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May 19, 2022

Epi #0045 - The Candy Man - Bill Sarris

Epi #0045 - The Candy Man - Bill Sarris
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Bill takes a family business to a whole other level after his father struct down with kidney disease and dies. As life moves forward Bill losses a number of family to kidney disease and now he is battling it too.  Listen to his recovery on managing his health and still growing the business to new levels.

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Yeah. This is Leave Your Mark. I'm Vince Cortese and today's guest is Bill Sarris. He's the owner and CEO of Sarris Holdings, Inc. They're known for the delicious chocolates, high standards and exceptional customer service for over the past 50 years. Bill, thank you for coming by today. I'm excited to share your story with everyone. Hey, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. We like to start out on, Leave Your Mark with where it all started and where you were born and raised, near Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. And your parents, father Frank and mother Athena were founders in the Sarris Candy business. And she worked in the, in the office doing bookkeeping. Younger sister Sophia. And what was childhood like growing up in Canonsburg? Well, you know what? It was just like any other type childhood growing up, except that I always worked with my dad. We started in the basement of our home. So we lived upstairs. So, you know, I had rules too, and I used to help him, you know, and I was much younger, I guess, what, 10, 11, 12 years old. And it was snowing outside and I wanted to sled ride. He said, well, you have to make 12 bunnies first. At that time it was one bunny at a time. And one candy mold. And I never got to the 12, I never got to get on up and do that. It was a family business and, uh, it was all family for a long time. Now you said that your parents were Greek immigrants coming over. So life at that time was much different than what we're experiencing in our modern era. So can you share with me some of the things that they overcame that helped provide for you and Sophia? Well, you know what? My parents were born here, but both sets of grandparents were from Greece. And my dad grew up in Canonsburg. My mom did as well, and we lived with my grandparents on my mothers side. So everybody was in the same house and everybody would go downstairs and help make chocolates at the time. But yeah, I, you know what? I learned my grandfather didn't speak English very well. He would bring in the Greek newspaper and I would read the Greek newspaper and he would bring, he would read the, uh, American paper. And that's how we learned that... that's how I learned to speak Greek. You know with him. But it was funny as I had to talk to him in Greek and he had to talk to me in English and it was a both a learning process. So that, you know, growing up like that, that was interesting. And it was fun. How old were you at that time? Oh, God, they lived with us the whole time for my now was a baby. So You're probably like first grade kindergartener? Started very, very young. Those are incredibly unique stories from people coming over and making their way in that era in America. So you're, you're already ingrained in this. So you're going to school at Canon McMillan. Um, what were some of your activities and interests in school? I mean, because coming home wasn't necessarily just coming home and relaxing. You were coming home and going to work. I would come home and go. Yeah. I would come home and help out do my homework and make candy. But yeah, so, but I did know we did have activities. I played tennis. I golfed, I, uh, played football for a little while. Did you play in a band or were you in the chorus or anything like that? You know what, I did. I played music. Okay. And I didn't play in a high school band. I played in the Canonsburg Community Band. So I played saxophone in the community band, which was a ball because you were playing with people of all ages in there. And they were all from Canonsburg playing their different instruments. We marched in parades. We did concerts. So I really enjoyed, I played it in college as well. Oh wow. And when's the last time you played your saxophone? Uh, probably 1980. Collecting dust now. That's great. It's down in the basement stored somewhere. So these are, these are always great experiences. So now you're graduating high school and you go to Washington and Jefferson and you get a degree in Chemistry and Physics. What, what goes on in that four years? You know, every parent, okay... wants their kid to go, hey you're going to go be a doctor or you're going to be a lawyer. That's what the, you know, that was very important. Education was very important. Especially people coming, you know, my grandparents okay. Found that education learned because they never got that opportunity. Okay. And that opportunity was there. Hey, you're going to go to college. And I did have plans. I did want to go to medical school and, uh, as difficult as it was. Just made a decision when I got out of college and said, Hey, uh, I think we have a better idea in the candy industry. So, um, that's the direction I went. Uh, how, how hard was that? Because, I mean, it had been basically your entire life and that was home was the, the, the factory arrangement. So. Feeling, I mean, we're probably most strong headed at that age as well. So for you to kind of harness your emotions and step back for something you wanted to stay in the family business, was that difficult for you? Or was that something that just sort of happened naturally? It's funny as when we made the decision. Okay. And as far as talking to my parents and things, you know, I just said, uh... hey, you know what? It's going to, if I go to school, it's going to ruin my golf game. And I said, and you know what? The way things look I says... in 20 to 25 years, that health business, that medical industry is not going to be what we're thinking it's going to be 20 years from