Edward Marc Brands is both a 102-year-old family business and a hot startup, led by sibling political animals Chris Edwards and Dana Edwards Manatos. (Their brother, Mark Edwards, is COO.) Chris Edwards explains how the Pittsburgh-based company soared, with a little help from Sarah Palin and the Pentagon. --As told to Leigh Buchanan
Our great-grandparents emigrated from Greece to Pittsburgh, where they sold chocolate-covered candied fruit on street corners. By 1914, they had saved enough money to buy a small storefront. For decades, they, and then their children, sold homemade ice cream and chocolates.
Keystone Candy stayed a mom-and-pop business until our parents took it over in the late 1970s. Our father sold chocolates to schools for fundraisers. Our mother managed the store and opened several more in Pittsburgh. They renamed the company Geoffrey Boehm (a conflation of several family names) to announce that they were a new generation doing new things.
In the early 1990s, our father sold the fundraising part of the company. Our mother continued to operate a single store, specializing in gourmet chocolates for weddings and events. Although that business never got big, she kept it going in case her kids wanted to run the family business someday.
I love politics, so the moment I graduated from college in 2000, I drove to Washington, D.C. I landed a job at the State Department, and then at the White House. As director of press advance, I coordinated all travel and logistics for President and Mrs. Bush. I toured the world on Air Force One. Soon, my siblings, Dana and Mark, joined me there in related roles. But we never stopped thinking about what we could do with that little chocolate business back in Pittsburgh.
In 2007, we left our government jobs and took over the company, which at that point had only $360,000 in revenue. Our mother stayed on as president. We decided to rebrand as a maker of boxed chocolates for corporate gifts, and chose the name Edward Marc for its upscale sound. Piece by piece, we revamped the aesthetic and old family recipes, adding ingredients like nuts imported from the Middle East. With our own money and an investment from our parents, we bought a small chocolate factory that was owned, separately, by our grandfather. Saks Fifth Avenue agreed to sell our chocolates in 42 stores. We landed clients like Goldman Sachs and American Airlines.
The Pentagon contacted us about opening a retail outlet there, and we beat out about 25 other chocolatiers for the contract. It gave us huge visibility and was the most secure chocolate store in the country. It also brought in revenue of $1 million a year. But we closed the store in 2015 to focus on the wholesale side of the business.
Political commentator Nicolle Wallace--a friend and former colleague--was working on John McCain's presidential campaign and asked me to join. I took a leave of absence from the company and was soon appointed Sarah Palin's deputy chief of staff. For two months, I traveled around the country with her. When HBO produced the Palin movie Game Change, in which I was a character, I was asked to consult. At the film's premiere in Washington, D.C., I met an editor for Washingtonian magazine. She wrote an article about the three siblings who moved from the White House to a successful chocolate company. A candy buyer for Costco--who happened to be from Pittsburgh and knew our company--read the article and called.
Costco wanted a snack product, which was not our specialty. But salted caramels had always been our best-selling candy, and our family had been making pecan turtles for generations. So we combined caramel with pretzels and chocolate to create Snappers (a play on snapping turtles, because the name Turtles is trademarked). We worked with Costco to develop a product that was affordable and could be sold anywhere. The buyer approved Snappers right there in our second meeting. After that, it took us four months to design the packaging, figure out the pricing, find a co-manufacturer, and learn to execute flawlessly.
I thought Costco would place Snappers in three stores in Pittsburgh, but right away it put us in 79 stores throughout the Northeast. Now we're all over the country. In May, we sold $5.3 million worth through Costco alone. We're also in 30,000 to 40,000 other stores. We used to go through 250,000 pounds of chocolate a year. Now we do that every two weeks.
With Snappers huge and getting huger, we are focusing again on the high-end chocolate business. We are also launching a chain called the Milk Shake Factory. So far, we have two stores in Pittsburgh; the plan is to open one location a year for the next three years. The concept is gaining traction: We have demonstrated milkshake-making on the Today show and Good Morning America. The Milk Shake Factory is an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor. Kind of like what our great-grandparents started more than a century ago.