It’s not a golden ticket, but it gets me in nonetheless. The little blue card given to me by the gift shop attendant holds the admission to this chocoholic’s wildest dream: a tour of a candy factory.
The 152,000 square-foot Anthony-Thomas Candy Factory sits in an industrial park on the west side of Columbus. Its brick front recalls an earlier and more humble beginning which my guide narrates to me.
In 1907, Anthony Zanetos immigrated to Columbus from Greece and became an apprentice candy maker for about 9 years before finally deciding to go into business for himself. Zanetos started the Co-op Dairy in Franklinton, where he continued to hone his candy-making craft.
Then in 1947, Zanetos and his son Thomas opened the Crystal Fountain Restaurant on West Broad Street, a luncheonette-style eatery serving up soup, sandwiches, soda fountain drinks, and ice cream. The Crystal Fountain proved to be a tremendous vehicle for candy, which soon outpaced regular food sales.
Despite the rationing of sugar at the time, Zanetos was still able to meet his candy-making demand. Both Thomas’ status as a World War II veteran and his occupation as a confectioner made him eligible to receive 30,000 pounds of sugar a year. The father-son partnership was cemented as the two merged their first names and formed the Anthony-Thomas Candy Company in 1952.
The company went through several expansions to keep up with demand until 1995 when it moved into the building in which I’m standing, home to one of the largest candy companies in the Midwest. The next generation of candy makers, Thomas’ children, continue the family business as the current company owners and operators. Sons Joe, Timothy, and Greg can often be found on the factory floor, staying hands-on with candy production. Joe’s daughter Candi Trifelos handles the retail division, while her sister Carla Scully works at one of the stores.
Scully’s husband Steve works in the factory as a floor supervisor.
I’m led upstairs to a glassed-in catwalk overlooking a general candy production area, where I spy a very industrial-age-looking machine, all moving parts, wrapping candy bars specially made for Anthony-Thomas’ fundraising division. The company supports the American Cancer Society, schools, PTAs, and other non-profits by allowing groups to sell the candy for $1 a bar and split the profits.
I also see some familiar Snickers labels running through a machine. Anthony-Thomas holds a contract with Mars, and processes and packages some of its candies. Trucking to and from the factory, as you might imagine, is discreet.
True Anthony-Thomas confections that will be sold in one of the thirteen Central Ohio retail stores, however, are a more involved process. My guide points at a woman in a striped top holding a brush, spreading chocolate in a clear handmade mold, the type of mold that will create a chocolate Christmas tree. Carefully, she shakes the mold to even out the chocolate and get rid of air bubbles.
“I could watch her all day,” sighs the guide. “That’s the great thing about Anthony-Thomas. People still care about candy and the process.”
Employees are making peanut brittle today, which will be hand cut into squares. Tree bark candy also is also cut by hand, but on a distinctive diagonal. Packaging is also done by hand. Anthony-Thomas has employs 200 regular full-time workers as well as additional seasonal workers.
Even from the catwalk, there’s a noticeable difference between the areas of the factory devoted for candy production, and those reserved for packaging, not just the faint aroma of melted chocolate, but the cooler temperature. A wonderful property of chocolate its low melting point.
Good chocolate melts at body temperature, literally in your mouth. Great care is taken at the factory to make sure that its beautiful finished products stay that way.
Zipping across the factory ceilings are a number of pipes wrapped in a silver foil coating (another temperature control). Each of them carries liquid chocolate to different areas of the factory, which then pumps a heavenly cascade of chocolate joy from a nozzle into large vats stirred with beaters. Giant copper kettles, chosen for heat conduction, line some of the walls.
Anthony-Thomas does not process the cacao beans that make its chocolate, but rather sends specifications to processing plants, who then ship the customized liquid chocolate to the factory by truck, where it is emptied into reservoir tanks. The thought that I have been driving the Columbus freeways along with tanker trucks filled with 40,000 gallons of warm liquid chocolate is enough to make my heart stop.
“I know, isn’t that wonderful?” The guide laughs a bit at the expression on my wide-eyed face. “They pump that chocolate into the holding tanks on the side of the factory, and it smells fabulous outside when they’re doing that. It really does.”
In another area of the factory, I get to see a chocolate-coating machine being used to make English toffee. Pieces of candy ride conveyor-belt style into a curtain of chocolate, then continue down the belt to be cooled, while the runoff chocolate is caught and recycled from underneath. 30,000 pounds of chocolates are produced per shift at the factory on the nine lines.
My tour ends where it began—in the 2,500 square-foot retail and gift shop where I receive one of Anthony-Thomas’ signature buckeyes: a molded chocolate shell with a with a white chocolate top (tinted the color of peanut butter) encasing a creamy peanut butter filling. I take a bite and wave to about twenty excited children who are waiting to begin their sweet adventure.
Anthony Zanetos’ great-great-grandchildren, now high school and college-age, often use their break time to give tours and work in the retail shops, providing the Anthony-Thomas Candy Company with their fifth generation of Columbus chocolate enthusiasts. No doubt it will provide me with my own chocolate fix for years to come as well.