Andy Karandzieff of Crown Candy Kitchen spends hours at a time with his phone hooked up to Pandora, playing blues or country in a back room of the restaurant in Old North St. Louis. He pours liquid chocolate into tiny plastic and metal molds of Santas, snowmen, turkeys, and pumpkins, depending on the upcoming holiday season. Tonight, he’ll be showing Zach, his 22-year-old protégé, the ropes. “I call him ‘the young gun.’ He can do my job just as well as I can do it. I don’t like to admit that,” Andy says, laughing. “But he’s every bit as capable of doing it as I am. And he’s a lot younger … We don’t have any children, my wife and I. So I think of a lot of them as our kids. I’m always helping them out–trying to do for them what my father did for me.” Andy’s grandfather, Harry Karandzieff, opened the store in 1913 with his best friend after immigrating from Greece. Harry’s son, George, took over Crown Candy in the early 50’s, and Andy and his two brothers, Tommy and Mike, bought him out in 1991.
Andy lives in the apartment above Crown Candy. He likes to wake up early, often before sunrise, feed his two dogs and cat, and then run downstairs to open the restaurant. “People are like, ‘When are you going to move out of the neighborhood?’ I’m not going nowhere. I love living in the city.” He grew up working alongside his family, but now his mother Bessie, who is 85 years old, is the only one who still consistently joins him in the kitchen. She still comes to work three to four days per week to help make chocolate and pack candy. “I always tell people I was blessed to get to work with my family everyday. But I also told people I had to work with my family every day,” he says, laughing at the minor shift. “There were plenty of knock-down drag-outs, doors slamming, things flung through the air–but in the end I look back at it, and I spent the better part of my life around my family.” Once, his two older brothers got in a fight over chili cup lids. “Don’t ask me why.” It’s the nature of the beast, Andy says. “I’ve got a lot of gray hairs, and a few of those are from my family–but it’s a blessing.”
Crown Candy is known for its steadfast dedication to remaining the same. They’ve been serving the same ice cream flavors and more or less the same menu for years. They’ve never used an electronic system for orders, but it doesn’t really matter because the waitresses never write anything down anyway. “We don’t change things around here an awful lot. We’ll paint, we’ll update stuff when we have to. But that Heavenly Hash is going to be the same Heavenly Hash you got 20 years ago. That black walnut ice cream is the same black walnut ice cream you got 25, 30 years ago,” Andy says. The restaurant is famous for a sandwich called the Heart-Stopping BLT–Andy’s older brother, Tommy, would load up each sandwich with 15 pieces of bacon when he used to work in the kitchen. Now, they fry up at least 10 pounds of bacon every morning to get ready for the lunch and dinner rush. Andy has seen customers wait outside for up to two hours in snow, sleet, tornado weather, and 105-degree heat.
While Andy was growing up, his father George was at the restaurant six days a week, fifteen to sixteen hours a day. When they spent time together, it was at work. “He didn’t get to come to football games–he didn’t get to do a lot of that stuff that some parents get the luxury of doing. When I got to come down here and work with my dad, it was great because then I was side by side with him … he was a big softie. He took care of people. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone–it’ll be 10 years next year,” he says, pausing for a moment to make sure he’s done the math right. “I walk through this door and everywhere I walk, I see my dad’s memory.”
Andy’s father taught him how to make chocolate, and his older brother, Mike, taught him how to make ice cream. “I was kind of a knucklehead,” he says. He’d half-pay attention while his dad taught him the delicate arts of chocolate pouring and working a room of customers. “I was also the youngest of three boys, so I got away with murder. I don’t want to say I was out of control, but I pretty much had free reign of how I behaved.” He remembers his father fondly, but there was no room for mischief at the restaurant. “He was a good man. But when you were here, you worked. You didn’t play around. I found that out the hard way a few times.”
