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North Hills Monthly

Chocolate Lovers Have Wealth of Options in Pittsburgh

Jan 29, 2016 05:23PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
Is there any food more universally loved than chocolate? It is a food to be savored, eaten with gusto, a sweet reward for a job well done or a pick-me-up in the middle of a long day. And chocolate aficionados in Pittsburgh have no shortage of choices when it comes to finding the perfect piece of chocolate bliss.

According to Jim Paras, owner of the renowned Betsy Ann Chocolates in West View, Pittsburgh is in the epicenter of the ‘chocolate belt,’ which extends from Illinois to New York. “The majority of all chocolate in this country is produced there, and we are right in the center of it. We tend to have really high quality local manufacturers who make good candy; there are very few places in the country where people can get chocolate as good as what they can around here,” he said.

Betsy Ann, a popular player in the industry since 1961, is known for their Paras Truffles, which Paras describes as “…American original truffles and flavors designed for American taste.” Some sample flavors include cookies and cream, pecan caramel or crunchy peanut butter truffles. One item in high demand is their sea salt caramel pretzels, a relatively new offering that is proving to be hard to keep in stock.

Another iconic chocolate company is the Canonsburg-based Sarris Candies, established in 1960. Owner Bill Sarris said that while there are a lot of fads in the chocolate world, his company sticks to the basics to appease his customers, using the original recipe that made them famous, and makes it one batch at a time. “We take painstaking care to make these things look and taste beautiful,” he said.

Sarris Candies offers chocolates to accommodate every taste and has a variety of novelty candies to please the kid inside everyone. “Two top selling items are chocolate covered pretzels and peanut butter meltaways,” said Sarris.

Even though going to Sarris is a destination itself, with its old-fashioned ice cream parlor serving as an annex to the candy store, Pittsburghers are fortunate to be able to buy Sarris chocolates at more than 1,200 other locations.

Although chocolate is a year-round commodity, certain seasons or holidays see a spike in chocolate sales. For Valentine’s Day, Sarris will be offering chocolate ‘smooches’—chocolate in the shape of lips, wrapped in lipstick-red foil in a lip-shaped box.

Another family-run company, Pollak’s Candies, has been a chocolate institution in Etna since co-owner Beth Weidner’s grandparents began making chocolate in their basement in 1948. The Etna-based factory now sits in close proximity to the retail shop, having left Ross Park Mall three years ago.

Weidner said that health-conscious customers want more dark chocolate, as well as have a desire to return to their roots. “I think customers want to go back to wanting the kinds of candies that they grew up with,” she said. To that end, Pollak’s has not deviated from Weidner’s grandparents’ winning recipe and continues to offer many traditional selections; bestsellers include cordial strawberries, pecan delights and chocolate-covered cherries. 

A newer face in the Pittsburgh chocolate community is the Speckled Hen, located in Saxonburg, which opened almost four years ago. Owner Valerie Cannon tries to think out of the box when she creates her delectable delights. “Anything unique is my specialty. I try and take typical boxed chocolates and put a spin on them,” she said. For example, she may include a chocolate-covered Oreo or chocolate-covered fudge in a box of chocolates. Another popular product at the Speckled Hen is a Rice Krispies® treat covered in chocolate that is made to look like an ice cream cone.

Cannon said that some bestsellers, which reflect consumer trends, include chocolate-covered bacon, a ‘peanut butter addiction’ pretzel, and fresh berries with chocolate drizzled on top. Shopping local is another consumer preference that she tries to honor by buying some of her ingredients from local farms, such as the pumpkin used to make her pumpkin truffles.

While some folks prefer to shop local, others like to comb the ends of the earth for just the right-tasting chocolate flavors. Though they do make some of their own products, including truffles and drinking chocolate, Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip District caters to those searching for an international taste.

The shop’s president, Amy Rosenfield, said that they carry products from 45 countries, including Belgium, France, England, Lithuania and Vietnam. In addition, they carry a lot of American small craft chocolate. “America has stepped up significantly over the last five to 10 years in the quality of chocolate,” she said.

The advantage of shopping at Mon Aimee is that the selection varies day-to-day, though they are known for their dark chocolate. The shop also offers a large selection of bean-to-bar manufacturers and carry the lines of three all-female local chocolatiers: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate, Lux Artisan Chocolates and A519 Chocolate.