud), Whitman’s (the Sampler), Asher’s (Republicans), and Goldenberg’s (Peanut Chews, originally developed as energy-packed G.I. rations for WWI). Dozens more small-scale candy makers dotted neighborhoods, catering to factory workers and their families.

Then the factories closed, and confectioners did, too. Some, like Wilbur, got snapped up by conglomerates. A few independents hung on—Shane’s, Zitner’s in North Philly, Young’s in Brewerytown. But at the turn of this century, the city’s chocolate future seemed bleak. Then a funny thing happened. One after another, new players started to arrive on the scene. If the Berley brothers are a throwback to chocolate’s past, Chris Curtin represents the future of the cacao bean.

IN NOVEMBER, WHILE VISITING Philly to promote his 10 Arts restaurant, superstar chef Eric Ripert went on NBC 10 and proclaimed Christopher Curtin’s Éclat chocolate the best in the world. He said he eats a bar every day. Curtin wasn’t especially surprised. He’s paid his dues—14 years slaving for 16-hour shifts in four-star kitchens in Belgium and Switzerland and France and Spain. He was the first American ever to receive the title of German Master Pastry Chef and Chocolatier. And when it came time to open his own chocolate shop, he chose … West Chester.

As you enter the petite Éclat factory/­shop on High Street, you’re hit with a wall of chocolate scent that makes your head spin. Curtin crafts chocolate-coated­ ganaches in exotic flavors like Aleppo chili, single-malt whiskey and ginger caramel with red Hawaiian sea salt. His “Obsession Bars” have such non-intuitive mix-ins as toasted corn and wasabi peas.

Curtin, 46, is beefy and jowly, as a proper maître should be. He grew up in Wisconsin, but built his enterprise here because it’s where the cacao beans are. Besides, his is an old Philadelphia family—“My great-great-grandfather, Andrew Gregg Curtin, was governor of Pennsylvania.” With that pedigree, it’s understandable, perhaps, that he’s a bit of a snob.

“A true chocolatier can make chocolate, not just melt it,” he sniffs. “Anybody in America can call himself a chocolatier. A violin is a violin, you know? But what comes out depends on who plays.” Curtin duets with well-known chefs on creations like his new single-source bars with Jose Garces, which are sold at Éclat and Garces Trading Company: white chocolate with porcini powder and organic thyme, dark chocolate with roasted Spanish almonds and smoked paprika …

You might expect such a highfalutin chocolatier to look down his nose at the Berleys. You’d be wrong. “You can’t move forward until you know what’s in the past,” Curtin says. “I love what they do. It’s candy-­making that’s completely American in style.” Both he and the Berleys, he believes, are part of “a new age of chocolate-making” in the city. And just like Milton Hershey and Henry Wilbur, the new chocolatiers are carving out niches to call their own.

“I’M GOING TO TEACH YOU about chocolate,” John Doyle promises, holding out his hand, on which are perched three disks the size of thumbtacks. Doyle has blue eyes to die for, so if he was offering me thumbtacks, I’d probably eat them. But he’s offering me chocolate, so of course I put the disks in my mouth. They taste good.

“That’s $4-a-pound chocolate,” says Doyle. He opens another bag, here in the spotless factory on a hard-bitten block in Feltonville where he and his wife make John & Kira’s chocolates. “And this is $8-a-pound chocolate.” I pop the disk he gives me in my mouth and involuntarily say “Oh!” The taste is smooth and nuanced, with undertones of caramel and vanilla. The $4-a-pound chocolate was good. This is very very very good.

“Do you like figs? Have a fig,” Doyle says. If this is the Garden of Eden, I just failed the test. Doyle’s fig—grown on a small farm in Spain, bred to have a thin skin and particularly minute seeds—is filled with rich, creamy whiskey ganache and then dunked in dark chocolate. My knees are weak.

Once upon a time, Doyle, 42, was a financial analyst, poring over spreadsheets. When he decided that was dull, he took up cooking, and worked in Manhattan as a chef. Then he read about Judy Wicks’s White Dog Cafe in West Philly, and drove down to introduce himself. Three visits later, he was hired as manager. He met sustainability­-minded farmers and learned about ecological responsibility. And he began thinking about making chocolates the same way Wicks crafted her dinners, using locally sourced products: mint raised by West Philly school kids, organic lavender, Pennsylvania-grown strawberries.

Doyle launched his company in 2003. Not long after that, he met Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl at a trade show. She adored his chocolates, and put them on the cover of her magazine. Oprah and Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma came calling, and he was on his way. “We moved around a lot at first,” he recalls. “I worked out of the Project H.O.M.E. kitchen for a while.” Meantime, he was calling up local chocolatiers and introducing himself. That’s how he met Tony Walter Jr., a plainspoken Philly guy whose chocolates are down-to-earth in a completely different way.

