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Buffalo's legacy of chocolate

In Buffalo, the questions “Who makes the best wings in town?” and “Where’s the best beef on weck?” are met with fiercely defended proclamations by factions of fans who swear by their picks, and theirs alone. These alliances are often sworn based on family favorites and ever-so-subtle differences in flavor, texture or presentation that most out-of-towners would never notice.

But there’s another Western New York treat whose makers claimed loyal followings of local taste buds decades before wings and weck — chocolate.

Buffalo and its immediate suburbs boast nearly 20 chocolatiers, more than most metropolitan areas of similar size. Their names are like family friends whose houses you visit on special occasions, and they’ve been local fixtures for generations — Watson’s, Fowler’s, Wahl’s, Platter’s, Antoinette’s, Alethea’s, Parkside, King Condrell’s, Niagara, Ko-Ed, Park Edge, Landies and more.

Many of the immigrants who settled the Queen City in the late 1880s brought with them the confectionary traditions of their home countries, most notably the Germans and Greeks. Buffalo’s position along major shipping routes meant raw materials like sugar and cocoa were easy to come by and reasonably inexpensive.

By the turn of the last century, chocolate had become such a point of local pride that when Buffalo hosted the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, two entire buildings were dedicated to chocolate. Over the years, Western New York has cultivated a chocolate culture with sweet specialties that are difficult or impossible to find outside of this area, like sponge candy, Charlie Chaplins, orange chocolate, and even the Sweetest Day holiday.

A neighborhood tradition

Watson's chocolate heart | Buffalo Magazine

Classic hearts for Valentine’s Day are a Watson’s tradition.

From this perfect recipe of circumstances came countless mom-and-pop chocolatiers, each with their own recipes, specialties and traditions. Back before the days of sprawling grocery stores, most neighborhoods had their own individual family-owned butcher, bakery, produce stand, barber, and sweet shop. People grew up with treats from the local candy maker, developed a sincere loyalty to “their” chocolate, and often passed that preference down to the next generation.

“North Tonawanda residents who grew up with Platter’s bring their kids back,” says Platter’s Vice President of Business Development John DiGuiseppe. “They’re continuing the tradition. If people have another kind of chocolate than what they grew up with, they almost feel guilty about it.”

Because most people bought the chocolate produced closest to their home, chocolate makers didn’t consider each other competition. Quite the opposite, in fact – they lent each other equipment, traded recipes, and taught newer shops how to make different candy, creating connections between families that would last generations.

“In the early 1950s when my parents first started making chocolates, I’d go over to Garden of Sweets after school and borrow their candy molds,” says Jim Watson, the second of three generations behind Watson’s Chocolates. “We’d use them overnight and return them the next morning before 8 a.m. so they could use them. My dad would go over to their shop and learn new techniques.”

Watson’s father passed the knowledge down to him, and over the years Watson has shared what he knows with other shops like Ko-Ed Candies and Chocologo. He says the older makers are still careful not to open new stores too close to shops run by other chocolatiers out of respect.

As decades passed and candy makers’ kids sought jobs outside of the family business, many small chocolatiers closed up shop for good. But others were purchased by local entrepreneurs who were insistent on keeping neighborhood traditions alive.

In 2015, when Ko-Ed Candies sold the shop that had been a South Buffalo landmark since just after World War II, Platter’s Chocolates acquired it. Ko-Ed devotees were adamant that their favorite treats stay the same, so Platter’s still makes chocolate in that shop using all of Ko-Ed’s original recipes instead of their own.

Not far down Abbott Road, another South Buffalo chocolatier of the same vintage was saved from extinction as well. Seven years ago, Maggie Mulvaney was making her annual Easter candy shopping trip to Park Edge Sweet Shoppe when she learned that the owners were looking to sell. Maggie and her sister, Anna Hartog, grew up spending their allowance on Park Edge treats, and decided to buy the shop. They’ve since brought back customers’ old favorites and introduced new offerings like bacon toffee bark and pumpkin spice caramels.

