For everyone who’s ever enjoyed a piece of Watson’s Chocolates’ Famous Sponge Candy, you’ve probably wondered where it came from and how its made. We all have images of chocolate fountains dancing in our heads, mostly from our childhood memories of Willy Wonka. But growing up in the Watson family wasn’t all about chocolate. Rather, it was about family itself — whether that family was the generations of Watsons that have run the business, long tenured employees, or the generations of customers who have made Watson’s a regular part of their lives.
“I have vivid memories of my dad and my grandma working in the restaurant and candy store in Kenmore,” said Whitney Watson Beecher, now president of Watson’s Candies. “It was always a place where people in the neighborhood would gather, get a bite to eat and socialize. It was a very family friendly experience that people kept coming back to.”
Over the years, Watson’s grew from that friendly neighborhood restaurant to a popular regional purveyor of candies, but it has always kept that family feel. And now, as Watson’s celebrates its 70th Anniversary, Whitney is reimagining the Watson’s experience once again in their flagship store in Kenmore, New York. She sat down with me to discuss her vision for the new store as well as her experiences running a family business.
Tell me what motivated you to get into the family business
Family is and always has been the most motivating factor for me. I grew up in the business alongside my dad and my grandma so it’s always been about that for me. When I first started at Watson’s, there was also a comfort level. I had just graduated from college and, like many college graduates, I wasn’t 100% sure of what I wanted to do. But I did know the family business and I knew that I enjoyed it so it was a good fit from the beginning.
A lot of entrepreneurs talk about their parents or family as role models. It sounds like yours were for you as well.
Definitely. My dad and my grandma had tremendous work ethic. I was always impressed with how much time they devoted to the business. But they had different work styles and played different roles. My grandma worked tirelessly into her late 80s, as long as she was physically able to do it. She loved being here and getting her hands dirty. She was a figurehead in the business. Everyone loved her and she was a big reason people came to Watson’s. My dad also rolled up his sleeves, making candy, doing whatever. But he also had much more of a leadership role and was focused on growing the business. It was a bit old school back then. I personally strive to find more of a balance knowing I also have a family, but I still work very hard. I like to think I’m a mix of the two of them.
What was it like to grow up around a Buffalo icon?
That part has evolved a little. In the ’70s and ’80s the focus was on the restaurant. Candy was on the side. It wasn’t until 1985 that we added our second candy store. At that point we were more well known in the Kenmore area as the go-to restaurant. It was a gathering place where people would come in and get something to eat and share their stories. The candy was on the side and it was popular. My friends loved the candy business and most of them have worked here at one point or another. But at the time it was as much about Watson’s restaurant as it was about the candy store. It wasn’t until I was in college that the brand grew as a candy store. When I went into the business the candy was just starting to expand. Now we have eight stores. But it wasn’t until the growth of the website, which has been tremendous, that Watson’s became more of a household name.
Now when I give people my e-mail address they ask me, “You’re actually a Watson?” I feel like I’m a celebrity, which is kind of funny to me. But it’s great that people identify so much with what you’re selling and love it. I get a big kick out of that.
Resurgence Brewing has a flagship beer made with your candy. Tell me about that.
Jeff and his brewer Dave approached me about making a beer with our candy. They’re cool guys and they were looking to do something in Buffalo that would resonate with the local community. They were looking for ideas and I invited them out to the factory to talk ideas and flavors. So we gave them some sponge candy and they developed their stout out of it. I like what they’ve done and they have a great entrepreneurial spirit and a lot of enthusiasm. They did a great gift package around Christmas with a bottle of the stout and some of our candy to go with it. They also have a younger, hipper brand so it’s good to be aligned with them and getting our name out to that audience. We also do business with Anderson’s, who create three different ice cream flavors using our product and have done so for years. That’s a great family brand and it’s good to be associated with them as well. It’s nice when we can all help each other out.
Speaking of helping each other out, you recently started using chocolate made from Fair Trade Certified cocoa. Tell me about it.
We’re proud of Fair Trade. We’re making an effort to become more socially conscious, whether it’s using chocolate made from Fair Trade Certified cocoa or improving our recycling efforts. We also try to buy locally whenever possible. It’s just part of being a good corporate citizen and giving back to the community.
How has the world of chocolates changed since you’ve been involved at Watson’s?
The biggest impact has been the growth of the website. This aspect of our business has the highest growth rate year over year. It’s still only a small part of our business, but just watching that growth is exciting.
We were on the Food Network a few years ago and our website just blew up after the episode. So the big change for me is the digital part of the business, just seeing what you can do online and with social media. That’s completely new and different.
So now, we’ve shipped candy all over the world, to Australia, China, South America, Europe. After the Food Network episode we got orders from all 50 states. Then we got a bunch from the UK and found out the Food Network had just aired our episode over there. That happened a few times and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. There’s a lot of people who sell chocolate, but the sponge candy is worth mentioning because it’s a regional favorite and our #1 seller. That captures people’s attention. It’s cool to sell a product that’s so unique and seeing people outside the area being introduced to it, and for it to catch on in other places is exciting.
What lessons have you learned that have shaped you as an entrepreneur?
I’m still learning a lot of lessons as I go along. Entrepreneurship is an ongoing journey. In some ways I feel only half shaped as an entrepreneur. I grew up in the business and can sell candy to anyone, but learning how to grow the business and surrounding myself with the right people to do that is the biggest challenge. I’ve also challenged myself to become a better leader. I’m lucky that we have a solid business and three generations of loyal customers. I don’t have to worry that people are not going to buy chocolate anymore. I can focus on other things. So I’m learning to let go and delegate a little more and focus on major problem solving.
What advice would you give to someone who is taking over a successful business?
Don’t be afraid to take some risks. Trust your gut and stand behind your decisions. Own the outcomes even if it doesn’t work. It’s not life or death. It’s just work. Keep your perspective. Sometimes it feels like life or death because of your employees, your family or the name on the front door, and that you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. It can get very stressful at times and it all feels monumental, but in the whole scheme of things it isn’t. This is what you decided to do. Do it and give it your best shot. But if it doesn’t work out, figure out how to do it differently and make it work. You also really have to like what you’re doing. You have to really have a passionate reason for doing what you’re doing in order to stick with it and be successful.
You have a new store opening in Kenmore. It’s a little different than other Watson’s locations. Tell us about it.
I’m so excited! We added a self-serve frozen yogurt offering, which I’m a huge fan of. Kenmore is our flagship location and we’ve been in that space since the ’70s. It needed some love. I was originally going to refurbish the existing space but when the corner space came open we had the opportunity to take on a whole new space that was double the square footage. That opened up a new opportunity to do something different with the store. So we decided to do the froyo thing with our own candy as toppings.
Froyo has been around for awhile, but I think the self-serve concept is what’s so great about the current trend. Especially with the kids because they like to create stuff and it’s fun for them. A lot of candy stores also sell ice cream and they complement each other from a business perspective. But for us it’s more than that. It’s about building on the family experience that Watson’s is known for. We’re super excited about that. Our store is a very social place and there’s a lot of history in this particular location. People like to come and to talk and share their stories. So this store builds on that tradition and is a new, fun place to hang out at in the neighborhood.
We’ll start serving the yogurt on Thursday, April 14th, which is the grand opening. So come in and get some froyo with your favorite Watson’s toppings!
Watson’s Chocolates is located at 2916 Delaware Avenue Kenmore, New York.