Some stories are just too rich to have been made up, such as the tale of how Alfred and Richard Stancampiano started Al Richard’s chocolate.
“We owned a luncheonette on West Side Avenue in Jersey City,” Alfred, better known as Fred, said. “We had a small candy section that measured about eight feet long. The candy section during the holidays made as much money as the entire store did during the rest of the year.”
So Fred, who had previously worked a musician, and Richard, who was just out of school, decided they ought to go into the candy business, and for that they needed a candy-making machine.
“So we took $1,000 and went to Atlantic City and rolled that into $4,000 on a roulette table, and we brought a machine that is called an enrober.”
This was a machine best known to the general public from an episode of I Love Lucy.
“Unfortunately we didn’t know how to use it,” Fred said with a laugh. “We couldn’t even figure out how to turn it on. But we knew a guy who was a candy maker who had opened a business of his own in upstate New York and he want to rent time on our machine.”
But instead of taking money for the service, Fred and Richard took recipes that laid the foundation for the Al Richard’s success. These recipes became the staple of the store over the next few decades.
They started in their candy business in Jersey City, but Fred said they looked around for an untapped market and soon discovered Bayonne. They opened their first store on Avenue C, then relocated to their current location at 851 Broadway in 1993, where they have become something of an icon.
Say it ain’t so
Then back in 2005, the brothers did something none of their customers ever expected: they sold the business after nearly 25 years.
“We thought it was time to leave,” Fred said.
The two brothers went into the financial business, where they thought they could work a more normal 9-to-5 job five days a week, rather than the long hours the store required of them for six days.
The sale included the recipes and a broad customer base that is made of people from all over New Jersey, many of whom sometimes travel an hour during the holiday season to get the products that are made and sold in Bayonne. They also had an online presence that shipped product to places as far west as California.
But the new owner just couldn’t make a go of it, partly because he abandoned some of the basic cost-cutting measures the two brothers had implemented. While the store might have done well in plush times, the economic crisis that started in 2008 allowed the two brothers to buy back the business in 2009.
“We made the decision within an hour,” Fred said.
Life in the financial industry had proved less attractive when they got there, and the two brothers longed for a return to the business that had brought them success and satisfaction.
“I missed the lifestyle that came with it,” Fred said, “the social aspect and the creative aspect. There is little creativity in the financial industry. I missed the customer relations and the human end of business here. The store did afford us a very nice work environment we didn’t have in the financial industry.”
“When we came back, it felt as if we’d never left.” -- Richard Stancampiano
“When we came back, it felt as if we’d never left,” Richard said.
But they had work to do. They had to rebuild customer relations. “We had to restore our reputation that we were going to be consumer-oriented and bring back some of the services the store had had,” Fred said.
When they returned, they reverted to many of the business practices that had made the store a success in the first place.
“We didn’t want to fool with what we thought was successful,” Fred said. “One thing we do is that we aggressively seek out close-outs on things like ceramics, bows, cellophane, and shrink-wrap. This allows us to hold down prices. We fill the store with a lot of pick-up things. A lot of things are priced under $10 and this gives people the opportunity to buy gifts for less than $10. We have not changed the quality of anything. We have the same recipes and the same technicians and the same candy maker.”
Retail is the heart of Al Richard’s, with its busy season running from just after Labor Day until just after Easter, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter as the principle holidays – although Halloween also draws people in and the store has a number of products dedicated to the haunting holiday.
One key to keeping the customer base interested is by introducing new products for every holiday. The store has its best-seller list, of course, that includes chocolate-covered raspberry jelly, pretzels, graham crackers and butter crunch. But the two brothers are always on the hunt for unique items that no other store can provide.
They also try to introduce new items for each holiday, products people haven’t seen before, and because there seems to be new trends towards fresher and more perishable products, such as chocolate-covered fruit, the store is experimenting with a number of items that the brothers would like the public to sample during public tastings.
Some of the new items include chocolate-covered cheesecake bits.
Fred and Richard are always out and about, looking for ideas, sometimes looking over the offerings that competitors serve to see if Al Richard’s might do it better.
“Every minute of our lives we look and say, ‘That’ll be good,’ or ‘This is a good idea,’ or ‘Why don’t we do this?’ or even ‘We like what they did, but we can change it.’”
Fred said the cheesecake idea came to him just by looking at the baked goods, and that there are also unique combinations of fruits available, such as strawberry and banana, cinnamon and apple, and orange and pineapple.
“The response from people who have tried them has been great,” Fred said. “We just want to get more people exposed to it.”
Thus the two brothers came up with the idea of a tasting, similar to the idea of a wine tasting, but an event that will not only get people to sample what they have, but also to steer the brothers towards products that will likely sell.
“We don’t want to spend money producing products people won’t like,” Fred said. “We genuinely want their opinion before we go into production.”
People who come into the store on Tuesdays in October will be asked to sample product and then fill out a form as to their likes, and as a reward, they’ll get a $5 coupon toward anything else they want to purchase.
“What succeeds will be what we produce for the holidays,” Fred said.