When Bill Sarris was in high school — he was class president — his class needed to raise $2,000.
He decided to put a program together with candy from his dad’s company for the students to sell and make the money they needed.
Ultimately, they raised $8,000, and Sarris, president of Sarris Candies, remembers thinking that they should do the same thing in other schools.
“So, when I came into the business, I came back and said ‘You know what, we need equipment. I’m flying to Germany. I’m going to go over there because that’s where they make the best equipment, and we’re going to go buy something,’” he says.
“My dad said ‘You’re crazy. You aren’t going anywhere. We don’t have the money.’
“I said ‘Yes, we do. I already called the bank. I already took care of it. I’ve got a line of credit. We’re going. We’re doing it.’”
That’s how Sarris Candies got into the fundraising business in the 1970s. Today, it offers fundraising programs to schools, churches, groups and athletic teams in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and beyond.
For more than 50 years with various additions to its retail store and factory, Sarris Candies has grown from Founder Frank Sarris’ basement into a $45 million company with 500 employees, during peak season.
Sarris has focused on managing growth, while maintaining the old-fashioned values and customer service standards set by his father. Here’s how he marries cult appeal to Sarris Candies’ mom and pop image with scale in growing the Sarris brand.
Too much of a good thing
The idea of too much growth isn’t something you hear a lot, but with a commodity like candy, there is too much of a good thing.
“We manage this constantly — that growth factor,” Sarris says. “Hey, we love to grow. Everybody does. That lets you hire more people. It lets you buy better. Your costs go down in one sense, but it’s a difficult task when you’re into a perishable item.
“Candy is a luxury. It’s not something that you have to have,” he says. “So, we always have to monitor our costs, and you can’t keep passing that along to the consumer. Eventually, you’re going to price yourself out of business.”
Sarris Candies follows a philosophy of manageable growth. The business doesn’t want to grow more than 20 percent a year. By keeping shelf life in mind, Sarris Candies basically produces to order and ensures products are always fresh.
The company can only get so many beans a year from cocoa farms and doesn’t want to blend beans that will change the product quality. At the same time, production space is limited.
With these constraints, Sarris says they monitor inventory constantly with sophisticated computer systems that check things in and out.
“We have to track every nut that walks in the door. I’m not talking about people. I’m talking about cashew nuts, almonds and all that,” he says.
Even the packaging takes advanced planning. Film and boxes can take three or four months to be delivered.
Diversifying the business
One part of controlling growth is through diversity. The candy company has five categories in its business mix — the retail store, ice cream parlor and Internet sales; holiday fundraising and candy bars; wholesaling in Hallmark and grocery stores; corporate sales like business gifting; and private label manufacturing.
By managing each category, Sarris says they don’t let one run away from the others.
“You have five fingers on your hand. You can lose a finger and you can still do just about anything else that you want to do,” he says. “If you lose the hand, you’re in trouble.”
Sarris Candies also was able to acquire Gardners Candies in Central Pennsylvania in 1997. The troubled candy facility gave landlocked Sarris Candies needed production.
Sarris says it provided an opportunity to see and learn from another brand. In fact, he moved up to Gardners, spending all week there and coming home on weekends.
From scrubbing floors to spending months in the kitchens redeveloping products, Sarris showed Gardners he knew the industry.
“As crazy as that was, I did every job with them from making the candy to putting the candy on the lines, fixing equipment, tearing down motors — and you know what, that’s probably the most fun, getting your hands dirty and getting in there,” he says.
Today, the two companies sometimes compete against each other for customers in a family-type rivalry, but two facilities allows for production efficiencies.
That diversity also helped when Sarris Candies caught fire in February 2012. Although there was $7.5 million in damage, only the retail store and ice cream parlor were truly affected.
“At the time of the fire, when the fire was burning, we put 30 trucks on the road delivering candies,” Sarris says.
They also used the media to let customers know Sarris Candies was still in business, and everything was fine.
A constant challenge of managing growth is keeping the values — high-quality standards and customer service in Sarris Candies’ case — that gave the business success in the first place.
Sarris Candies continues to offer all full-time employees and their families 100 percent health care coverage. With an aging workforce, this is an enormous cost, but Sarris feels is worth it to keep the employees who provide strong customer service.
He also is always visiting other candy facilities to see if something can be done to improve operations.
“We use the equipment to enhance our employees’ job, like an automatic stirrer so they don’t have to stir with a spoon. The equipment helps our people. Our equipment does not replace our people,” Sarris says.
For example, by making caramel batch by batch at Sarris Candies, employees pour 20 or 30 tables a day.
“I could get an automated machine that would go in there, but I can’t use fresh cream. I can’t use the fresh butter; I have to use powder stuff,” he says. “It lowers the quality of the product, but I could make 150 tables in a day. We don’t do that.”
Sarris says you need to watch costs but don’t change the product to save a few pennies.
“In the long run, I don’t agree with that at all. I just don’t. I don’t think I ever will,” he says. “I don’t want automation to jeopardize your product, especially the quality of the product and the ingredients that go in there.”
- Constantly monitor your inventory to ensure the right production levels.
- A diverse business and manufacturing mix controls growth.
- Maintain the values that allowed the company to grow in the first place.
The Sarris File:
Name: Bill Sarris
Company: Sarris Candies
Born: Canonsburg, Pennsylvania
Education: Washington & Jefferson College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? In high school, I worked construction at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, and then I moved over and worked at Allegheny General’s warehousing. I learned that I never wanted to do that again.
I never really left Sarris. When I was 10 years old, I had to make 12 bunnies a day before I could go out and play. And that was one at a time, and they took about 20 minutes each, so I never got to go out and play. It got dark. I wasn’t allowed out after dark.
You never wanted to do anything else? I had intentions of going to medical school because every parent wants his kid to be a doctor or a lawyer. But once I was in the business, I stayed.
I grew up every day with it — smelling chocolate. The candy was in our basement. I helped every day because my dad sat there and hand dipped candy. I learned how to do that when I was 12, 13 years old.
What is the best business advice you ever received? My dad was always saying: Don’t be the smartest guy in the room. If you are, you’re in the wrong room.
You need smart people around you, and that’s what we think we do. We get people in here that we trust.
You need to learn from people, and listen. You can’t hear if your mouth is moving.
Do you have a favorite type of candy? If I eat a piece of candy, I’ll go get a peanut butter cup — anything peanut butter.
If I’m going to sneak something that’s what I sneak; I don’t sneak it, but I don’t want my wife to know. She’s a candy nut, too. Everybody eats candy that’s in here.