Dorothy Gastel, founder of Dorothy's Candies

Dorothy’s Candies Gourmet chocolatier a sweet Mon Valley staple

11/28/2011
Dorothy's Candies Fine Gourmet Swiss ChocolatesAs this year’s Oscars crowd sorts through celebrity gift bags, a salty-sweet treat stands out among more than 125 items — chocolatecovered potato chips from Dorothy’s Candies. The Sunday evening awards event was all about giving Hollywood stars the red carpet treatment. And what better way to be welcomed than to be showered with gifts? Caribbean vacation tickets. Jewelry. Skin care products. And chocolates that McKeesport area residents have been enjoying for more than 60 years.

Dorothy’s Candies began as a basement shop in Dorothy and Robert Gastel’s Grandview home in 1947. The operation started small, but Dorothy already had plenty of practice. During the 1930s Depression, she and her mother Mae Gillespie made hand-dipped chocolates at Mae’s West End home. They sold confections from family-favorite recipes that had been perfected through years of gift-giving. “Chocolate is part of hospitality, and hospitality is the cornerstone virtue of a strong society,” said Marti Gastel, daughter-in-law to the late Dorothy. “For Dorothy, hospitality was her thing. It’s how she got into this business. She loved to serve people.”

In 1956, Dorothy’s Candies became so popular that the family expanded service to a Versailles Avenue storefront. “A lot of people think she was making chocolates on Versailles Avenue,” said Dorothy’s son Robert Gastel Jr., who now owns the company. “She sold it there, but she always worked in the basement of our home.” And even though the retail aspect of Dorothy’s Candies had moved out of the family living room, she wanted that homestyle feeling to remain. Guests were welcomed to the Versailles Avenue store just as they were at the Gastel household, and just as they are in today’s White Oak location. “To this day, we still give all of our customers a sample when they come through the door,” Marti said.

Dorothy’s Candies moved to Route 48 in 1992, following Dorothy’s death in the late 1980s. Robert was looking for a facility that could serve as a manufacturing plant as well as a welcoming storefront. “He wanted it to move forward in the next generation,” Marti said. “He decided Dorothy’s Candies needed to expand.” Since the company’s move to White Oak, it has done just that. Business has continued to grow, and the quality has kept up with the demand. “We’re in the business of hand-crafted artisan chocolate, and that’s the business we want to stay in,” Marti said. “There’s a quality to be preserved, and the only way to do that is the oldfashioned way.” Dorothy’s Candies still thrives on the founder’s recipes, which feature thick, creamy fillings and big chunks of nuts and fruit. “Nothing can substitute for that,” Marti said. “Americans are beginning to revisit the quality of products like this. And they’re willing to pay more for it.”

But at Dorothy’s, part of the mission is keeping quality confections at a reasonable price — something important in the Gastel family’s blue-collar roots. Their families had survived the Great Depression and as adults they formed a new family in a working- class steel town. While Dorothy was hard at work in the chocolate business, her husband Robert was one of the top three drivers for the Menzie Dairy Co. “We want to be not only elegant, but affordable,” Marti said. “This was a business that took its roots beside the steel mills and dairy farms. We make real chocolate for real people.” That real chocolate offers something for every taste and every season, as Dorothy’s is open year round. Out now for St. Patrick’s Day are Irish potatoes, which are sweet confections rolled in cinnamon. For Easter, there are Swiss chocolate eggs with a variety of luscious fillings — everything from fruit and nuts to pretzels and potato chips. Something that surpasses the seasons is Dorothy’s bark, which comes in milk and dark chocolate. “It’s a great way that you can eat chocolate on a daily basis,” Marti said.

Staff is busy daily making the sweets that bring customers into the White Oak store, fulfilling another goal of the Dorothy’s Candies operation — passing on working-class ethics to generations of employees. “Dorothy believed in teaching and education,” Marti said. We’re still a teaching organization here. We teach people to develop job skills.” While they’re learning the tricks of the trade, Dorothy’s staff also is learning time management, organization, and of course, hospitality. Robert said his education started at his mother’s business, even before his years in school. “He was 5 years old, and he would be helping her put cups on trays,” Marti said. Robert’s parents encouraged him throughout his childhood and adult life, pushing him to excel in more than the family business. They were proud of his accomplishment as the first member of their extended family to graduate from college.

Robert believes the current Dorothy’s Candies operation also would make his parents proud. “I think we’re true to Dorothy’s vision,” Marti said. “I want to be able to look her in the face one day and say, ‘This is your vision.’” The Gastel family can be proud that their business is surviving long into its second generation and that it plays an active role in the community. “At Dorothy’s, we really believe that business supports the community,” Marti said. “Small businesses particularly can do that. We’re in the neighborhood. We do things to help our area grow and thrive.”

Business owners should be thankful for the continued patronage of local shoppers, Marti said, and therefore they should give back in any way they can. Dorothy’s Candies is affiliated with the Pittsburgh Opera as its official chocolatier with a line of Diva Divine dark chocolates dedicated there. The company also reached out to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, selling a line of chocolate bars to help raise funds for a memorial. The chocolatier also offers products for doorto- door fund-raisers in the McKeesport Area School District, with online orders now available to out-of-state participants. Dorothy’s Candies also is active in the Regional Chamber Alliance. The shop and plant will be open for an RCA “Business After Hours” event March 10 at 5 p.m. The open house will welcome all chamber members, with an early bird 4 p.m. opportunity for non-chamber members to see what the RCA and Dorothy’s have to offer. Dorothy’s Candies is located at 1228 Long Run Road, White Oak. Store hours vary by season, with current hours being Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 412-678- 2723 or go to the chocolatier’s website at www.dorothyscandies. com.

- By JENNIFER R. VERTULLO Daily News Staff Writer jvertullo@dailynewsemail.com

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