A year and a half ago, Evan Prochniak was sweet-talked into buying the company that had been crafting Zitner's Easter eggs for nearly a century. The chocolatier was on the market, and a deal to sell the building - without the business - had broken down. There was a chance Zitner's might be sold to another candy company, and its North Philadelphia factory vacated.
The broker representing the owners, Thomas S. Bond, convinced Prochniak that Zitner's was fabulous, a beloved mom-and-pop with room to grow. A good buy, in other words, as a building and a business, even for a Delaware County attorney whose investments included only real estate and restaurants.
"I don't know how I pulled it off," said Bond, vice president of NAI Geis Realty Group in Center City. "I convinced him it was a great idea."
Prochniak chewed it over. He ran a Google search on Zitner's - there was a Facebook page run by ordinary, but rabidly loyal, customers. The company barely had a Web page.
Then, he learned the factory was run by employees who had been there for decades. Little had been done to modernize, but every year Zitner's confections managed to hit store shelves and sell out.
Maybe, he figured, this could work.
"I wasn't coming into a place where I had to jump in there and reinvent the wheel," said Prochniak, a tall man who wears a sharp suit and a boyish smile. "As long as the key management stayed on with me, the place could run itself while I learned what the business was about."
Today, the 40-year-old majority shareholder in what is now called Zitner Candy Corp. has become as passionate about its business prospects and Butter Krak eggs as its customers, who scour pharmacies, supermarkets, and big-box stores every Easter for its marshmallow, or coconut-filled, or otherwise mouthwatering sweets.
Prochniak (pronounced PROSH-nee-ack) bought a business and building whose recipes and aging equipment had frozen in time. He wondered how he would expand Zitner's without destroying the very thing that makes it special: its old-fashioned, handmade processes, which customers swear make for some of the best Easter candy out there, but which also require time and care - both of which cost money.
He now believes he can bring Zitner's into the 21st century the old-fashioned way: by acquiring new space so the company never again does what it did a few months ago - turn down additional orders because the factory just south of West Allegheny Avenue on 17th Street simply couldn't make any more eggs.
"This is the second year in a row that we had to turn away a couple of orders," Prochniak said this week.
Earlier this year, he began talks with development officials in Philadelphia to find up to 50,000 square feet of industrial space to house a new egg-production factory. He also has reached out to officials in the city of Chester, he said.
Long ago used as a foundry, the current Zitner's factory has three-story ceilings and spotty temperature controls, and is loaded with candymaking equipment so old it makes the famous I Love Lucy chocolate-factory episode look downright modern.
There's even a guy who's constantly putting equipment together again when it breaks.
"It's like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory!" said Bond, who uses words like awesome and labor of love in describing Zitner's, and how he helped broker the sale by prior owners who desperately wanted the chocolatier to continue a legacy begun in 1922.
Prochniak approached Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. a few weeks ago to begin "preliminary" talks about finding new space, said Michael Cooper, PIDC's assistant vice president of market development.
"We obviously have a great interest in ensuring that a great name like Zitner's remains a local favorite," said Cooper, who also helped assemble financing when Prochniak bought Zitner's in 2010.
With his initial investment already paid off, Prochniak said, he wants to spend money on new production lines for Easter candy at a new facility.
Zitner's year-round chocolate-pretzel manufacturing business would remain in North Philadelphia, at least for a while. (It supplies Whole Foods, Acme, and others with unbranded pretzels coated in caramel and its signature chocolate.)
Gumming up production speed for the Easter eggs is the way Zitner's cooks, on site, then cools all its marshmallow, coconut and peanut-butter fillings: The molten sweets are laid out on marble tables until the temperature is right for them to be cut and coated in chocolate.
During the winter, this moves along more quickly because the factory temperature cools. At other times, only the small portion of the factory with temperature controls can be used for cooling.
"We can't start our production until September on the Easter candy," Prochniak said. "Then we run Easter candy all day, every day, straight through February."
Cooling could be sped up with additives, but Prochniak said he will not change the recipe that makes Zitner's so unique.
"Then, you're basically getting away from why people buy your candy," he said. "If I was going to streamline [production], and my stuff tasted like Hershey, now I'm competing with Hershey.
"I think the allure of our candy is that it's priced like Hershey," he said, "but tastes a thousand times better than it."
Once a new location is chosen, "I'm going to set up a shop exactly like I have. Just new equipment."
Dennis Palladino, Zitner's operations chief, said big retailers have stepped up orders as corner stores have vanished. Zitner's biggest retailers are Wal-Mart, Shop Rite, Acme, and CVS, in that order.
"They buy big," Palladino said, "and we deliver early."
Although he got into the chocolate business somewhat accidentally, Prochniak said he had no intention of sprucing it up just to sell it off.
"My plan would be to eventually take it nationwide," he said, "which is a good ways off."