Although he was born into a family restaurant dynasty, Andy wasn’t always sure he’d end up at Crown Candy. He started working in the store at 13, graduated from high school, and attended college for six months at Florissant Valley before going back to work at the restaurant. “I’m just going to work in the family business–that’s the easy way out,” he remembers thinking at the time. The money was good, he didn’t have to work too hard, and he could live above the store, the same place he lives today. Once, Andy’s brother yelled at him for closing up the restaurant at night without cleaning or filling condiments. “I figured once you close up at night, you just close up and go home. I got in the next day, and my brother gave me an earful. Quite the earful. I’m like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ I get it now,” he says. “I’ve had one job my entire life,” he says. “I don’t know anything else.”
At 21, he married his first wife. They bought a house in O’Fallon when he was 25, and he drove an hour each way to get to work at Crown Candy. “I was just enjoying life. Then it was, buy a house, get married, and have this responsibility … that’s when my growing up started, I think,” he says. A tinny recording of Kenny Chesney’s “Beer in Mexico” starts ringing out in the shop, and Andy digs around in his pocket searching for his cell phone. He immediately silences it and the melody stops, a relic from his earlier years. “I had a revelation that this was going to take a little bit more work and dedication. That was an epiphany in my life–I really had to start bearing down. Now, here I am working 60 hours a week, waking up at five o’clock in the morning, sometimes staying here until 10:30 at night. It’s what I do, it’s what I love. It’s all I’m ever gonna do.” He and his first wife divorced after 15 years of marriage, and he moved from O’Fallon back to the apartment above Crown Candy with his two cats. “I figured out this is where I belong,” he says. He soon met Sherri, his second wife, who brought two cats of her own when she moved in. “We’ve got a nice little life up there,” he says. “I hit the jackpot.”
As he worked his way up in the restaurant, he began to realize the similarities he shared with his family. “My father, he didn’t yell a lot. When he was angry, he was quiet. If my dad wasn’t talking, I knew he was mad at somebody–or everyone. I’m just like my father. I don’t yell a lot. My brother Mike was a yeller. When Mike went off, he was like Mount Vesuvius. But the next minute, he’d be nice as could be again. He just had to blow off that steam.” Mike passed away just over two years ago, after a three-year battle with stomach cancer at the age of 58. He left behind a wife and two teenage daughters. “You never think that’s going to happen. You never plan for waking up and not having your brother there with you,” says Andy. The last two years were the hardest–he fought to stay as long as he could for his daughters. “It’s tough. I miss him a lot.” Behind his glasses, tears start to well up in Andy’s eyes.
“Life takes us to where we are. I tell my wife, I can’t change nothing. Because if I do, I might not wind up right where I am. And I think I’m in a pretty good place.” He takes the role of uncle very seriously–the girls, Michaela and Emily, are now 21 and 19. “That’s one of those things that really pains me, is the fact that he’s not there for them. So we are. We do as much as we can for them. I worry about them. I figure I’ve taken that responsibility on, to worry about my nieces for my brother,” he says. “They’re part of this connection, this business. We’re all in it together, for better or for worse.”
The restaurant has been a steadfast presence in Old North ever since it opened just over a century ago, and has seen the city in varying states of prosperity and disrepair. The area, once crowded with families and proud residences, deteriorated over several decades, and has recently experienced a resurgence of economic growth. Now, Crown Candy is surrounded by a walkable stretch of local businesses, and the area is home to a farmer’s market and community gardens. The restaurant has always created enough buzz to bring in people from all over the city who might initially be scared off by the crumbling buildings and overgrown lots that still surround the area. Even burglars appear to respect its importance to the community: aside from two minor incidents in which the thieves stole pocket change, Crown Candy has never had a major robbery or break-in.
When he was younger, Andy felt like he had to carry the weight of the business on his shoulders–he’d spend 70 or 80 hours a week at the restaurant. “I didn’t want to give up any of that control or responsibility. Eventually I figured out that life is short, and that other people can do this job.” He heads into the kitchen and jokingly reprimands an employee for playing Candy Crush on her phone. Nearby, another employee fries bacon in a large vat of grease, cooked strips rising to the surface. “People can make 100 different choices and still hit a great restaurant in St. Louis. That they choose to come to us is a testament to what my father did.”
For more information about Crown Candy Kitchen, visit www.crowncandykitchen.net