Candy Kitchen has long history of filling chocolate craves

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
John Petros Leos is the third generation owner of The Candy Kitchen. The business is in its 111th year in Waynesboro, and its popular confections are named Despina Chocolates after his mother, Despina Leos.

The doors of the Candy Kitchen, 12 E. Main St. in Waynesboro, still open to the ambiance of 1902. That is the year the business started. Today the third generation owner, John Petros Leos, honors the chocolate-making history of the family. He features Despina Chocolates, named after his mother, using recipes a century old. The sweet confections have gained a wide and loyal following.

The store itself, occupied by the Leos family since 1917, contains the history of Waynesboro. The wooden floors are original, as is the pressed tin ceiling from the days when the corner shop was Citizens National Bank. The massive 1840 wooden display case came from the bar of the White Swan. Leos still has a regulator clock, antique cash register and stained glass windows, and the former soda fountain serves as the check-out counter. Old candy molds and jars line a wall.

"This place is a museum," he said.

But it is the candy that draws people in. The personal touch has remained since Uncle James Skaves, a Greek immigrant, settled in Baltimore in 1898. He operated a push cart selling peanuts by day, and cleaned for a confectioner at night. He and his brother Nicholas moved to Waynesboro four years later, since it was reminiscent of the village in their homeland. The town was also known to them as the playground of Baltimore's wealthy, who visited Pen Mar Park by train.

"Pop Jim" returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan War, and came back with a bride, Mary. In 1933, Leos' father Petros arrived to join the business.

A love story

If chocolate epitomizes the language of love, the Leos family experienced it. A cousin sent Petros a photograph of a woman in Greece, and a photo of him to her. Petros saw the image and declared, "That is the girl I am going to marry, or I will never get married." His proposal to Despina was accepted, and he sent her money through a Greencastle acquaintance traveling to the Mediterranean. Despina flew to the United States in late 1947, and the two met for the first time.

They married in February 1948.

The pair worked together in the chocolate enterprise, and also sold ice cream and food at a luncheonette in the corner of The Candy Kitchen. They made all of the food and chocolates by hand. Despina became well-known for giving away candy samples.

After Pop Jim died in 1955, Petros, Despina and Mary ran the store, and John "grew up under the table, playing with pots and pans." He still recalls the aroma of peppermint from those days.

Leos earned a bachelors degree from Shippensburg University and a master's in French at Middlebury College in Vermont. He taught at several area colleges while sliding into the family's footsteps too. By the time Petros died in 1970, and Mary in 1978, Leos was fully-invested in The Candy Kitchen with his mother. They opened a store in Frederick, Md. in 1988. The hands-on tradition continued at both outlets.

"We are one of the last companies in the country to still hand-dip each piece of chocolate. We hand cut the caramels, hand roll the creams, roast our own nuts, and hand pour the chocolate."

He has been at the helm alone since Despina passed away in 2007 while the two were visiting Greece.

The legacy

Leos values the ledger, pencils, ink blotter and recipes from 1902, as well as recipes created by his mother later on. They call for ingredients "the size of a lemon", a "handful" or a "pinch". He has adapted formulas for new flavors, and stuck with high quality butter from Europe; cocoa beans processed in Switzerland, "the magicians of chocolate"; and imported jellies from Germany, France, Holland, Italy, England and Australia, which have high standards in food and drug laws. He also does not buy ingredients or supplies from China.

"I'm very finicky about the quality my customers get," he said.

Customers come from Waynesboro, Greencastle and the outlying area, as well as from across the country and overseas. He ships orders daily and has turned down offers to consign his goods with other outlets, since he wants control of the freshness of his chocolates.

Patrons visit in person or phone in orders, and they appreciate talking to the owner of the business, he said.

"I'm glad to keep doing it the old-fashioned way in today's modern world," Leos stated. "We give personal service."

He offers creams, truffles, nuts, caramels and pretzels covered with time-proven Despina chocolate, both milk and dark. At holidays special products are available, including chocolate-covered California strawberries for Valentine's Day, baskets of goodies at Easter, and gifts at Christmas.

He credits success to loyal customers, who knew his parents and still patronize the store, and the younger generations stopping by. Those who move away continue to purchase because candy anywhere else "is just not the same," they have told him.

"Our customers become our friends. We have a 111-year tradition of keeping people happy and in love," said Leos. "That makes me happy."