NORTH TONAWANDA — Platter’s Chocolates has always been a family business. It has been growing little by little, but plans a big move next year to a larger and more visible site in the Wurlitzer Building on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
Once, it was located in the basement of Carl and Vera Platter at 134 East Felton St. and people flocked to the house for the homemade chocolates.
In 1973, Roger Urban bought the house and the candy-making retail store.
Joseph Urban, 46, owner/operator, grew up in the business his father purchased.
“My father loved Platter’s orange chocolate. He loved the product and certainly wasn’t going to change the name because Mr. Platter had developed a good product in North Tonawanda,” said Urban. “The name will never change.”
His father died in 1993, but his mother, Roberta, who goes by “Robbie,” is still working in the factory part-time. She remembers how her husband, a pharmacist, came home one day and said he bought the company he had his eye on.
“I said, ‘You did what?’ ” said Robbie Urban, still laughing about the surprise, and who still comes into work when needed.
“You see it now and you just can’t believe (how far we’ve come),” she added.
The Platters owned adjoining houses and built a small tunnel between the basements of the two houses for extra candy storage, which they allowed the Urbans to use.
Joe Urban said he was 3 years old when he used to come down into the basement. He said he was small enough to crawl through the tunnel.
The Urbans moved the business to 954 Oliver St. in 1975, starting out as a 3,000-square-foot retail store, expanding to 10,000 square feet by 1984. By 1993 they had expanded to become a 17,000-square-foot chocolate factory, following the purchase of Betty Dixon Candies of Jamestown in 1992. Urban said they expanded and brought the equipment to North Tonawanda.
With no room left to grow they planned to move from Oliver Street, but will stay in North Tonawanda, expanding to the Wurlitzer Building on Niagara Falls Boulevard. The $1 million expansion project will open up the business to more customers and will be on the route for tour buses.
“You’re not coming to Platter’s unless you are coming to Platter’s,” said Urban, referring to the low-profile site on Oliver Street.
When the expansion to the Wurlitzer site is complete the shop will expand another 5,000 square feet and visitors will be able to both buy candy and watch the behind-the-scenes chocolate-making process.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” said business manager John DiGuiseppe, who is Urban’s brother-in-law. He said he spotted the site when he was looking for storage.
Urban said they used to shut down in the summer, but added an ice cream store in 2001 and they now sell candy year-round.
“My daughters and my wife, Heidi, have worked in the retail store and they say when people walk in and smell it out there it brings back memories and family traditions,” said Urban.
His sister, Sherry DiGuiseppe and brother, Bruce Urban are also co-owners.
Urban spoke with Niagara Weekend about his business.
This place is swamped during the holidays, especially Easter. Why do people make a special trip?
I think it is traditions. It brings back memories. People can still come and look behind the glass and pick out their piece of chocolate and have it wrapped. If you buy it at the store it is all wrapped. Here it’s like buying a pastry out of the case. It’s fresh and that’s how it’s been since we’ve been in the basement and that’s the tradition people remember. We have a selection here that’s bigger than any store has.
What’s one of your favorite molds?
We’ve got bunnies on motorcycles, monkeys, elephants. There’s a little German girl called Heidi. We do sell just bunny ears, because the best part of the bunny is the ears. So we made a mold that is just ears.
How did your dad decide to buy the business?
My father was a pharmacist on Felton Street, one street over from East Felton. He grew up here. He knew Carl Platter from growing up in the neighborhood and would kid him saying, “If you ever get out of the business let me know.” It just so happened that he saw Carl and said, “Remember me if you want to sell,” and he said he had just sold to someone else, but shortly after the purchase the man who bought it passed away and we bought it from their estate.
How did people get into a basement to buy chocolate?
There was no garage on the house. It was a shared driveway with a side door. You would walk down six or eight steps into the basement and that was the showroom.
Did they make their chocolate there?
Yes, and it would be stored under the Platter’s house (next door.) That was what the tunnel was used for. They let us use the basement and tunnel. We were there for about two years until we moved over here. As a kid I used to play in that tunnel. It had enough room to pull a couple of boxes of chocolates through on a cart.
So you grew up around the business. You have chocolate in your blood.
You said you left college to run the business after your father died.
I was in college for business finance. My dad approached me and my brother about making the business grow. The intent was for me to finish my degree, but shortly after the purchase (of Betty Dixon Candies) was made my father was diagnosed with cancer. We were all in. We had borrowed money. Failure wasn’t an option. It was all hands on deck. It was a tough couple of years. I lost my hair then.
That sounds stressful.
We didn’t know a lot about making the candies and the enrobers (machines that coat candies with chocolate). All we did was melt and mold chocolate. We knew that inside out. But we didn’t know anything about cooking candy, the cremes, the caramels, the candies. We didn’t even do popcorn back then. It was extremely stressful. We had to make it work.
Did you have a vision for growing the business?
We didn’t so much have a vision. We just worked hard. We knew if we worked hard business would take care of itself. We knew if we made good candy business would take care of itself. Prior to two years ago we didn’t have a salesman to get us into stores and schools. It’s made a difference. My brother-in-law John has taken that on and has turned it into a business development position. Prior to him coming on it was all word of mouth.
It sounds like making a quality product is huge for you.
You can spend a lot of money on advertising, but you have to sell a lot of chocolate to pay for that. We’d rather just give the chocolate away and have people just try it. The product sells itself. We want people to taste for themselves. We go to the different stores where we do wholesaling and we do tastings. That’s how we get exposures to new people.
But I bet you already have a lot of fans.
Since we are open in the summer a lot of expatriates are home visiting. Sahlen’s hot dogs, Platter’s chocolates are things they have to take back with them. We have a lot of people who have moved away and it’s one of the things they crave from home.
Is expanding to the Wurlitzer Building your vision for the future?
Yeah. Oliver Street has been very good to us, but we don’t get anybody coming here. We are in a residential area. Being able to have that exposure on Niagara Falls Boulevard is really going to help us grow the business. Most of our business is wholesale, but if we can grow the retail it’s going to be very good for the business.