At the factory store of Betsy Ann Chocolates, James Paras '80 notices when the aroma of fresh, handmade chocolates conjures powerful memories among his customers. "You can see on their faces these memories come alive," says Paras, president of the family business for more than two decades.
Founded in 1938 by Betsy Ann Helsel, the West View company supplied the candy shops in Horne's department stores. In 1968, when Helsel retired, she sold the business to Harry and Catherine Paras. The middle son of five boys, James grew up in the candy business. For him, the chocolate factory was always a place of work, not a Willy Wonka fantasy.
Just steps above the store, in the factory's kitchen, industrial mixers agitate gallons of molten chocolate. Workers pour and spread the smooth, brown liquid by hand onto grooved marble tables to prepare it for various confections. On one table, a inch-thick slab of chocolate meltaway seven feet long by five feet wide waits to be cut into bite-sized squares.
In the next room, underneath a photo from the iconic "I Love Lucy" chocolate factory episode, three ladies in hairnets keep pace with a white conveyor belt dotted with chocolate-covered caramels. The candies emerge from the coating machine, where their bottoms are first coated by a grooved metal belt drenched with molten chocolate, then a chocolate waterfall coats their tops and sides. The candies cool, and the ladies carefully place them into paper liners and pack them in boxes. The chocolates are "exactly the same as they were more than 50 years ago," Paras says.
He worked in the factory on weekends and school breaks since the age of 12, but he didn't initially plan to stay in the family business. After earning his accounting degree at RMU, he got a job selling mutual funds for a financial services company. One day a few months later, when he stopped by the chocolate factory to say hello, his father asked him to stay. Income from investment sales was unpredictable, but the factory offered steady pay. So Paras quit his new job and joined Betsy Ann full time, making candies, packing boxes, and helping wherever he was needed.
When his mother had a heart attack and could no longer run the company office, Paras stepped in to handle business operations. Since 1990, he has been president of Betsy Ann Chocolates. His brother, Bob, runs the factory now, while their father, now in his 80s, still comes in to make candies during busy times. Betsy Ann now has some 40 employees and produces 200,000 pounds of chocolates annually, with hopes to eventually double that output.
In addition to maintaining the company's high standards, Paras has helped it weather major changes. When Horne's stores began closing – the retailer shut down in 1994 – Betsy Ann rebounded by opening its own shops. That strategy worked until the economic downturn of 2001, when sales declined and never bounced back. In 2004, Betsy Ann was forced to close stores and rethink its strategy again.
"A lot of people thought after we closed all those stores that we were gone," says Paras. The company was just searching for the right way to grow again. Today, in addition to the factory store, Betsy Ann has a store in Allison Park and a franchise in the South Hills. The rest of the business comes from Internet sales, fundraising through schools and organizations, and most recently, a return to department stores. Since 2008 Macy's has carried displays of the chocolates at its Pittsburgh area stores.
Paras credits his RMU education with helping him navigate changes in the market. When he makes important decisions, he often thinks about a class he took in business policy. "I have drawn upon the case studies we reviewed in class to help with my decisions," he says.
The company's success is also due to a passion for fine chocolates, and the type of family traditions that their aroma can evoke. "Chocolate is almost always associated with the best times of your life," Paras says. "It adds a dimension to those occasions. It anchors our lives to good, wholesome things that they should be anchored to."
We have a special deal for you at Betsy Ann chocolates with this coupon! Also check out an exclusive Foundations Online video! We go on a tempting tour of Pittsburgh's famous chocolate factory with James Paras '80, and watch them pour our chocolate Foundations cover.