Labor of Love -- campus alumni enjoy the sweet life running 117-year-old candy business
Campus alumni Nick Reuther Sr. and Jacqueline Safko Reuther shared their insights on the chocolate-making trade at “Love and Chocolate with the Dunmore Candy Kitchen,” a recent virtual program hosted by regional alumni groups.
By: Josh McAuliffe
DUNMORE, Pa. – Getting the opportunity to run a 117-year-old candy business seems like it would be a pretty sweet deal.
Indeed, it is, according to members of Reuther family, owners of Dunmore Candy Kitchen. That said, the success they’ve had in producing their signature line of handmade chocolates is the result of plenty of perseverance, countless hours of hard work and a deep, abiding love for the product.
On Monday, Feb. 8, Penn State Scranton alumni Nick Reuther Sr. ’89 and Jacqueline Safko Reuther ’09 shared a number of insights on the chocolate-making trade at “Love and Chocolate with the Dunmore Candy Kitchen,” one of a full slate of virtual programs being offered this semester by the alumni groups for Penn State’s northeast region campuses.
With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, the well-attended Zoom event made for timely programming, with attendees eager to learn about the day-to-day operations of a beloved family-owned candy company with deep roots in the community.
Nick Reuther Sr. attended the campus from 1985 to 1987, earning an associate degree in architectural engineering before completing his bachelor’s degree in structural design and construction engineering technology at the Harrisburg campus. Jacqueline Reuther studied at the campus from 2005 to 2007, then finished her bachelor’s degree in administration of justice at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. And Nick Reuther Jr., Nick Sr.’s son and Jacqueline’s husband, completed his associate degree in business administration at Scranton in 2012.
“Overall, our Penn State education prepared us very well for our individual career experiences and gave us the tools we needed to be successful in this world. So, it’s very exciting to come back to Penn State and talk a little bit about how we all ended up together as a family running a century-old business,” said Jacqueline, daughter of longtime Scranton campus staff member Susan Safko, administrative staff assistant in the Registrar’s office.
Established in 1904 by Jimmy Veras, Dunmore Candy Kitchen was taken over in the 1960s by longtime store employee Louis Perella. Under his leadership, the business became one of the Scranton area’s most popular chocolate producers.
Eventually, Perella handed over the reins to his son, Charlie, who continued Dunmore Candy Kitchen’s commitment to producing high-quality chocolates until 2009. It was early that year when Nick Sr.’s wife, Laura Reuther, heard through her sister, a store employee, that Charlie Perella was putting the business up for sale.
After spending the previous 14 years as a stay-at-home mother to her three children, Laura Reuther was looking for a new challenge and figured becoming a chocolatier would be a terrific outlet for her creativity and energy.
Despite having no prior experience in chocolate making, she put herself on the path to success with a simple yet highly effective philosophy: “I may be new, but the recipes are the same.”
“My wife had no formal training, so from January to Easter that year, she went into the store and learned everything she could about making chocolate,” said Nick Sr., noting Charlie Perella stayed on for a few months after the sale to facilitate the changeover.
Quickly, Nick Sr. found himself immersed in the operation. The owner of a successful engineering firm, he eventually ended up selling that business when it became clear that the Candy Kitchen needed to be a full-fledged family operation.
“Yes, I sold my business to go make candy,” cracked Nick Sr., who recently started a steel fabrication business while continuing to serve as the Candy Kitchen’s designated “bookkeeper, dish washer and floor cleaner.”
Nick Jr., meanwhile, oversees all chocolate-making production, from the tempering to the creation of the Candy Kitchen’s custom molds.
“Pretty much any graphic image can be turned into a mold,” Nick Sr. said. “We’re always trying to stay up to date with them – we’ve had fidget spinner molds. We have animal molds, religious molds. Several banks from around the area have their own mold. I would challenge anyone to find a higher selection of molds than us. And if we don’t have something, just ask.”
Jacqueline Reuther joined the business soon after meeting Nick Jr. Prior to that, she worked in the behavioral and mental health fields. Transitioning to the candy business was a huge change of pace, but undoubtedly a good one, she said.
“At the time, I was feeling a little burned out, so this was a nice change. After all, candy doesn’t talk back to you,” she said with a chuckle.
Jacqueline manages the Candy Kitchen’s two retail stores -- the flagship operation on Drinker Street in Dunmore and the newer location on Davis Street in Scranton. There, customers will find all manner of delectable treats, be it boxed chocolate, chocolate-covered pretzels and potato chips, candy bars, old-fashioned hard candy, or the business’ best-selling item -- chocolate peanut butter cups.
The Reuthers have expanded the business in other ways, from regularly developing new products (jelly doughnut-flavored fudge and hot cocoa bombs among them) to increasing their wholesale clientele to completely redesigning their website (six to seven percent of the business’ sales are now online).
Not surprisingly, Valentine’s Day is an extraordinarily busy time for the Reuthers. They’ve spent the past few weeks producing holiday-themed molds, and this weekend they’ll churn out several hundred pounds of fresh chocolate-covered strawberries.
But, for as bustling as Valentine’s Day is, Easter is actually the Candy Kitchen’s most profitable holiday, with about 20 percent of sales done online.
“The culmination of the busy season is the week before Easter, Holy Week, where it’s so busy that we don’t have a spare second during any part of those days,” Jacqueline said.
“Easter is what we work for all year,” Nick Sr. added.
A few years ago, the Reuthers landed a major coup when their chocolates were chosen to be spotlighted on food personality Rachael Ray’s popular daytime talk show. However, the excitement of the moment was dimmed somewhat when Ray became so grossed out by a previous show segment on blood-sucking leeches that she failed to give the candy its proper due.
Aside from that and the occasional kitchen mishap, there really isn’t much to complain about, Nick Sr. said.
“My wife has really taken the business to a whole new level,” he said.
Despite all the growth and changes, the Reuthers have remained firmly committed to Dunmore Candy Kitchen’s original recipes, top-grade ingredients and methodical production processes, all of which remain “a bit of a trade secret,” Nick Sr. said.
“We hold ourselves to a very high standard of perfection. Everything is handmade, and we strive to offer our customers the best-quality product,” Jacqueline said. “So, in the kitchen, we haven’t changed a thing.”
“As an engineer, sometimes I think to myself, ‘There’s got to be an easier way to do this,’” Nick Sr. joked. “Our chocolates really are second to none, though.”
That commitment to the product is clearly working, considering the countless local families and businesses who continue to patronize Dunmore Candy Kitchen after all these years.
“Another fun aspect of running an establishment that is over a century old is seeing different generations of families sharing their stories about Dunmore Candy Kitchen and how it has changed over time,” Jacqueline said. “It’s always nice to be a part of other people’s special occasions. And knowing that you can make an impact in their celebrations makes us feel like we’re doing something right.”
Moving forward, the Reuthers plan to keep evolving with the times while remaining committed to the time-honored traditions that continue to yield creamy, delicious results. As far as the Reuthers can tell, there are likely only a handful or so of family-owned chocolatiers in the entire country with comparable longevity.
“There is something quite unique and exciting about running a century-old business – it’s like a fine-aged wine,” Jacqueline said. “Knowing that we are continuing the legacy of the Dunmore Candy Kitchen is very rewarding.”
Plus, she said, it’s just plain fun to “eat candy all day, every day.”
“Seriously,” Nick Sr. added. “We really don’t get tired of it.”