In a back room at Crown Candy Kitchen, Andy Karandzieff pours milk chocolate into Easter bunny molds. His mother, Bessie, works a few feet away, filling heart-shaped boxes with Crown’s homemade chocolates.
Andy’s wife, Sherri, pops in from her office, where she’s processing online orders. His brother, Tom, is in Crown’s minuscule kitchen, crisping bacon for the lunch rush. Their sister-in-law, Nancy, pores over spreadsheets that keep this family-run candy cartel organized.
For 100 years, the Karandzieff family has operated Crown Candy Kitchen at 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue on the city’s near north side.
“I’m the luckiest guy to be able to work side-by-side with my family every day,” said Andy Karandzieff, 48.
“Sometimes, you know, when the roof is leaking and someone calls in sick and it’s going to be another 15-hour day, the last thing I want is to be the one in charge. But then I think about the history of this place and the responsibility I have to the community to keep it going. It can be overwhelming, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Harry Karandzieff, Andy’s grandfather, opened Crown Candy (the Kitchen came later) in 1913. No one’s exactly sure what month, so the Crown family is treating the entire year as a celebration, with a street fair planned for warmer days.
A Greek immigrant, Harry Karandzieff lived with his family above their candy shop and soda fountain, which has been open seven days a week since Day One, except the time Crown was shuttered for a month after a Christmas Day fire in 1983.
He passed on his strong work ethic to his son, George, who as a boy sold popcorn outside Crown Candy. George eventually started washing dishes before his father turned over the shop to him.
It was George who expanded Crown’s arsenal to include ice cream and a concise menu of hearty sandwiches. He’s also responsible for the Coca-Cola memorabilia that’s plastered along Crown’s walls. (The Coke stuff is especially quirky considering the restaurant sells Pepsi products.)
The best-selling menu item, by far, is Crown’s “Heart-Stopping BLT.” The restaurant once sold 315 in one day.
The monster is made with about a dozen or more strips of Oscar Mayer bacon (“We don’t count; we just go by feel,” cook Latoya Brown said), plus sliced tomatoes, lettuce and a slathering of Miracle Whip. Recent troubles at Hostess have prompted Crown to switch from Wonder to Bunny Bread.
Business has always been steady at Crown, despite the fact that over time its neighborhood deteriorated, with vacancies all around.
“Sometimes a customer will call and ask, ‘Is it safe to come down there?’” Andy Karandzieff said. “That’s a frustrating thing to overcome. Yes, it’s safe. I’m still here, aren’t I?”
But crowds picked up, in a major way, after Crown was featured on the Travel Channel show “Man v. Food” in February 2009.
Host Adam Richman attempted Crown’s Malt Challenge, drinking five of the restaurant's malted milkshakes in 30 minutes. He failed, making it through about 4½ malts before getting sick.
The national exposure — Richman returned last year to include the BLT in his “Best Sandwiches in America” show — meant that cops and downtown business workers who frequented Crown for lunch were rubbing elbows with busloads of tourists.
And it required some extra sweat from the Karandzieffs and their employees.
“We were totally unprepared for the onslaught that brought us,” Andy Karandzieff said. “The line out the door. Everyone wanting a malt and a BLT.”
Almost overnight, they had to significantly up their ice cream production. And they had to find a more efficient system to fry bacon than the three skillets they had been using for years. They now cook 10-pound batches in a big soup pot bubbling with vegetable oil.
Middle-age friends Karen Church and Carol Lohaus split a BLT for lunch last week, as they’ve done many times over the decade or so they’ve been coming to Crown.
“I love their hot fudge sundaes,” Church said. “This place is just such a landmark, with wonderful ambiance. It reminds us of our youth.”
George Karandzieff handed control of the store to his three sons, Andy, Tom and Mike, before his death on Easter Sunday in 2005. Mike Karandzieff, who was a longtime fixture behind the ice cream counter, died of cancer in October.
“Mike was the one who would come here early, stay here late, and it was never a big deal to him — it’s just what we do, we work,” Andy Karandzieff said. “The hardest part for me is not having him around to answer every question I have. Now I have to come up with the answers.”
Karandzieff said he “learned everything” from his father, from how to dip strawberries in chocolate to how to treat employees.
That second part might be why Crown has so many longtime staff members.
Pam Mardirosian started there as a part-time summer employee when she was 14 years old. Her twin sister, Tammie Siebels, came on board around the same time. Thirty-five years later, they’re still at it, waiting tables and churning ice cream.
“Everyone here is like family,” Mardirosian said. “It’s nice to see new faces come in and to get to take care of regulars we’ve been seeing for years.”
On a good day, Crown can feed 1,000 people. It’s a beloved institution that could easily open another location from which to crank out malts and stuffed BLTs. But that’s not going to happen, Karandzieff says.
“There’s something special about walking in those doors and seeing the same stuff that’s been here for 100 years,” he said. “You can’t just re-create that.”
And what will the third-generation owner do when it’s time for him to pass the candy torch?
“It’s too busy here to think about that,” Karandzieff said. “But me? I’ll never retire.”