DIASPORA

A sweet history: Greek immigrants in the confection business

a-sweet-history-greek-immigrants-in-the-confection-business

The Greek-American connection with restaurants, albeit stereotypically exaggerated, is by now proverbial. Not as well-known is the Greek association with the confectionery industry, which Greek immigrants came to dominate, if not monopolize, for the better part of the 20th century. 

To say there were thousands of Greek-owned candy shops and ice cream parlors across America is an understatement. By 1910, there were 900 in Chicago alone. In 1900, Boston’s Confectioners Gazette sings the praises of Greek immigrant Andreas Gunaris, owner of a chocolate factory and candy shops throughout Boston. The December 1914 issue of the International Confectioner mentions an “enterprising Greek” selling ice cream in Alaska of all places, on the tiny and remote Douglas Island, turning the locals into ice cream lovers who spent their hard-earned money on chocolate-flavored ice cream, 25 cents per spoonful. 

The Greek-owned candy shop was so ubiquitous and so imbedded in the heart of American social and community life that, as Steve Frangos writes in The National Herald, the “Greek Confectionery Parlor” is featured in “Main Street,” Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 classic novel about American small-town life. Even the Archie comic includes the Chock’lit Shoppe ice cream parlor, and the character of Pop Tate, both inspired by Greek immigrants who owned the Crown Confectionery in Haverhill, Massachusetts. 

The trend began in 1873 with a Greek sailor from Smyrna, named Panagiotis Hatzideris, who immigrated to the US and worked as a street vendor until he saved enough money to open a candy and lukum shop in Chicago. With his partner, Eleftherios Pelalas from Sparta, he set in motion a chain tradition of providing jobs and training to newcomers. They in turn moved on to other areas and started their own business, creating an intricate nationwide web of confectionery businesses that welcomed and mentored family and friends to the US from the old country. 

By the early 1900s, there were Greek-owned candy and ice cream shops everywhere in the US. In Chicago, Leo Stefanos from the small town of Pedemeno, Messinia, made confectionery history introducing Dove Chocolate and the DoveBar ice cream, now sold all over the world. At the center of Chicago life, and still serving its confections almost 100 years later, is Margie’s Candies, where Al Capone was a regular and sat at a booth against a cement wall for obvious reasons; the owners still display his picture with an inscription admonishing them to “watch the register.” Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson have all enjoyed Margie’s confections while performing in Chicago. 

While this article highlights several shops, these are only a drop in an ocean of sugar plums and chocolate. There were untold numbers of such establishments, each with its own unique story through which runs a common thread of some ingenious and hard-working immigrant determined to succeed and brilliant at recognizing the opportunities of his time, not only in America, but beyond, whether back in the homeland or other places in Europe, such as Leonidas Chocolates and EVGA. 

Those that especially spoke to me are the following: 

Leopold’s

Stratton Leopold has produced such Hollywood blockbusters as “Mission: Impossible III,” “The General’s Daughter” and “The Big Chill,” to name a few. He has also worked with greats such as Anthony Hopkins, Tom Cruise, Benicio del Toro, among others. 

But his heart has always been down south in historic Savannah, Georgia, at the world-famous Leopold’s Ice Cream company, where he learned the art of making premium ice cream as a boy. A local institution, Leopold’s was founded in 1919 by the Eliopoulos brothers – Stratton’s father and his two brothers – whose name was changed to Leopold when they were registered at Ellis Island. 

After years in Hollywood, Stratton could not resist the call. In 2004, he and his wife Mary returned to Savannah to continue making one of the best ice creams in the world, proudly using the original secret recipes and techniques handed down to him by his father. 

The Candy Kitchen

No shop epitomizes the story of the Greek-owned candy and ice cream business on Main Street USA better than the Candy Kitchen in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, located on the Maryland border, and near the Pen Mar resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains, known at the turn of the 20th century as the playground of the Washington and Baltimore wealthy. 

