Outlook 2022: Uncle Sam’s Chocolate keeps pace with holiday demand, still values brick-and-mortar presence

Owner of Uncle Sam's All American Chocolate Factory in Schenectady Joe Suhrada
Owner of Uncle Sam's All American Chocolate Factory in Schenectady Joe Suhrada

SCHENECTADY — For most people, the holiday season ended in early January.

The majority does not include Joe Suhrada. Suhrada, owner and chief chocolatier at Uncle Sam’s All American Chocolate Factory in Schenectady, has just cleared Valentine’s Day, and will soon begin filling baskets with chocolate rabbits and lambs, chocolate crosses, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and jelly beans for Easter shoppers.

Suhrada is glad to have the business and the busy weeks. Since 1993, he has owned the candy business that founder Sam Ashley opened in Schenectady in 1930.

Ashley ran the business from his Rugby Road home and would sell candy on his front porch through the mid-1950s.

In 1957, Ashley sold Uncle Sam’s to Reinhold and Charlotte Scharnowski, who eventually relocated to the current location on Schenectady’s Albany Street (the business stands nearly across the street from Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School).

The Scharnowskis ran the store together until 1976, when Reinhold died. Charlotte continued as sole owner and remained open until 1992, when she retired.

The business closed for nearly a year. Suhrada, who had previously owned an ice cream business in Clifton Park, bought the chocolate house and reopened on Jan. 31, 1993.

“It was Super Bowl Sunday,” Suhrada said. “All the customers were ladies that day. The men stayed home. They had to watch football.”

The guys were back a couple weeks ago, for Valentine’s Day sweets. They were part of the holiday procession that always begins in November.

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“Holidays all have unique positions on the calendar,” said Suhrada, a former member of the Schenectady County Legislature. “Christmas is an eight-week holiday because corporate businesses start up in November. It’s the hardest work. You don’t get a day off.”

Suhrada said that rush includes Thanksgiving. He’s generally cooking for a large group of family members on that November Thursday, but with business errands and concerns, “You’re hustling all day.”

Valentine’s Day is more of a seven-day holiday. “It’s the busiest two days of the year, the 13th and 14th,” Suhrada said. “Easter, I call it a four-week cruise. It’s a lot of prep work and you pace yourself, you normally have time. People come in and grab a basket, fill it up, check out and they’re out the door.”

Besides the seasonal favorites such as heart-shaped chocolates and boxes for Valentine’s, or cocoa-based Santas and ornaments for Christmas, the neat, compact store also stocks chocolate animals such as alligators, cows, turtles and kittens. Horse-head pops are on display, as are huge foil-wrapped kiss-shaped candies. The religious section includes a variety of crosses; Christmas and Easter shoppers will buy, but the items remain on shelves year-round to accommodate customers who want special gifts for baptisms, First Communions and other church events.

The store’s front counter would impress any kid locked in a candy store. Rum creams, cherry creams, maple walnut creams are all in the wall of chocolate that stands in the front display case. Fudge meltaways, pineapple jellies, coconut bonbons — they’re all $25 a pound — are also in the lineup.

Some candies in front, like the rum cordials and Irish cream cordials, are $15 a pound. Many customers are bullish for the store’s almond butter crunch. The recipe says the “crunch” is cooked slowly in a copper kettle, poured on a marble slab, then covered with chocolate and sprinkled with toasted almonds. Suhrada said the product is the store’s best seller.

Weather can bring worry to Suhrada’s world. In 2007, one of the Capital Region’s largest-ever February storms blew into town on Feb. 14. Nearly 17 inches of snow and ice smothered romantic moods and motions; the Valentine’s Day storm remains the fifth largest ever for February as recorded by the National Weather Service in Albany.

“People came the day before the storm and we had a guy show up on a snowmobile,” Suhrada said. “There were like 30 customers when they’re should have been 300.”

Other businesses, such as restaurants and florists, also registered losses during the storm.

Substantial December snows will cancel two shopping days. Suhrada said people will stay home while the snow is coming down, and often sit out the next day while plow crews clear side streets and major thoroughfares.

