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.

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.