The Candy Clan

Martha Pollak eats chocolate every day and swears that it is good for people. She should know. She and her husband, Bob, head the Jericho family that makes Snowflake Chocolates.

by Jason Koornick

Sisters Sharon Wintersteen (left), who manages the store and production in the daytime, and Shelly Dionne (center), vice president, stand next to their mother, Martha Pollak, the matriarch of Snowflake Chocolates, a family enterprise she runs with her husband, Bob. "We're not into wearing our titles," says Shelly. "We all do a little bit of everything."

Growing up in the Pollak family would be a dream come true for any child. Bob and Martha Pollak's nine grandchildren can have candy whenever their hearts desire. They just walk into the Snowflake Chocolates showroom attached to their grandparents' Jericho home and choose from a huge selection of truffles, fudge, peanut brittle and plenty of other sweets.

Martha Pollak insists chocolate is good for people. "There are many misconceptions about candy," she says. "Chocolate isn't bad for you and it doesn't make kids hyper."

The matriarch of this candy empire practices what she preaches. "We eat chocolate every day," she asserts.

Snowflake Chocolates was named in honor of Snowflake Bentley, the 19th-century Jericho native who taught himself photography and went on to capture more than 4,500 images of snowflakes and ice crystals, the first ever taken.

While snowflakes were Bentley's passion, it would seem that the confectionery art is in the Pollaks' blood: Bob's father was a candy maker; his brother owns a chain of candy stores; his daughters run the family business; and his grandson, Mike Soutiere, helps with production duties.

Daughter Shelly Dionne is the company's vice president, but she insists the job title has little meaning. She works closely with her sister, Sharon Wintersteen, who manages the store and production in the daytime. "We're not into wearing our titles," Dionne says. "We all do a little bit of everything."

Shelly is responsible for packaging, ordering and managing the second and weekend shifts during the busy season, which lasts from September through March. "This business is built around Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter," she says. During those months, the company employs 10 people who work mostly part-time at the Jericho production facility. "In December, we might go to 12 people."

"We sell everything we can make," Bob says. He recalls a snowy Valentine's Day a few years ago when loyal customers drove through a blizzard to buy Snowflake Chocolates at the store. "We have the world's greatest customers," he says. "People have a real regard for each other. No one gets upset even if there is gridlock in our tiny parking lot."

In addition to the Jericho store, the company sells chocolates at its retail store on Williston Road in South Burlington and through mail-order. They send out a catalog to 800 customers annually. Dionne says mail-order accounts for between 10 and 20 percent of the overall business. "Mail-order is the biggest potential growth area," she says. They also sell chocolates to companies for personalized corporate gifts.

The small Jericho store is where most of the candy is sold. "Our customers are mostly local people and those who travel Route 15," Martha says. "We do quite a bit of business in the fall when people are looking at the foliage. And we're on the route to Smugglers Notch."

Bob Pollak (left) and production workers John Spencer and Mike Soutiere (center), Pollak's grandson, can be watched from the retail shop through a large window as they make candy.

Martha reports that most customers are buying candy as gifts. "They don't usually buy a lot for themselves. There's no other place to buy a nice gift in Jericho without going into town," she says.

"Nobody knows where we are but we manage to sell a lot of chocolate," Bob says. He calls Snowflake Chocolates "Vermont's best-kept secret."

Bob says the small size allows the family to effectively manage the business. "Everything we do is handmade and rather labor intensive, so staying small enables us to control our growth," he says. "Our goal is to grow 10 percent each year and continue to expand our mail-order and corporate business."

The Pollaks use 25,000 pounds of chocolate each year. They buy the ingredient wholesale from Mercken's Chocolate in Mansfield, Mass. Bob explains that his family has used Mercken's since the 1940s. In the Snowflake kitchen, the chocolate is melted and used for the company's many products. They mix it with cream, sugar, chocolate liquor, vanilla and butter to make fudge and use it to coat the bite-size candies for which Snowflake is known.

"The chocolate acts as a covering for all the products we make here like cherry cordials, chews, creams and truffles," Bob says. The majority of production focuses on turtles, truffles and butter crunch, he says. "We make 100,000 truffles between November and Christmas."