YOU STILL DON’T NEED MUCH room to make candy. Doyle’s plant kitchen isn’t much bigger than the one in my house. You don’t need many people, either; none of the chocolatiers I visited have more than a handful of employees. What you need is experience and know-how. That’s where Tony Jr. comes in.

His dad, Tony Sr., managed the Goldenberg’s plant for decades, and worked for a ton of other chocolate makers—Elmer, Minler Brothers, Plantation. Then, back in the ’80s, Tony Sr. and his son bought their own chocolate company: Lore’s. Today, Tonys Jr. and Sr. still make a full line of traditional chocolates—caramels, buttercreams, marshmallows, jellies, nougat—­to sell to customers who come in with their kids and grandkids to the Lore’s shop, tucked on 7th Street just south of Market. I can’t recommend the toffee highly enough.

Candy making is hard work, Tony Jr. tells me as we bask in the warmth of a vat of 275 pounds of melted chocolate: “I don’t think anyone goes into it with big thoughts. It’s not glamorous. Nobody calls you ‘Chef.’” You’re at the mercy of the weather and swings in commodities. “I hedged wrong on cocoa futures last June,” he says, and shrugs.

Carl Goldenberg, who sold his Peanut Chew business to Just Born, the Peeps peeps, in 2003, still lives in Rittenhouse Square and stops by to chew the fat with Tony Jr., who wasn’t surprised by the sale. “It’s very difficult to be a small player in this business,” Tony Jr. says. “The big guys”—mega-merchants like Walmart and Target—­“are writing the rules. They squeeze the margin out of you. There’s not much wiggle room. Just Born is 10 times larger than Goldenberg’s. It’s easier for them to play on that field.”

You’d think a guy working that hard, squeezed so tightly by economic forces, would be fanatical about guarding the secrets of his trade. But when Doyle needed a place to make his chocolates, Tony Jr. offered him part of Lore’s Feltonville plant (formerly the Goldenberg’s plant). When the Berley brothers needed an antique candy stove, they went to Tony Jr., too. “I collect stuff,” he says, and shrugs again.

Tony Jr., 49, regards the new Philly chocolatiers with fond bemusement. “Those brothers—they’re kind of kooky,” he says of the Berleys. And Doyle? “I’ve known John since before he made candy.” He shakes his head at Doyle’s chocolate ladybugs and bees, which cost $29 for a nine-piece box: “If you can charge $60 a pound for your chocolates … now that’s wiggle room!” Still, he’s generous with his knowledge and his cache of equipment. “Lore’s is good people,” Curtin says. Eric Berley adds: “Tony will buy anything he sees if he thinks it might help a friend.”

Philly’s chocolatiers are like a family, for the most part. They don’t rejoice when someone among them fails. There’s universal sympathy for Antoine Amrani, whose high-end line got cold-cocked by the recession, and for Tom and Sarah Block, whose Naked Chocolate melted down. Tony Jr. tells sadly of watching gentrification—and salvation—­inch ever closer to venerable Young’s Candies in Brewerytown. Just as the hipsters reached Girard Avenue, third-generation proprietor Harry Young Jr. died. The shop closed; none of his kids wanted the hard life of a chocolatier.

Still, some people do.

Among the confections for sale at the reborn Shane’s are LoveBars, made by the newest member of Philly’s chocolate clan: Tegan Hagy, 32, who was operating out of a rented GradHo kitchen until June, when she snared a petite commercial kitchen in Frankford. Hagy makes “bean-to-bar” chocolate: She hand-roasts cacao beans sourced from fair-trade farms in Latin America, hulls them, grinds them in a melanger from India normally used to prepare lentils for dahl—“I had the motor modified”—adds organic sugar, tempers the chocolate to make it more stable and sheeny, molds it, then hand-wraps the resultant bars.

She produces about a hundred a week and sells them at the Headhouse Farmers’ Market, along with chunks of untempered chocolate—“It has a softer texture; kids like it”—hot chocolate, and her newest product, brewing cacao: roasted and ground beans that you percolate with water to produce … the drink the Aztecs taught their European conquerors to make.

There’s been, Hagy says, “a level of disbelief” among local chocolatiers at her methods. When she was looking for equipment, she visited Tony Jr. at Lore’s, who raised his eyebrows at her enterprise. Hagy didn’t take it personally: “They’re artisans. This is a craft, something deep in their history. Before he handed anything over, he wanted to make sure it would be properly respected and used.” She must have passed the test; Tony Jr. offered to sell her a temperer. Somebody may still be making chocolate with it at the turn of the next century.