A March Easter can bring a nor’easter — and extra anxiety. A Good Friday snowstorm, Suhrada said, can reduce foot traffic in his store.

Weather during the summer can also affect business in months that generally attract fewer customers. July and August days that hit 90 degrees are not ideal chocolate-eating days … but people will come in during cool, rainy or gloomy summer days.

“Down south, chocolate shops will close for the season,” Suhrada said of summer trade.

Some switch to ice cream, but Uncle Sam’s will never become a seasonal scoop operation. For one thing, renovations would be necessary; Suhrada would need restrooms if shakes and sundaes became part of his summer menu.

Other forms of customer traffic have increased the core business. Online shoppers place their orders, and Uncle Sam’s ships all over the United States. But shipping can present other hassles.

“You can’t make a living with an online store. Small businesses can’t,” Suhrada said. “In people’s minds they can, because they think of Amazon, but you can’t do it. Every item you sell requires triple the amount of work and effort to get it sold online.”

Another shipping problem can come with addresses. Suhrada said one customer ships more than 100 Uncle Sam’s gift boxes for Christmas. If the customer’s address list has not been updated — and sometimes it hasn’t been — delivery agents must return candy boxes to the store because the gift recipients have moved. Suhrada must then contact his customer for the correct addresses and ship out products a second time. That means paying postage or delivery charges a second time.

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Products are occasionally damaged during shipping. That’s not Uncle Sam’s fault, but the company receives the blame.

A secondary source of revenue has come from a second store. Suhrada opened Uncle Sam’s in Latham’s Newton Plaza in 2014.

Suhrada said there have been challenges to keep the business running for nearly 30 years.

“I thought about closing a couple times but kept going, never gave up,” Suhrada said. “Nobody would have faulted me for throwing in the towel a couple times. The bills were higher than the income. We’re so seasonal. A hot summer for instance, we’ve had days where we made $11 in business on a hot summer day. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

The ongoing pandemic — even though many are hopeful America is now in the final act of the national health crisis — affected Uncle Sam’s in the same way it affected other businesses.

“We used to be open from 8 until 8,” Suhrada said of the morning-to-evening business day. “The biggest change we saw was in buying habits, the lack of traffic early and very late because people weren’t driving to work or driving home from work.

“So we saw, especially in those first several months, we ended up going back to 10 to 6,” Suhrada added. “We extended our hours only for the major holidays, the Christmas season, Valentine’s and Easter. We do it for Thanksgiving as well.”

Suhrada says there are only a few places in the Capital Region where chocolate lovers can buy a homemade product. Candy Craft is a landmark on Western Avenue in Guilderland; Krause’s remains open on Central Avenue in Albany.

“We’re all true chocolatiers,” Suhrada said. “We all make chocolate with real chocolate, and it has to have cocoa butter to be real chocolate. We’re all doing fine. We’re all friends. Our products are all slightly different.”

Uncle Sam’s uses Belgian chocolate that comes in brick form or smaller units, then melts and pours it into store molds. The store offers between 500 and 700 products, Suhrada said. Some items, such as jelly beans, licorice pastilles and others, are made by other producers.

Suhrada believes people keep coming back to Uncle Sam’s for quality products. Some older buyers might remember when Schenectady had bunches of small candy and chocolate stores. These people would have visited Danny’s Confectionery, Ye Old Copper Kettle and Fanny Farmer.

Some national brands have faded away.

“The model didn’t work anymore, especially when they had to start cutting corners on cost,” Suhrada said. “They had to start cheapening their product and that’s the road to ruin. You start using cheaper chocolate and cheaper nuts, the next thing you know you’re out of business.”

Suhrada says he will never adopt the “cheaper” model. Customers will occasionally inquire about price increases on some Uncle Sam’s products. Suhrada said he asks them if they would prefer the higher price or lower quality.

“They always say, ‘Increase the price,’ ” he said. “Nobody ever says, ‘Cut your quality.’ Who ever says that?”

More Outlook 2022 – Spotlighting businesses around the Schenectady area

Categories: Business, Outlook 2022, Schenectady

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