When Mary Ann Nagle was working in her grandparents’ candy shop as a child, she and her siblings were mostly scraping candy residue from huge sheets. Among those candies were a mainstay treat of roasted nuts, gooey caramel, and rich chocolate: the chocolate turtles.
Boston’s oldest chocolatier, The Phillips Candy House, celebrated its 90th year in business this fall, and the family legacy remains strong. Nagle’s grandparents, Phillip and Concettina Strazzula, founded the company in 1925 in their Revere basement.
In a recent interview, the 72-year-old Nagle took time to look back at the shop’s history and also ahead to the time when family members will take it over from her.
“I don’t think it’s different from any other family business,” she said in describing how she worked alongside her siblings, surrounded by candy throughout her childhood. “This is what you do, this is the way it’s done, and you don’t know any other way.”
The family shop in Dorchester and its signature delicacy won over a new fan this fall: Oprah Winfrey lauded the morsels on her “Favorite Things” list in early November, just in time for the holiday season.
“We’re seeing our website being energized,” Nagle said, but it’s hard to estimate how much of the turtle-related traffic is due to Winfrey’s boost or the regular flow of the holiday season.
At the Morrissey Boulevard store, a 15-pound haul of chocolate turtles in 5-pound baskets that are themselves made of chocolate are the first things a visitor sees upon entering, although the sweet smell of fresh chocolate wafts out the doors before the candy comes into sight.
That package runs for $500, though Nagle said its creation was mostly for the benefit of Winfrey herself. “It’s a novel item,” Nagle said, shrugging. ”They just wanted something big.”
Behind the register and beyond the rows of chocolate is where the magic of the candy house happens, the nuts and nougats of the candy-making process. It’s all in-house, starting with roasting the almonds, cashews and pecans in an ornate, black, old-school roaster.
Three tall racks hold turtles that have yet to be dolloped with chocolate, each nut variety held together by caramel globs. (How many pounds of turtles are they making each week? “Hundreds, thousands,” Nagle estimates.) In the next room, generous portions of dark, milk, or white chocolate top off the treats.
The material is drawn from three large tubs of sitting chocolate.
What little automation there is in the shop has been in place since 1965, but everything still involves a manual element. That could mean putting a chocolate squiggle on the chocolate-coated candy passing through a conveyer belt or levering down the instrument to leave uniform dollops on sheets of parchment.
In the packaging portion of the shop, and the connected back storage area, chocolate turtles are everywhere. To be fair, so are mints, holiday chocolate boxes, and chocolate turkeys larger than a person’s head. But the turtles are stacked, stored, and shipped in massive quantities.
Of three rooms set aside at a nearby hotel, one entire room is dedicated to storing turtles, Nagle said. They just do not have room for them in the store.
While Oprah may have given them a boost, Nagle said she hasn’t seen much beyond the usual amount of holiday ordering, which is always sizable. “It’s tough whenever you depend upon the fourth quarter for a predominant amount of your business,” Nagle said.
Her grandparents began selling chocolate out of their home in the fall of 1925, officially opening a shop in 1935 in Belmont. Now stationed on Morrissey Boulevard, Phillips Family Hospitality has quite the reach: candy stores in Dorchester and Braintree, along with Boston Bowl, Freeport Tavern, Phillips Banquet and Meeting Facility, the Ramada and Comfort Inns, and the Deadwood Cafe.
At its core, Phillips is a business built on a commitment to quality, Nagle said. Her grandfather would tell her, “You don’t skimp on ingredients, and you sell it the best way you know how to do it.”
Of all the businesses where she could have spent her time working, Nagle is glad it was chocolate, due in no small part to snacking, which seems to be family trait. Her mother, 102-year-old Anna Sammartino, doesn’t believe in saving chocolate for later, Nagle said. “There is no later.”