Editor’s Note: Rachel is serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) at NEHDA for the year. Her roll involves a variety of tasks, such as recruiting volunteers and applying for funding opportunities to plan really cool, really fun events that benefit the community. Rachel graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a BFA in Sculpture and a minor in psychology. She spent the past year serving in another AmeriCorps program where she traveled the state of New York to help out with various environmental projects. As part of Rachel’s work with NEHDA, she is writing some posts for us to share. All of her posts can be found under the “NEHDA” category. To learn more about NEHDA, visit their website and Facebook.
Michael Speach Jr. is the manager of the Speach Family Candy Shoppe. Founded by an Italian immigrant, Michael Speach (Michele Spicciati) in 1920, the store has passed down through four generations of family. Today, the store hosts a diverse range of sweets & treats as well as other fun products & gifts. Read on to find out more about how the life behind the sweets and treats!
Q: Question: In what ways has the Speach Family Candy Shoppe changed over the years? In what ways does it remain true to its roots?
Michael: The business has changed in so many ways, it’s really hard to describe. Originally, it was something that he [Michele Spiacciati, Michael’s great grandfather] did outside of his home and that obviously progressed into more and more. He owned a lot of property so he was able to do different things in different pieces of property. So instead of having everything under one roof, he had a nut room, so all of his nuts were stored in one location, that’s where they packaged and roasted them; there was a chocolate room, then there was a hard candy room, and they were in different properties all over Syracuse, all over the Northside for the most part. So that was probably the first incarnation of the store.
He then actually started doing a little bit more with production, to the point where it got really busy. In the 1920s when he first started, they were ramping up business, but in the 30s, he actually had stuff printed out because he was selling so much. We’re talking, after the Great Depression. So, like, even during the Depression he was still selling product, and this is actually one of the original receipts. Back in the 70s, they had a family reunion so everyone got one of the original receipts, which is kind of cool.
So business started growing a little bit more, and I want to say one of my great uncles, either John or Joe, then ran the business in the interim for the family. My parents then took over in the 80s. When that happened, my parents found another storefront. So the store never actually really had a physical storefront. It was basically always in somebody’s house, but they were doing orders, or when my great grandfather did it, he had different buildings for different things he was making. In the 80s, my parents opened an actual storefront, retail storefront on Burnet Ave. That was the first time it actually had a location that people could come in and shop.
Q: Has it always been on the Northside?
Michael: It was actually all over. The Northside is where it originated, on Burnet Ave…At one point, my great uncle had moved to Cortland, so it was actually down in Cortland for a little while, and I want to say after that it came back up here with my parents when they discovered a whole bunch of my great grandfather’s recipes and stuff. It moved around a little bit more since my parents ran it. We’ve been at this location now since 94, and I have no plans to move. We’ve kind of found our niche, we’ve found our thing.
Q: Do you have any products that are especially rooted in Italian tradition?
I have to say that we’ve stayed very true to the product and the quality. A lot of the recipes were my great grandfather’s recipes. They’ve obviously just been translated into English so they’re much easier to understand, and converted down, ‘cause obviously he was making 50 pounds of a product, where now we’re making 10, 20 pounds, so we’ve had to modify the way we produce just because of the space we have and the number of products. One of the big things that has changed is the quantity of products. On this invoice, you can see, he’s got four products listed here, which are what he used to make, the clusters, the soft peanut bars, and the marshmallow clusters that he used to do. We’re now making thousands of products…Our marshmallow recipe is still the same recipe. Our peanut brittle is still the same recipe. And then, the actual chocolate—now my great grandfather worked from a bean. So like, he was the one who actually roasted—he worked with a bean, ground them down, mixed them into what is chocolate. Nowadays, unfortunately, we do not have the facility to do that. So we actually buy several products and mix them together to create our own blend.
This is my great aunt Rose [pictured in the photo above, Aunt Rose poses with Delivery Truck Number 3, featuring the original Speech logo] and my great aunt actually got to try our chocolate. My parents played around with the chocolate blend a little bit, but when I took over, I said, “I want this to be our chocolate. This is how it’s going to be.” So she got a chance to try it before she passed away and she said that’s as close as she’s ever tried to what her father made, so that was kind of a compliment and so that’s what we use as our chocolate throughout most of our products.
Q: With so many products, do you have any customer favorites that sell faster than others?