Snowflake's specialty products include pumpkin fudge seasoned with nutmeg, and maple fudge made with Vermont syrup. During the Christmas season, the family produces 2,000 candy canes. "We have to stop when we reach 2,000 or else we'd be making them on Christmas eve," Bob says.

Bob explains that they produce their candies in small batches of 50 pounds or less, which makes for a higher quality product than that from larger confectioners.

The modest size of the Snowflake production facility demonstrates Bob's point. There are two rooms for production: One is the kitchen in which the chocolate is melted and blended with other ingredients in bubbling cauldrons; the other is for packaging and assembling the candies. The biggest piece of equipment is a 20-foot Hillard chocolate enrobing machine that runs the length of the packaging room.

With the exception of the enrober, which covers naked candies with chocolate, all of Snowflake's material assets have been self-funded. "We've put all the money we've made back into the business," Bob says.

A former banker, Bob knows about sensible money management. A job at Howard bank brought the Pollaks to Vermont in 1971. Snowflake Chocolates was born in 1984, when Bob had retired and their children were grown. "We were looking for something to do so we started making candies in our kitchen," he says. "We had trouble selling the $5 box of candy in the beginning, so we made a $1 sampler box. People weren't willing to take a chance on a $5 box, but they would buy a dollar's worth. They would go to their car, eat a chocolate, then come back and buy more."

Bob Pollak and his grandson Mike Soutiere turn from having coated a tray of candies with chocolate.

Bob learned some of his business as well as confectionery skills from his father, Michael Pollak, as a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. "I started making candy with my dad when I was 10 years old," he remembers. Originally, Pollak Candies produced sweets for charitable organizations, such as churches and Boy Scouts to sell for fund-raising purposes. The business expanded to include a small retail store in the back of the factory. Bob worked there part-time until he was 31 years old doing packaging and production work. "Everybody worked for the old man," he says. "It was non-negotiable."

He met Martha Belton when they were in high school. "We've been together ever since," Martha says. She handles buying, payroll and bookkeeping duties at Snowflake Chocolates.

In the late '60s, Bob juggled college, a full-time job at a bank and part-time work in his father's factory. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1971 after which he accepted the job at Howard Bank. Bob and Martha and their five children settled in Jericho where they have remained for 32 years.

Although they had never been to Vermont before they moved here, Martha says, "We always had the idea of living in New England. The people in the community and the town of Jericho have been good to us. They made it easy for us to open here."

She explains that when they opened Snowflake Chocolates in 1984, the area in downtown Jericho was zoned as a "special business district. They were encouraging people to open small shops and businesses in the large houses in Jericho that are too big for single families," she says.

Dionne hopes to one day turn the Snowflake shop into a "candy mansion," but is quick to point out that "bigger isn't always better."

"We could remodel the old house and turn the shop into a tourist attraction," she explains, "but we'd have to be careful not to lose the family touch."

Bob agrees. "There is enough traffic along this highway to support an expansion." He is conscious, though, of the company's down-home appeal. "We have a hometown, folksy image. We sell nostalgia," he says. "People that come in here have been to a candy shop similar to ours when they were growing up."

Indeed, a question about the company's future plans results in a mixed response that reflects the generations. The company doesn't have a website, but when the topic comes up, Dionne says, "That's Sharon and I talking versus the old man, who says we don't need it."

Shelly Dionne (left) and Lucy Bathalon, of packaging & retail, box up the delectable morsels for sale in the shops.

Peggy Bouchard, director of sales at the Comfort Inn in Burlington, likes to work with Snowflake Chocolates because of the company's personalized service and attention to detail. Bouchard buys gifts for extended-stay guests, tour operators and corporate clients. She works closely with Dionne to find appropriate gifts for the many tour groups that stay at the Comfort Inn.

"I've always been a supporter of small business," she says. "I'd rather not use the large manufacturers who are more expensive and less personal. Using a Vermont product is more in line with what I am doing as far as promoting tourism here."

Bouchard gives Snowflake Chocolates credit for being "responsive and easy to work with," even when she needs something in a pinch. "Shelly is always very helpful and full of suggestions. They are great people to work with."

Dionne knows candy. "Ever since I was small, we always had as much as we wanted," she says. "I guess we kind of took it for granted."

Originally published in August 2002 Business People-Vermont