now. So I don't know if I that's the direction that I wanted to go. Connect with us on LinkedIn, be our friend on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter and on Instagram. You are listening to Vince Cortese. We just want you to leave your mark. And then this was, at this point, you were guys were pretty stable because you're 10, 15 years involved in establishing the brand and people knew about the candy. And so you come out now and you got your first job after graduation from W&J to teach school at Upper St. Clair. So you're still. Not in the family business just yet. So you go into Upper St. Clair. And what happens there? You know, I was always in the business, always working in the business, but after graduating, I graduated a semester early. In January, it was like, let's go to work full time. And one of the professors said, Hey, I need a favor. I need a student teacher at Upper St. Clair, and you've got the qualifications for it. Uh, can you do me, do me a favor and go ahead. Well, that was supposed to be a, uh, I think just the, uh, four to six weeks period. And, you know, sadly the person that I was working under the teacher passed away in an accident and people in Upper St. Clair said, Hey, can you stay till the end of the year and take over the classes? So, you know, here I am, I didn't. Here I am honestly stuck and say, okay, I'll do it. So that was it. And then right after that, that's when we decided to really come in full time and make some choices that we did in how Sarris Candies was going to move forward. Now, at this point, you're um, you're a new injection. Um, when you get the younger generations energy coming in. So what role do you play in here as far as the business expanding and, and some of the things that you're doing that you're now known for? You know, before all we had was a candy store here in Canonsburg. Okay. It was the candy store we had, we had built a small factory. It was 30 feet wide by a hundred feet long. Enough to put a candy machine in and have a candy store. So I came in and said, Hey, you know what, here's a new thing idea. Let's go into fundraising. Okay. And here's how it's gonna work. we ended up going in there putting a fundraising program together that was unique at the time. Uh, nobody was doing it, the way we were going to do it. And, uh, now we had the store and now we started doing fundraising and fundraising was a key, a huge key to our brand and our growth. Is this something that you're still currently doing now because you're , the line of candy, I mean, you're a full-blown operation on, on many fronts with candy and ice cream and, and all these other products now. So, um, are you currently still doing the fundraising stuff? Yes. We're still doing the fun, right. You know, what's interesting. I think on the fundraising end was, you know, when you went out and you had kids in high school or grades elementary schools. And you had a hundred kids there. Okay in each one. And if you had 10 schools, okay, that was a thousand salespeople. Well each one of those people, those students were selling to their aunts, their uncles, their neighbors, their whatever. So it actually built our brand. Okay, because at the time, the only place you didn't get our chocolates was fundraising or come to the store in Canonsburg. So the fundraising really built our customer base and we see it now, when people come into the store and said, you know, we've been here almost 60 years, but all it is 60 years. And people come in and go, oh yeah, my grandfather brought me here. My dad used to bring me here. Okay. And then they're bringing their kids here. So, you know, that's basically when the goal was, and that built our brand. The time goes by, so it's kind of, um, as far as your operation going and your, yourself growing in the business, and time going by, what were some of the most influential moments that you shared with your dad as far as how to develop a business and to continue the sustainability that you guys had now established? It's something, but it just seemed like different things would happen. Okay. When I say different things would happen, you know, it was fundraising and it was our retail store. And then, uh, because of the fundraising, we expanded our facility, we just added on. And each step, there were steps that come in. Then we did corporate sales. Okay. Where businesses were buying candy to give to their customers or their employees saying. So that became a part of our business. Uh, the wholesale business, where we sold candy to, uh, uh, Rite Aids, uh, grocery chains, Giant Eagle Shop and Save, uh, Kroger's... I think I mentioned. But... No. So it became like a, uh, you know, I always say our business has like our hand, you know, where we have fundraising, our retail store, our wholesale, our private label, you know, and we try to do that, you know, if you lose a finger okay. And you lose part of that, you're fine. You still have four other fingers the old saying, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Okay. So we kind of map, you know, that's kind of what we ended up doing. And that's what I ended up doing to make sure that we were always sustainable. We were making the top quality product and our customer service was you know, exceptional. The keys, all key things in each division, right there that we had to move forward and expand. And we've continued to do that. Okay. Our expansion, you know, we're building a new facility, This is amazing. So 60 years in business and still growing. So now all these years go by and your, your dad passes away here in 2010. So at that point, how long had you two worked together in the business? Since I grew up. Oh, wow. So at that point, your entire life? Yes, basically. Yeah, basically I have my hands in chocolate. As long as I can remember. If you are listening from Talia, Florida, or just from around the corner. From east coast to west coast, outlets of getting out of the dirty south straight, make a left. Contact us, leave your Mark, with your host, Vince Cortese. So you're probably at that point have