Q&A with Eric Berley of Old-Timey Shane Confectionery

Thanks to Eric (left) and Ryan Berley, Philadelphia's Shane Confectionery still holds the title of the oldest continuously run confectionery in the United States. The shop opened on Market Street in 1863. In 1911 the Shane family bought it and proceeded to churn out all sorts of candy, chocolates, and buttercreams for the next 99 years. In 2010, the Berley brothers took over and began the kind of painstaking renovations they brought to Franklin Fountain, the nearby ice cream shop that opened in 2004. Shane Confectionery reopened last December.

Since Easter is to the candy industry what April is to CPAs, this seemed the perfect time to check in with Eric Berley about what it's like to run a business older than the invention of the telephone.

So what is a traditional chocolate buttercream?

For 100 years, Shane has done buttercream eggs (mini-sized Penny Buttercream Eggs are pictured below) for Easter. The difference between the candy and buttercream frosting is that the frosting has a ton more butter per the quantity of sugar mixture, and is usually not cooked. The traditional way of making buttercreams is that sugar, corn syrup, and water are cooked in a copper kettle and then poured into a cream beater. It has these arms that look like farm trowels that incorporate air into the center through the process of beating up the butter and other ingredients. The machine has been there since 1914 and is six feet wide; we got it going this past month. The buttercreams come out like fondant (it's similar to a pizza dough consistency). That mash is put through another machine called a Friend machine, which extrudes certain shapes. In the case of Easter, there's a die that can crank out 72 little balls. Those are walked upstairs on a tray to the chocolate floor, where they're dipped and decorated. There's a two-pound egg that's highly decorated with buttercream frosting, which is colored and piped and looks like a giant cake. It's often sliced, depending on the size, and eaten over a week.

How many have you made in the run-up to Easter?

We asked Mr. Shane, the previous owner, what the numbers would be, and I think he said maybe 1,200 to 1,300 of the big-size eggs. It was so daunting because we couldn't get the big machine to work so we basically did that number in a small way, thanks to staff putting in extra time and making it happen. So about 1,500. Mr. Shane said, "You'll do all of your sales the day before Easter that you did during the entire month of March."

Because you're using such old recipes, have you had to adapt them at all? Is there a difference between candy recipes from the early 20th century and ones from today?

There's really not: The nature of sugar and temperatures haven't changed. Mr. Shane was using his hands to tell the temperatures by the feel of the caramels, so we sort of brought it to another level by adding a digital thermometer. Mr. Shane carried that business for almost 40 years with the use of a stick thermometer and his fingers, and there's something sort of romantic about that. We want people to understand how we can use both of [those methods] for our advantage.

Did all of your recipes come from Mr. Shane?

Mr. Shane got us started, and between Davina [Soondrum, Shane's pastry chef], Ryan, and I, we tweaked his recipes to basically try and use the best ingredients possible. When it came to vanilla, we decided to use three different kinds for different flavors. We use Tahitian for fruit flavors, Mexican for some coffee and more roasted flavors, and Madagascar for [everything else].

How did customers of the old Shane's react when they discovered you were reopening it?

[It was] a very normal reaction—concern that the candies weren't going to be the same or prices were going to be different.

What else has changed?

The box—we redesigned the color scheme to [match] what we found after doing architectural excavation. There was an old chocolate stamp we found on the fourth floor and brought that into the design (it's an old English font that customers remember). But the product is twice as good—it's fresh, and our food philosophy is to make it in small batches and stay busy.

What does Mr. Shane think?

Best buttercreams he's ever had. I'm serious: He told me yesterday. Quite frankly, I respect his opinion above all because he's been in it for so long, lived it six days a week for 40 years. So for him to be our cautious cheerleader, we feel good about that.

Image source: Shane Confectionery / Facebook

Rebecca Flint Marx eats and writes in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.