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At Condrell's, every day is sundae; Owners are now named King, and they carefully enhance a Kenmore ice cream legend

The first time Rich and Melissa King set eyes on Condrell's Candies, the business they were thinking of buying, they couldn't figure out what the fuss was about this place.

The tables were so small they could barely accommodate a couple of banana splits. The terra cotta floor was old and badly in need of replacement. The legs on some of the chairs were uneven, making them rock back and forth.

"We thought, 'Why do people come here? I don't understand,' " Melissa said. "Then they put the sundaes in front of us, and we said, 'Ohhhh -- now we get it.' "

The sundaes at Condrell's on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore are locally legendary, yet the sign on the front of the business doesn't mention them at all. There also is no indication -- and no hurry to remind anyone -- that the man who founded the shop that bears his name has been out of the Condrell's business for more than 30 years.

But given all the smiles and widened eyes that greet the gargantuan sundaes that continue to be placed before customers at one of the most beloved institutions in Western New York, no one seems to care.

I'm not sure exactly what this says about us as a community, but when I wrote last year that I was looking for suggestions of places in the region that have been here a long time and are still going strong, ice cream was a recurring theme. It seems that a lot of things come and go around here, but we cling to our ice cream stands and parlors and don't let them fade away. Condrell's the place and Condrell's the name might be the best examples of that.

Friday's summerlike weather helped bring in a steady stream of customers, replicating a scene that has played out here since Nicholas Condrell opened the doors in 1968. Condrell had already enjoyed ice cream success with the New Garden of Sweets on Bailey Avenue when he decided to open a second location just over the Buffalo city line in Kenmore. He died six years ago, but the shop lives on.

Early Friday evening, families with children of all ages occupied the tables, which are now plenty big enough to handle the ice cream concoctions before them. There are more of them on the menu now, but many of the names are the same as when Condrell named them after local schools. For instance, you can still argue about whether the Kenmore East is better than the Kenmore West.

Michele and Paul Nufer of Akron happened to be in the neighborhood and remembered how much they liked Condrell's during an earlier visit. So they came back with her children, Erin Schmidt, 14, and Ian Andrews, 6.

"It's just a very nice place to enjoy ice cream and enjoy other people," Paul Nufer said.

John and Jennifer Cunningham of Kenmore seemed to be enjoying the delight on their 4-year-old son Hayden's face almost as much as the atmosphere.

"It's got that old-time feel to it," John Cunningham said.

As much as the Kings have made changes and improvements since they took over the business in 1996, there is still a sameness to Condrell's. The center of the shop is all tables and chairs, the rear section is where sundaes are made and you pay your bill, while the glass-enclosed display area on the south side is packed with every manner of candy you can imagine. Children still finish their ice cream and wander over to press their palms and faces against the glass that guards the fudge and the candies inside. So close and yet so far.

One of the first customers Melissa King encountered couldn't help but notice how familiar everything seemed to be.

"He said he came in when he was a kid and he noticed that the setup was virtually the same and he asked, 'Was that on purpose?' and I said, 'Yes.' One of the first things we heard was people wanted it to be the same. They didn't want anything different," she said.

Being the new steward of an institution is a tough balancing act. You have to grow and adapt to survive, but not at the expense of dishonoring its past or alienating the regular customers.

That balance helps explain so much about Condrell's today, including the name. Think about it: If you owned and operated a business, wouldn't you want people to know it was yours through its name? But the sign out front still says "Condrell's Candies." Only after you see the menu do you see the owners' names, and then it's still with Condrell's: King Condrell's Candy & Ice Cream.

"We're slowly integrating it," Melissa said, with enough of an apology in her voice to make you wonder if they ever will truly leave the name Condrell's behind.

That they pay this much homage to its roots is doubly interesting because the Kings didn't have any long-ago Condrell's experiences to draw on. Both are from West Seneca and sheepishly admit that they had never heard of the place in their youth.

But they know plenty about sweets. They were the owners of King's Kandy, one of the first tenants when Walden Galleria opened in 1989. They later opened a second location in Boulevard Mall. They were operating both stores when they decided to purchase Condrell's in 1996, but later closed the candy stores to focus all of their attention on Condrell's.

When they took over, the Kings were looking to expand into ice cream while Rich, who is a chocolatier, could continue making candy. It was a perfect fit.

Sixteen years later, it still is, with no end in sight.

Selling a combination of ice cream, candy and nostalgia is not easy in a tough economy. The Kings don't make it any easier on themselves by using premium products, making their own candy and sauces and charging prices that dwarf some other establishments.

"People say, 'You're expensive.' We are. I'm not going to deny it. But when you come in to get a sundae, you're going to get a sundae. You're not going to get these little things," Rich said, adding: "If we try and we fail, we're going to fail because we did everything right."

email: bandriatch@buffnews.com