John Petros Leos, nephew of the founders, tells us that the Candy Kitchen was founded in 1902 by James and Nicholas Skaves, two brothers from the village of Mari in Kynourias, Arcadia, who crossed the Atlantic in the 1890s as stowaways. As with most early Greek immigrants who opened their own business, they too started out as pushcart vendors. Settling in Baltimore where there was a sizable Greek community, they sold peanuts by day and worked for a German Swiss confectioner at night, saving enough money to open their own, and joined later by their brother-in-law Petros Leos. 

Third-generation owner John Petros Leos, a Renaissance man who is as passionate about making chocolate as he is about teaching French, grew up in the back room of the shop playing with pots and pans while his parents made chocolate. Nephew of the founders, and one of the last Greek-American candymakers associated with the pioneers of the industry, Leos was initiated into the secrets of the trade by his father Petros Leos and later by his mother Despina, the mainstay of the extended family. 

Leos takes great pride in the fact that the Candy Kitchen has served the area for three generations and continues to produce chocolate the old-fashioned way of hand pouring, hand rolling and hand cutting. He also takes pride in the original 100-year-old chocolate recipe ledger he inherited from his uncles, and his collection of more than 2,000 German chocolate molds that date back to the turn of the 20th century. 

Reminiscing about the days when he would make over 50 varieties of candy alongside his mother Despina, who watched and supervised every aspect, John Leos is considering his next venture which will inevitably involve chocolate.

The Carvel Ice Cream empire

Tom Carvel (Athanasios Karvelas), one of seven children, was born in Athens in 1906 and arrived in the US in 1910. In 1929, after several failed business attempts, he began selling ice cream in Hartsdale, NY, out of an old vending truck he bought with a $15 loan. As the story goes, on Memorial Day weekend 1934, his truck had a flat tire, an accident that opened the gate to a golden opportunity and an ice cream empire. 

While most people might have given up, Carvel pulled into a parking lot and began selling to passers-by, only to discover they loved the softer melting ice cream. And so the idea of soft-serve ice cream was born. The vending truck turned into a roadside ice cream stand and eventually into 800 ice cream shops across America, with Carvel becoming a household name. 

EVGA

Especially surprising is that Greece’s iconic ice cream and dairy company, EVGA, was founded by Greek immigrants, the Sourapas brothers, who hailed from Vervena, Tripolis. After finding success in Chicago with the National Ice Cream Company, they saw opportunity in Greece’s still primitive method of distributing milk and making ice cream. Establishing EVGA (Ethniki Viomihania Galaktos) in 1934, they were the first to pasteurize milk and standardize ice cream in the country. 

In 1936, EVGA introduced ice cream on a stick, an instant best-seller, as well as ice cream in a cup, and ice cream in a cone with chocolate and almonds. Since there were no refrigerated trucks to cruise the streets, vendors initially sold the ice cream out of wheelbarrows filled with ice. Eventually, the iconic EVGA three-wheeled carts were introduced, with the ice cream man wearing a white apron and cap.

Leonidas Belgian chocolates 

Even Leonidas, the world-famous Belgian chocolates, had their beginning in Greek immigrant America, with Leonidas Kestekides from Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, who settled in New York in 1894 and became a confectioner after learning the art of chocolate making. 

Part of the Greek delegation to the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910, Leonidas’ chocolates won the bronze medal. Returning for the 1913 International Exhibition in Ghent, he won the gold medal, fell in love with a local woman, and permanently settled in Belgium. 

After the 1922 Asia Minor disaster, Leonidas’ family joined him, including his 19-year-old nephew Vasilios, who joined his uncle and eventually replaced him at the helm. Today, the firm is managed by Vasilios’ grandchildren. With franchises around the world, Leonidas chocolates are now one of the most beloved chocolate confections globally.


Connie Mourtoupalas is an exhibitions curator and former president of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.