Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Family hatches Grade A Easter eggs

Papas & Son's chocolate treats gobbled up for decades

By Chuck Martin,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Don't believe in the Easter Bunny? Meet Chris Papas.

        Just about every morning this time of year, Mr. Papas hops into his van loaded with brightly colored boxes of chocolate Easter eggs, and scurries away to groceries and drug stores around the Tristate. He delivers thousands of candy eggs before the holiday — and he loves it.

[photo] Chris Papas (left), Pam Stenger and Carl Papas show off candy they make at their Covington company.
(Enquirer photo)
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        Other companies make chocolate Easter eggs, but no one's eggs are more famous in this part of the world than those made by his family's company, Chris A. Papas & Son in Covington: dark, milk chocolate and white chocolate-covered eggs filled with marshmallow, opera cream, peanut butter, pineapple cream and cherry cream. A dozen flavors in all.

        So even though he doesn't wear a bunny suit or floppy ears, Mr. Papas might be the closest thing we have to a real Easter Bunny.

        Officially though, he is vice president of the company started by his grandfather, Chris, and father, Alex, more than 60 years ago. His older brother, Carl, is president, and younger sister, Pam Stenger, helps out at the little candy factory on Baker Street.

        The family makes peppermint sticks and opera cream bars most of the year, and just before Christmas the company turns out knock-your-socks-off bourbon cherry bonbons.

        But after they put out the last box of chocolates for Valentine's Day, the Papases start hatching eggs. They may not stop making them until Good Friday.

Egg assembly line

        “Eggs are our bread and butter,” says Carl, who wears a chocolate-stained towel in his back pocket. During egg season, he's all business, answering questions in short, clipped sentences. Carl roams the sweet-smelling, clean-swept candy factory in leather sneakers, filling orders in person and on the phone, and making sure the egg assembly line runs smoothly.

[photo] Staff at work in 1947 in the basement of Lillyıs Candy Shop, the original name of Papas & Son, in Covington.
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        Until 1957, when the family moved the operation to the Covington factory, they made all the eggs by hand. Now, machinery — much of it designed by Alex Papas — creates the eggs.

        Back in the kitchen, a big clanking gizmo extrudes the marshmallow or cream filling, cuts it into egg shapes and spits it out onto a conveyor belt. The naked eggs march like soldiers, seven across, through a cooling tunnel to chill the filling. Next, the eggs glide over a puddle of melted chocolate, giving them a solid base. Then they enter a tunnel that drenches them in chocolate, and on into a long cooling tunnel.

        At the end of the line, Tracey Klare and Annette Weaver sit, quickly grabbing the eggs and putting them in boxes, weeding out any less-than-perfect-looking candies.

        (Yes, the women have seen that famous I Love Lucy episode, the one where Lucy and Ethel fall hopelessly behind while working the candy conveyor. No, that's never happened to them. But yes, they are getting a little weary of hearing about it.)

        At top speed, the Papas factory can turn out 80,000 chocolate eggs a day. But there's usually no disastrous back-up, says Ms. Stenger — unless the cooling tunnels are too warm.

        “Then, everything gets really sticky,” she says.

        Ms. Stenger is posted at the end of the line, where the boxes filled with eggs land. She moves the boxes to a machine that rapidly cloaks them in cellophane, and then stacks them in larger boxes for shipping by her brother, the Bunny Man.

        She remembers the busy Easter egg season as a child, when she rarely saw her father outside the candy factory.

        “On Sundays, we'd go to church then come here to make more eggs,” Ms. Stenger says.

        After all those years, though, she has never tired of seeing those chocolate ovals wobble down the assembly line, or has gotten bored stuffing them into boxes. Others might get headaches in the factory, but Ms. Stenger still loves the perfume of chocolate eggs at Easter.

        “This is important to me,” she says. “My father devoted his entire life to this.”

Modest beginnings

        Her father, Alex, was driven by his father, Chris, a Greek who immigrated to this country from Macedonia in 1909.

        “He was only 15 when he came to this country, had little schooling and spoke no English,” says Alex, who spends the winter in Florida.

        Chris lived in Pittsburgh before moving to Cincinnati, where he learned to make candy and ice cream and started a family. By 1930, he and his 11-year-old son were cleaning furnaces and delivering coal, and making candy in their home basement the rest of the time to sell on street corners.

        “It was during the Depression,” Alex says. “Sometimes all we had to eat were pancakes and tomatoes my mother grew in the back yard.”

        In 1935, Chris opened his first shop near the corner of Madison and Ninth streets in Covington and named it Lilly's, for his wife, Lillian. Lilly's prospered, but Chris retired from the business in 1951 after having health problems. Six years later, Alex turned Lilly's over to his sister, Katherine Hartman, and opened his candy factory under the name, Chris A. Papas & Son.

        Over the years, Alex stayed at the plant to focus on production and hired brokers to distribute his candy. He bought several other candy companies, including one in Cincinnati that made marshmallow-filled chocolates. In 1958, Alex began making marshmallow-filled eggs, as well as his dark chocolate eggs filled with ultra-rich opera cream.

        “Everybody was making chocolate eggs when we started,” Alex says.

        The Papas Easter eggs would become the most famous.

        Alex finally, almost grudgingly, handed the business over to his sons in 1986.

        Chris, the Papas patriarch, lived for more than 30 years after retiring to Florida. He died in 1984 at age 90, but lived long enough to see Papas & Son succeed.

        “He was the proudest thing,” Alex says of his father.

It's in their blood

        Evidently, it's hard for a Papas to give up making Easter eggs. After taking 11 years off “to have children,” Ms. Stenger returned to work part-time. Her brother, Chris, worked in movie theaters and as a Crescent Springs policeman before coming back to the fold.

        “Our dad always told us to go do whatever we wanted,” Chris says. “Something was just calling me.”

        Carl called home when he was 21 and working at an aircraft manufacturing plant in California.

        “I told them to hang on,” he says. “I'm coming back.”

        Coincidentally, perhaps, Carl returned to the Covington candy factory in the middle of Easter egg season.

        Five years ago, when Carl had heart bypass surgery, his father went back to work at Baker Street for a few weeks.

        “Just to make sure the orders went out,” he says.

        Now, even though the weather's nearly nice enough in Florida to play golf every day, Alex, who turns 83 in April, still gets a pang for making chocolate Easter eggs in the spring.

        “I feel like I just don't have anything else to do,” he says.

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