New kids on the block

Blue Table truffles | Buffalo Magazine

Blue Table is among the region’s new school of chocolate makers, specializing in artistic truffles with creative flavor combinations.

It would be easy to assume that with so many established chocolate makers in Western New York, new purveyors would have a difficult time earning their share of the chocolate pie. The key to their survival, say old and new chocolatiers alike, is the fact that the newbies are all doing something totally different than the legacy shops.

“We don’t make sponge candy — Fowler’s and others crush that market,” says newcomer Dark Forest Chocolate co-owner Joanne Sundell. “Each of us sort of has their own thing, and we can all live harmoniously together.”

The range of chocolate that’s now available locally is enough to melt the hearts of chocolate lovers. In the Elmwood Village, Thinking Elvish Fantasy Chocolates wizards up confections with names like Immortality of the Elves (organic cocoa butter infused with coconut flesh). Chocologo crafts custom, small-batch chocolates and packaging for corporate gifts and party favors, and operates a small storefront on Broadway in downtown Buffalo. Dark Forest in Lancaster is the region’s only bean-to-bar chocolate maker, sourcing small harvests of fair trade cocoa beans from places like Belize and Madagascar to make premium chocolate bars right in the shop. Oh Pour L’amour Du Chocolat specializes in French truffles, served from glass cases in a 1920s Parisian-inspired boutique shop on Main Street in Williamsville. Blue Table Chocolates and Whimsy Confections, both in downtown Buffalo, craft truffles filled with intoxicatingly creative flavor combinations and hand-finished with colorful lacquered tops reminiscent of tiny paintings.

Mike Wahl, whose family started Wahl’s Chocolates in 1938 from their dining room, says there’s a common thread among Buffalo chocolate makers — whether they’re one year old or 100 — that endears their confections to their customers and ensures their survival.

“The new ones are starting like my grandparents did — they have a knack, and they’re specializing in what they know.”

The skinny on sponge

Sponge candy, a distinctly Western New York treasure, is a chocolate-covered, crunchy cloud cube that melts into caramel sugar on the tongue. All the legendary local chocolate makers have their own secret recipes, and many claim theirs to be the best. Some say sponge emigrated from Ohio, others swear it’s a Buffalo-born novelty. But there’s one point that nearly all local candy makers agree on.

“No one can say for sure who invented sponge candy, or when exactly it was invented,” says Jim Watson. “Nobody knows. And if they say they know, they’d be hard pressed to prove it.”

QVC Sensation

Landies Candies has been making chocolate in Buffalo for more than 30 years. Their chocolate-dipped cheesecake and strawberries have both won “best dessert” and “best overall item” numerous times at the Taste of Buffalo, and many people swear by their sponge candy. But the company’s sweetest success has been sales on QVC.

Landies offers 54 varieties of Signature Stuffed Pretzels, which are Snyder pretzels stuffed with fillings like truffle, marshmallow, and caramel, then dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with chopped nuts, coconut, candy and more. They’re all made and packaged on the third floor of the Tri-Main Center on Main Street in Buffalo, which also houses a retail shop that’s open to the public.

A few years ago, Landies had been ramping up production to become Paula Dean’s premier chocolatier. When the southern star fell from grace, Landies was almost stuck with an abundance of sweets. But in a stroke of perfect timing, QVC approached the candy maker to see if they wanted to sell treats on television.

The first time they went on air, they sold 10,000 boxes in 10 minutes. They finished 2016 at the top of the QVC sales charts, just behind Disney’s Frozen merchandise. During the holiday season last year, UPS had to bring in more planes to get the pretzels shipped in time.

All of this has meant huge growth for the once-small family business. Landies was named to Business First’s list of top 50 fastest growing companies in Western New York for three years in a row, who also deemed the company Small Business of the Year in 2015. With a 21 percent increase in the last three years, they were the 37th fastest growing company in WNY last year and are on track to continue growing.

“Our roots and heart are here in Buffalo,” says Mark Lazzara, government and public relations coordinator for Landies. “But the true success of Landies Candies has been the national attention.”

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