Spokandy’s headquarters smells like chocolate and mint, powerful scents that have permeated Todd Davis’ life since he was a plucky 19-year-old, full of ambition to run his own business.
When he interviewed for a job at Spokane’s historic chocolate factory in the late 1980s, Davis told owner Kris Howell that he’d like to buy Spokandy someday.
“It was obvious that he knew what he wanted and was mature enough to pursue it,” she recalled.
A year later, after he’d mastered the proprietary candy recipes that are the heart of the business, Howell sold the company to him.
It was a good fit, both for Davis and Spokandy, which has expanded under his 25 years of ownership.
The 102-year-old company has a thriving wholesale business, along with the retail store and factory at 1412 W. Third Ave.
“This really is Spokane’s candy company,” Davis said. “We take the name all over.”
Last week, the store’s counters were full of decorated eggs and chocolate bunnies, which will appear in Easter baskets today and decorate family dinner tables across the region.
Easter ranks behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day for sales, but it’s the most labor-intensive holiday for Spokandy’s 18 employees. The confections go out the door dressed up with frosting rosettes, personalized messages and pastel ribbons.
Davis, 45, is the fourth owner of the business that started as Reily’s Candy and Cigar Co. in 1913.
The company produces 150 different candies, including a sugar-free line. The founding product, a marshmallow cream-filled chocolate called “the Murphy,” remains a top seller.
Americans will consume about 3.2 billion pounds of chocolate this year, or roughly 10 pounds per person. Most of it will be mass-produced.
Customers who buy Spokandy’s products, or other artisan chocolates, are looking for something a little different, Davis said. Without the automation of a large factory, the skill of the candy-maker becomes important in creating a premium product.
Spokandy’s truffles, cordials, caramels, mints and chocolates are made on the premises by employees who sign agreements not to reveal trade secrets. Most of the handcrafted confections are given as gifts.
“It shows you are giving something special, that you’ve put some thought and hard-earned money into it,” Davis said.
For many customers, Spokandy purchases are steeped in tradition. Shawn Cole has been buying Spokandy chocolates for his wife for 25 years.
“She just loves them,” said Cole, who spent $30 on a pound of assorted chocolates, including milk chocolate huckleberry cordials, on a recent afternoon. “It’s the best candy in town … It’s so fresh.”
Jodie Burke and her daughter, Makenna Riese, 18, dropped in over Riese’s spring break to buy their favorite candy, the Murphy.
“We’ll probably eat them as soon as we get into the car,” Burke said.
Those kinds of customer interactions make it fun to work at Spokandy, said Natalie Vlasaty, a 20-year employee.
“Everyone is happy to come into a candy store,” Vlasaty said. “We see people as they’re getting ready for special occasions – holidays, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries. I think it’s cool to share in that.”
Davis said the company has flourished under two basic business principles: “Stay true to who you are” and “Invest in your employees.”
He said he knows other manufacturers who’ve substituted lower-quality ingredients to keep profits up during periods of low sales. But that threatens customer confidence in the product, he said.
“We want people to say, ‘This tastes wonderful,’ not ‘This tastes different,’ ” Davis said.
Quality control requires a skilled staff. Since it takes time to train people, Davis said he works to keep good employees.
Turning out consistent batches of candy requires knowledge of weights and measures, and scrupulous attention to detail.
“It’s the chemistry of crystals that make your product,” said Howell, who ran Spokandy for 10 years before selling to Davis. “If you cook the caramel at temperatures that are 1 to 2 degrees higher than recommended … you’re not going to have a truly fine product.”
On a recent morning, Spokandy’s production facilities were in full swing. Maxx Weston poured a layer of mint on a steel table to harden, while Kristina Eykhvald used a candy-scooper to form individual champagne truffles.
Other employees poured chocolate into molds, wrapped purple foil around individual huckleberry cordials and attached almonds to chocolate “Bigfoot” footprints.
“There’s an art to candy making,” Davis said. “We make it, we scoop it, we pack it. There’s still a lot of handiwork involved.”
Over the years, he’s transformed Spokandy’s revenue stream, with about 80 percent of sales coming from wholesale accounts. To expand the product line, he also purchased an Oregon truffle company and a Montana huckleberry candy company.
Spokandy’s products are sold at Spokane, Seattle and Portland airports and to other retailers, some of whom sell the candy under their own names.
The company has outgrown its manufacturing space on Third Avenue. Davis is working on plans to move the production facilities to a larger location, while keeping the existing retail space.
After 25 years of working in a candy factory, he no longer notices the chocolate smell. But others do.
“Every time I trade a car in, the salesman says, ‘This car smells like chocolate,’ ” Davis said.
He remains grateful to Howell for giving him the chance to buy Spokandy as a young entrepreneur. He borrowed the money for a 20 percent down payment from family members, and she carried the original loan.
Davis also takes pride in the company’s growth.
“It was a small mom-and-pop shop, which afforded me the opportunity to purchase the company,” he said. “Could a 20-year-old buy it today? Probably not.”
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