Michael: Yeah, people still do a lot of the traditional stuff. Our dark chocolate truffles are always gone. I have a woman who comes in. She stops me at the door before she even gets in the door, she’s like, “Dark truffles. You have any? Yes or not.” Our caramel has been really popular, you can see right now the sea salt vanilla caramels are almost out right now, so I have to refill that part of the shelf. We have some seasonal favorites, like we do a pumpkin pie fudge, so that will sell out pretty quickly now that we’re in fall.
Q: How did you come to manage Speach’s?
Michael: I went to school for theater. Growing up, I was involved with the candy store but I didn’t like it. My mom and my father were always very tired, and it’s very different when you’re a small business, when it comes to holiday time, when it comes to family get togethers and stuff like that, things are very very different. Our Christmas really didn’t happen til the day after Christmas because my parents were so exhausted that we literally wouldn’t enjoy the day. When my sisters and I got older, we were part of that. We’d come home on Christmas eve, after being here all day, exhausted, and I think most kids would wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning, and I don’t remember doing that because I was too exhausted. It changes a lot of things. So, I as an adult, did not want to have to do that. I said, that’s not how I want to be, I want to go and get a pay check, get paid every week. It’s a very different thing when you’re working for yourself. So I went into entertainment, I did theater and television/radio, and after doing that for several years and going to college, I kinda missed this a little bit. I missed the feeling of being proud of something, working really hard and then having someone compliment you, versus having someone yell at you even though you did twelve hours of—it’s a very different thing. So, I came home after a little stint in New York, and basically, my parents were at the point where my mom had taken on a full time position, ‘cause she was in her 50s and realized, I’ve put half my life into this business and there’s nothing left. They didn’t save up for retirement, they just kept putting money back into the business, back into the business. And it’s a good thing they did because it survived, but at the same time, now they’re in their 50s and they were thinking either about liquidating or selling the business. That’s when I kinda said, well, let me try for three years, and I’ll see what happens. I’ll give it three years, I’ll give it my all, and if we’re still going, I’ll keep it going. If we’re not, I won’t. But at least I gave it that, you know, the old family try I guess? So I did that and now it’s 10 years difference, because literally November 7th will be ten years that I’ve been running the business. We’re still going strong and there’s a lot of new stuff that’s coming up and some really great things that will happen for the business the next few months.
Q: Do you want to offer us a little sneak peak of that?
Michael: We’re actually going to be doing a lot of partnerships. I’m not going to name names or anything like that just yet, but there’s a lot of great collaboration that we’ve been doing, that we’ve been talking about, and it will probably happen before Christmas. In the past, we’ve done some great stuff. We’re doing some stuff with Recess Coffee, so we have the Recess Chocolates, we’re doing a collaboration with them so it’s their coffee and our chocolate put together. We’re working with Beak and Skiff on a product, the apple pie brittle, it actually has their apple cider in it. There’s a few maple producers that we actually produce maple products for them throughout the year. There’s three or four other little relationships that we’ve started that we’re in the talks of that in the next few weeks will actually come to fruition. So we’re excited about that.
Q: What advice would you to someone who is interested in starting a business?
A: Michael: I think the first thing is be open to collaborating. A lot of my success, especially over the last few years, has been me working with other businesses, and other local businesses, I think is the key. We did partner with fruit bouquets and 1-800 Flowers for doing the fruit arrangements, and that’s a great revenue stream for us because we really do very little as far as advertising. We just get orders sent to us and we fulfil the order and get it out and then we get paid by them at the end of the year. So it’s a great partnership, we’re doing something local, and it’s our product, our chocolate…Some people when you meet them are like, no, it’s all me or nothing. I’m like, okay, good luck with that for the next year because you probably won’t be in business twelve months from now. I’ve had to rely on some of my friends—I have friends who run businesses and I might not work for them, but they are great sound boards, like if I have a new idea or if I’m trying out something different, we’re able to work together. If I have a new product that I’m trying out, my friends Laura Serway and Cindy Seymour own Laci’s down the street, and I’ve brought product into the bar. The way Laura and Cindy are, they’re my friends, I’ll give it to them and they’re literally passing it out to their customers, being like, “Here, try this! What do you think?” I’m not trying to build my business from that, but they’re actually doing it for me. If you’re willing to collaborate, part of it is just making those friendships happen. Actually being open to it, versus being closed off and holding onto your secrets and holding onto your recipes. I do that too, but I don’t do that first off. You want to be pretty open and pretty responsive.
To learn more about the Speach Family Candy Shoppe, visit their website, follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and make sure to stop into the store at 2400 Lodi Street, fully decorated for Halloween!