By Mike Lewis
Tony Pananes spends his days surrounded by candy, but he still brings his wife, Sarah, chocolates for Valentine’s Day.
“Of course,” he said with a laugh. “I have to. I get a little discount, though. … We are all chocoholics, including our son (Oliver, age 5).”
Pananes is the third-generation of his family to own Olympia Candy Kitchen, which is based in downtown Chambersburg, Pa., and has a store just north of Hagerstown, Md. For more than a century, the business has made and sold chocolates and other sweet treats.
The candy kitchen opened on South Main Street in Chambersburg in 1903.
In 1921, George Pananes and his brother, James, bought the business. Olympia’s ownership passed from George to his son, Will, and then to Will’s son, Tony.
But Tony Pananes didn’t take a direct line to the family venture back home.
“What I really wanted to do at first, and what I was able to do, was work in the music business,” he said. “We (he and his sister) always had music in our lives growing up.”
So after graduating from Penn State University, he served a four-year stint marketing new releases for Warner Brothers in New York. But his family always let him know the candy business was waiting, and eventually he came home to take the reins. Will Pananes is retired.
Now 40, Tony Pananes notes that “we’ve always kind of evolved and expanded our offerings.” But tradition holds pride of place.
“We have many multi-generational family customers. We’re very blessed in that regard,” he said. “Quality and tradition are our two hallmarks. That’s what keeps us going.”
“Quality and tradition” extends to the way things are made, too.
“My dad always told me our pecan rolls and pecan eggs at Easter are the oldest recipes we have,” he said. “We’ve been making caramel the same exact way for a very long time.”
The business employs about a dozen people year-round, although the roster expands a bit during peak times.
So I have to ask right off the bat, which candies are your favorites?
It depends on what day it is, but lately I can’t stop eating our milk chocolate cashew bark.
What’s it like to prepare for February and Valentine’s Day? Is it your busiest time of the year, or do other holidays compete with it?
Valentines overall is our third-biggest holiday sales-wise (behind Christmas and Easter), but it is the busiest three-day span of the year. It is very challenging because of the chocolate-covered strawberries and how they have to be made at the last minute due to how perishable they are. But it’s fun.
How did you carve out this niche to distinguish Olympia from the big candy companies?
Truly by God’s blessing. To be a small family business in our 116th year now is awesome. Our quality and tradition brings people back, along with our friendly customer service. I always say that we could have the best candy in the world, but if the customer service is not welcoming and helpful, then you will eventually fail. And vice versa: You can have the best, most helpful service, but if the candy is just “ehh” or bad, then you will eventually get replaced.
From a business standpoint, what are your biggest challenges and opportunities?
For us there are two big things right now. The first arcs back to the previous question a little. It is getting our chocolates and candies in enough people’s hands so they can taste the difference. We can be easily replaced with trendy, more flashy candy (and packaging) that is more easily accessible, so that is why we stress customer service as much as quality products. We reward our customers who make a special trip to come see us with good service and quality products. And the second biggest challenge is the age of our buildings and what that entails. I think all property owners can relate to that.
What do you wish more people understood about the candy business?
The difference between real chocolate and chocolate-flavored coating. So many times big companies try to sneak “fake” chocolate by people with clever packaging and marketing. Even reputable companies do it. You will see “MILK CHOCOLATE” in big letters then “flavored” in tiny letters under it or not at all. Real chocolate (milk and dark) has cocoa butter as a distinguishing ingredient. Coating is made with palm kernel oil. Coating can still taste pretty good, but I educate people so they are not deceived.
How do you juggle your personal and professional responsibilities?
That is the toughest part of life for me. It is an ongoing challenge that my loving wife helps me with. I would be a workaholic if not for her.
Outside of work, what are your ambitions and aspirations?
I like how the question started “outside of work.” I continually aspire to be a good and loving husband and father and to not have my business 100 percent define who I am. My ambitions include serving our communities unselfishly and traveling with my wife and family.