From the striped awning and wooden booths to the Coca-Cola collectibles, vintage soda fountain and tantalizing candy case, not much has changed at Crown Candy Kitchen since it opened in 1913. But that’s the beauty of it, says owner Andy Karandzieff.
After the turn of the 20th century, Karandzieff’s grandfather, Harry, emigrated from Greece to the U.S., bringing his confectionary skills with him. He learned the language, worked different odd jobs and saved money until he was able to open Crown Candy with his friend Pete Jugaloff. Within a year, Harry became the sole owner of the shop, and he ran it until 1951, when his son, George, took over the business and built it into the treasured St. Louis attraction that it is today. Now that Karandzieff is at the helm, he’s working to preserve his family’s legacy and continue to meet the high expectations of locals and visitors alike.
What does Crown Candy Kitchen mean to you? I’ve been around this business my entire life – I’ve been here, doing some type of job, since I was 13 years old. I started out making ice cream, then I learned how to work in the kitchen, then out front; I helped my father make chocolate bunnies, among other things. It’s progressed until suddenly I wake up and, after 42 years, it’s like, where did all the years go? It’s been the one constant in my life: getting up, coming to work and doing the job, whatever that may be. We’ve been on this corner in this building for 107 years now. My grandfather bought the building in the early 1920s, and for the most part, a member of our family has always lived on the premises. It takes a lot of TLC to keep the building from falling down around us, but this is our home, this is where we belong. This is part of who we are, and why, I think, we’re still successful is because people can come back here and recognize the [place]. They can say, this is where my grandparents met, or this is where your dad threw me out because I was banging on the pinball machine too hard, or my first job was waiting tables here. Those stories are amazing to hear. It makes me feel good that people are still coming down to support us, and we’re still here for them.
With all the aspects of Crown Candy Kitchen that have remained unchanged, how has it evolved over the years? I always tell people, change is a bad thing around here. People expect the egg salad to taste just like it did 20 years ago; people expect the chocolate malt to taste the same. When they sit down and order, they want to know they’re going to get that familiar bowl of chili or that same banana split. For the most part, all of that has stayed the same, but we take credit cards, we have a website and we do a lot of business online during the candy season – that’s a matter of life and death nowadays. Last Christmas, we had a record year in terms of shipping candy across the country and all over the world.
What’s the biggest challenge of keeping a restaurant running for more than a century? You’ve gotta be consistent. The product has to be good – it has to be what they’re expecting. We’re a destination. It’s not that people are driving down the road and they’re like, hey, let’s stop there. They come to see us. That’s wonderful, but it’s also added pressure because these customers are making a trek to see us. If they have a bad experience, they may decide that it’s not worth the trip anymore. You also have to have good employees – who are my greatest assets. They have to take care of my business like I take care of my business. I’m fortunate: I’ve got a core group of employees that have been with me anywhere from 15 to 40 years – that’s unheard of – and I can count on them.
Today, what does Crown Candy Kitchen bring to the St. Louis restaurant scene? It shows people that you don’t have to be the newest, shiniest, most creative thing out there. You can still give people a good, simple product at a good price and be successful. If you know what you’re doing and you take care of your customers, it doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to be consistent. People ask why I don’t expand, but you know what? I’m going to take care of my little corner of the world. That’s enough for me. I’m happy right where I am, doing what we do.
What does the future look like for Crown Candy Kitchen? I didn’t think about that for a lot of years … and I hate to say these things out loud, but, knock on wood, I’m healthy. I can still work a 12- to 15-hour day, six or seven days in a row if I have to. So, I’m going to just keep doing this because I can’t imagine not doing this. Unfortunately, there’s no one in the family that wants to [take over the business], and I don’t begrudge any of them. This is a hard business, and you’ve got to have a passion for it. There are days that are positively great, when you’re riding that high, and then there are days when you think, “What else can go wrong?” I do have a couple young people who, once again, have been with me for a fair amount of time; I look at them and a couple of them have what it takes to do the work – to put in the long hours and to ride the highs and the lows. Hopefully, they’ll be our future. I can’t imagine closing the store – I can’t let that happen. People say nothing lasts forever, and that’s true, but I’m going to try as hard as I can to make this last for as long as it can. I feel that immense pressure every day. But right now, I don’t have a retirement plan – I have no exit plan. Maybe you’ll just find me face down in a puddle of chocolate one day.
Crown Candy Kitchen, 1401 St. Louis Ave., Old North St. Louis, 314.621.9650, crowncandykitchen.net