Under the bright lights of the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, past the booths filled with hand-decorated truffles from Vermont and chocolate-covered pretzels from New Jersey, the classes for chocolate makers were about to begin.

A small group sat among rows of long white tables, pen and paper at the ready. One woman was getting ready to open a chocolate shop in Middletown, N.Y., after winning an economic development grant. A mother of two children with food allergies, from Mifflin, Pa., had plans to develop a soy-free line of chocolates. A couple from southwest Virginia had been in business with a store called Cocoa Trail Chocolates for about a year and a half.

They’d all made their way, early one Sunday morning, to the Philadelphia National Candy, Gift and Gourmet Show. Held twice a year, in September and January, the show’s winter edition is timed for after the Christmas holiday rush, as chocolatiers turn their focus to Valentine’s Day and Easter. If you make or sell chocolate for a living — whether you need ingredients, equipment or packaging, or advice on how to troubleshoot a finicky confection — this is the place for you.

“What’s the best chocolate? That’s very easy: it’s what you like,” said Joe Crevino, a New Jersey-based software consultant turned chocolate consultant. He much prefers telling people that his job title is the latter; they light up. “Chocolate is a very decadent and mystical thing,” he said.

The seminar room, cordoned off from the trade show floor, continued to fill as the morning agenda skipped along. A pastry chef demonstrated how to decorate with cocoa butter. A lawyer presented on succession-planning for small-business owners. A representative for Blommer Chocolate Co., a large supplier, pointed out emerging flavor trends — bee pollen, butterscotch, Japanese citrus — with cautionary reminders to know what your customers want and to “stay true to your brand.”

Kirsten Pankowski, an employee at Kelly's Kandy, decorates a chocolate lollipop as part of The Philadelphia National Candy Gift and Gourmet Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks in January.
Margo Reed
Kirsten Pankowski, an employee at Kelly's Kandy, decorates a chocolate lollipop as part of The Philadelphia National Candy Gift and Gourmet Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks in January.

The candy show, which started in the 1940s, is put on by the 101-year-old Retail Confectioners Association of Philadelphia (RCAP). The port city’s ready access to sugar and cocoa, and to a flow of immigrants bearing recipes and techniques from Europe, helped popularize Philly’s candy trade, going back to the 1800s.

“It’s a business that evolved along with neighborhoods,” said Tony Walter Jr., who co-owns Lore’s Chocolates, near Independence Mall, and whose father worked for Peanut Chews-originator Goldenberg Candy Co. “When the neighborhoods had butchers and bakers, they had chocolate makers.”

A copy of RCAP’s original charter hangs in Lore’s. The association made camaraderie easy among store owners. “It was formed to help one another out — if you needed help with equipment, or if you needed help with a recipe,” said Joe Lees, owner of Casani Candy. The Pennsauken-based distributor — founded in Philadelphia in 1865 — supplies retail shops with such sweets as gummy bears, Swedish fish, and hard candies.

When his father, Jack, who ran the candy show for more than two decades, died in October, Lees estimates that hundreds attended the service, many from the candy business. “It’s a very close-knit organization,” he said.

Today, RCAP has about 350 members throughout the United States, catering to everyone from retailers with one shop to those with seven or eight stores.

Revenue across the chocolate store sector — which includes such big names as See’s Candies and Godiva, as well as smaller independent operators — was estimated to grow 1.1 percent in 2018, to about $1.6 billion, according to market research firm IBISWorld. (Beyond the specialty market, Nielsen estimates Americans bought $11.1 billion worth of chocolate in the last year from grocery stores, drugstores and other large outlets.)

Melted milk chocolate coats a pretzel at Hilliard's Chocolate System display.
Margo Reed
Melted milk chocolate coats a pretzel at Hilliard's Chocolate System display.

Chocolate makers say RCAP members support each other in a way that sets the industry apart from others. “This is not like the corporate America I’m familiar with, where people are willing to stab you in the back to move forward,” said Carol Freedman, of Carol’s Creative Chocolatez in Somerville, N.J.

She spent almost 30 years working for her father’s company — which built microbiological research equipment — before switching directions, with her now business partner Tony Brokenborough. Freedman credits RCAP with encouraging her early forays in confectionery — such as making impressionistic chocolate paintings — and says she owes a lot to Crevino’s advice on handling “the misbehavior of chocolate,” which is ever susceptible to heat and humidity.

“It’s a difficult confection to work with,” Freedman said. “Chocolate’s going to do what chocolate’s going to do.” Last year, the Daily Meal website named her store the best chocolate shop in New Jersey.

Freedman always learns something new from an industry show. Maybe she spots a tool that will make her day easier. Maybe she hears about a good growing season for cacao in a particular region, or samples chocolate she hasn’t tried before.

But, when it’s so easy to just research stuff on the internet, RCAP has to keep making the case that attending a candy show in real life is worth it.

“In our industry, there are many mom-and-pop stores that really have to pick and choose their battles of where they can spend their time and their money,” said RCAP’s president, Paul Esposito, whose family opened Victoria’s Candies in Hazleton, Pa, in 1934. “And our goal is to make our two candy shows the most attractive shows they can attend.”

To that end, the association has lately put more emphasis on offering education and training at the shows. Last year, it moved the larger September candy show from Atlantic City to Hershey, Pa. — a change that encouraged more attendees to make a family vacation out of it, Esposito said.

Esposito credits the show with helping him expand his own business into the wholesale market. Dozens of different chocolates line his exhibition booth, and he now supplies 60 other candy stores along the East Coast, and in the Midwest. Last September, he opened a new, 16,000-square-foot facility to keep up with demand.

Josephine Hughes, 10 (left), and her grandmother, Dale Sheehan, who started Kelly's Kandy in Collingdale, speak with David Giambri, of Giambri's Quality Sweets.
Margo Reed
Josephine Hughes, 10 (left), and her grandmother, Dale Sheehan, who started Kelly's Kandy in Collingdale, speak with David Giambri, of Giambri's Quality Sweets.

A few steps from Esposito’s booth, Dale Sheehan, once a dancer with the Rockettes, recounted how she and her late husband, who had worked in the circus, started Kelly’s Kandy in the 1970s, and named it for their two daughters: Kelly and Kandy.

Now three generations run the Collingdale, Pa., shop, and Kandy Hughes, herself a former dancer, sits on RCAP’s board. The family still uses a chocolate enrobing machine they bought years ago from the Giambri family — of Giambri’s Quality Sweets — and they still make the mint recipe they learned from the proprietor of Lucille’s Own Make Candies.

“It’s a nice industry to be in,” Hughes said.