done every aspect of the production line, the advertising and marketing human resources, the whole nine you're fully equipped. So, I mean, it's never easy, losing a parent. So how do, how do you kind of move forward here with this. Well, you know what all along, you know, my dad had his kidney transplant, um, 2001 or two, and, you know, he slowed down. He was there, but he slowed down and you know what, I'm a, I'm a person that delegates a lot of stuff. So we put the right people in the right places to manage their areas. And, uh, you know, you basically oversee what's going on. Innovate new products. Again, expansion and new business. Things like that. I ended up moving away from, you know, I get. You're right. I did everything, from scrubbing floors, to delivering candy, to operating the equipment, uh, to doing, uh, add, you know, ad-ons expansions. You know, people say, if I knew, you know, if I knew then what I know now. Okay. But we don't know. Okay, doesn't happen, but it's growth. It's building the brand. Our goal was, my goal was always to build the brand. Now you touched on, you said you, your dad had the transplant. So this was a process of 10 years after the transplant he should pass. So what was his condition with his kidney? Uh, unfortunately our family on my dad's side has kidney disease and surprisingly, okay. Or unsurprisingly, in 1997, I was the first one that had a kidney removed. They found something there. So they had to take out my kidney. Well, after that, it seemed like a little roller coaster. Okay. Then it was me... then all of a sudden my dad had issues. And my dad's four sisters all past with kidney disease. Okay. And my dad. So it's something that we watch. I watch all the time to make sure that, uh, we're doing the right thing, but yeah, it's. You know, it's something when that happens and uh, business is great and everything else. But you have these issues that always have to be addressed Yeah on the health front. So now, um, that's kind of a heavy, psychological burden knowing that this is running in your family. Um, in, in your situation, how is your health currently now with only having one kidney? You just manage it. You manage what you have to do, you know, so, you know, and there's, you know, there's other issues. I think I've mentioned before... that, you know, I have eight back surgeries, so I have some, I have back issues as well as the kidney issue, but you know what, there's a lot of people, a lot worse off than I am, and I don't know... you don't let the health issues get in the way of the progress of the business. Eventually, eventually somebody else is going to be sitting in this seat. Do you have any family members she think that would be prospects are interested or is that something that's just not talked about at the moment? It's talked about it's on the table. Okay. There are, I have two daughters and two great son-in-laws. So, you know, between the four of them. Um, they'll have to figure it out if While you're still around and healthy. That brings me to my next question. So where, where do you see at 2022 and beyond, Sarris Candies becoming? Well right now, as we speak, we're building a new production facility. Ok there's a 135,000 square foot building and we should be up and running in that building September 1st, 2023. What that's gonna do is it's going to let us be more efficient. We're going to, we're going to build the facility so that we can have tours. People will be able to walk through the facility, see what's going on. And that's really, we'd love to do that. We'd love to have people come in and watch us do what we do. So that's going to be very exciting that we're going to be able to do that without anyone interfering with the production, but they'll be able to sit there and watch whats going on. I like the idea. Um, so is this inline with like maybe a little Willy Wonka kind of Disneyland kind of, because you're talking to tour and we're, you know, in stead of, you're not Italian, so it's not flipping a pizzas. We're Greek. We're making chocolate over here, but the watching the process is really what it's all about. You know? So I like this idea and this isn't in the. The new warehouse you said, or did that's going to be just for production? No, it's just, it's it's going to be a full production facility. We'll be again, fully, everything we make, you will be able to see. Okay. And then still in Canonsburg or? Yes, still in Canonsburg. We're not moving our current location as far as our retail store. Okay, that's going stay. Uh, but all our production will be moved into the new facility. This is exciting. So you're expanding and getting bigger and it's good. It's keeping you young and healthy and engaged. So, I can see you're excited. Um, so this leads me to our question here on leave your mark. How would you like to be remembered? How would you like to leave your mark? Well, you know, I never really thought about how, you know, what kind of mark that I want to leave. I just want to make sure that our brand is sustainable and people enjoy our product. And we service these customers that we have, who are the key. Okay, happy people.... all right. Candy is a happy thing, no matter when anything's going bad. Uh, things like this, the pandemic and think, okay, chocolate makes you happy and it can, and it's enjoyable for everyone, no matter how old you are or young you are or whatever. Candy is, it's a happy thing. It is a happy thing. But this is awesome. I'm so glad to hear you're in good health and you're ambitious and still running. All these days you've been in the business and you're still going. That's very inspirational. And I look forward to seeing the 2023, new facility and how everything begins to roll out again for you. So thanks for coming by. Appreciate your time. And, uh, we look forward to watch what happens. Hey, I appreciate you having me. And, uh, I'll see you in about a year when we can take you and walk through. How's that? It sounds great. All right, Bill, take care! All right. You take care. Thank you very much. Bye-bye. Bye-bye.