By Margaret Steen
Savannah's Candy Kitchen has been part of Rhett Strickland's life for as long as he can remember. "Every day when I came home from school, we'd come down to the candy store" where his parents, Stan and Tonya Strickland were working, says Rhett, now 22 and the production manager for the family business in Savannah, Ga. "I had to literally sleep under the table while they packed packages at Christmastime."
But during his teenage years, the business took a new direction.
Savannah's Candy Kitchen had an unusual relationship with one of its competitors, River Street Sweets. The business that eventually became River Street Sweets was founded in 1973—by Stan and his first wife, Pam Strickland. When they divorced in 1991, they split the business. Pam kept the River Street Sweets name.
For years, the two sides of the family didn't communicate. Stan and Pam's children, Jennifer and Tim, eventually bought River Street Sweets from their mother, and they worked together to run it. Both businesses grew and were successful on their own.
In 2004, the family's story took an unexpected turn: a reconciliation, which eventually led to both sides of the family joining forces and cooperating rather than competing, to the surprise of customers and employees. In 2013, the family formed a jointly owned franchise business, called River Street Sweets • Savannah's Candy Kitchen, which it is looking to expand.
"We all believe that what we can do together is much bigger and better than what we've done individually," says Jennifer Strickland, 51.
Gift shop origins
Stan and Pam Strickland started out in business in 1973 in Savannah, trying to make a success of a shop that sold Christmas merchandise year-round. "Everything went wrong," Stan, 73, says of the first shop. "We were buying what we liked, but there was nobody to sell it to."
In 1978, they made a trip to the Atlanta Gift Market trade show, looking for merchandise that would have wider appeal. Tim, then 11, found a fudge-making machine and begged his parents to buy it. They did, and the family brought it back to Savannah. Stan bought a 7,800-pound slab of marble from a gravestone company—a cool, flat, smooth surface that would help cool the candy quickly and evenly—and they made chocolate mint fudge for St. Patrick's Day. It was a hit with customers.
"We started thinking, 'Maybe we ought to get into the candy business,' " Stan says. His mother had worked in a candy factory, he says, so "I had a little of it in my blood."
They next started working on pralines, experimenting with different recipes until "we hit on a smell and a taste that was like nothing we had ever had," Stan says. This started a transition in the business: They increased the number of candy items sold while stocking fewer non-candy items. Ultimately, they renamed the business River Street Sweets.
Today, Stan says, "If it's sweet, we make it": chocolates, taffy, divinity, fudge and the company's flagship product, pralines.
When Stan and Pam divorced in 1991, the business had four stores; each ex-spouse took two of them. Since Pam had the River Street Sweets name, Stan used a different name, Savannah's Candy Kitchen, for his locations.
Jennifer, who with her brother Tim had grown up working in the business, had recently graduated from college and was managing one of the stores. Tim was a senior in college at the time. He soon joined Jennifer and their mother in working at her stores.
"We had grown up working together in the business," Jennifer says. "I learned my times tables and did my homework in the back room. I had summer jobs there. I remember making pralines and pulling all-nighters with my mom and dad to package candy. When we became estranged, it was really tough."
"We completely separated and really became competitors," Stan says. Neither of the stores he received in the divorce settlement was located in Savannah, so he soon found a store in the city that he could open.
"For 16 or 17 years—way too long—we were making exactly the same thing, using exactly the same recipes," Stan says. "There was enough business for everybody to make a living, but the family was not together."
Bridging the divide
A turning point for the family—and eventually for the two businesses—came in 2004, when Jennifer adopted a son.
"I had missed my dad a ton," Jennifer says. "I remember thinking when my son was a baby that I needed to be able to tell him about all of my family, and that was a real hole in my life."
She called her father. The reconciliation "didn't happen overnight, but it started overnight," she says. By 2007, they were reconciling as businesses as well as on a personal level. At this point, Pam was part of the business but not involved in daily operations.
"We started communicating as people first," Jennifer says. "Because business is part of our DNA, we began to ask each other questions and help each other out." They discussed vendors and pricing. They shared supplies. Jennifer and Tim started buying log rolls from their father instead of from an outside vendor. Gradually the cooperation became more formal—until finally they decided to start a third business together.
Today, the family is involved in three businesses, all with their headquarters in Savannah:
• Savannah's Candy Kitchen is owned by Stan Strickland and has seven locations, including two in Savannah, and 188 employees.
• River Street Sweets is owned by Jennifer Strickland and Tim Strickland. It has 168 employees and stores in eight locations, including two in Savannah.
• The new entity is called River Street Sweets • Savannah's Candy Kitchen. Its owners are Stan Strickland, Jennifer Strickland and Tim Strickland. The company has opened one franchise in Pooler, Ga., and is opening two more in 2017: one in Key West, Fla., and one in Lancaster, Pa. The franchise uses a combined logo created for the family brand.
The businesses share the Savannah's Candy Kitchen production facility and work together on the three companies' mail-order businesses. Combined annual revenues are $35 million.
"It felt like we had been doing it forever once we started," Rhett says. The divorce, it turned out, had not changed the values or the goals of the two companies. "I think that even though they weren't in communication, everybody had the same idea," Rhett says. "They wanted to put Savannah on the map, and they wanted to put pralines on the map." When they got back together, there was more volume, but the work and the goals were the same.
The new normal
The story of the split and the reuniting of the two businesses drew a lot of attention.
"They're huge stores" in Savannah, Jennifer says. "People knew we were competitors. From a vendor standpoint, from a banker standpoint and from a personal friends and customer standpoint, we had an overwhelmingly great response. Divorce is not an unusual thing for people to go through. We've had people reach out and say, 'What a happy story.' I say happy endings are always a work in progress."
"Everybody in Savannah knew the story," Stan says. "So when the competition was over, so to speak, and they saw the family get back together, it made everybody happy."
After years of competition, employees of the two stores had mixed feelings, the family acknowledges. "There was a lot of hope, anxiety and hard work," Jennifer says. "We believed that things would be better for everybody together than apart, and we would not have been able to do what we have without their support and hard work. We have made huge strides."
And even though the family was more complicated than before the divorce, with Stan's marriage to Tonya and the addition of their son Rhett, the family reaction was positive as well.
"I think it was a very natural progression," says Tonya Strickland, 54, general manager of Savannah's Candy Kitchen. She says she was grateful—and not surprised—that the reconciliation happened. "It probably should have been like that all along."
Pam, Tim and Jennifer's mother, was semi-retired when the family members reconciled. "She had a little trepidation, like any mother would," says Tim, 50, co-owner of River Street Sweets and co-founder of River Street Sweets • Savannah's Candy Kitchen. But he and Jennifer say she is now grateful for the re-established relationships. (Pam was not available for an interview for this article.)
"Everybody has made an adjustment," Stan says. "We've all given and taken. The end result is that everybody is pretty satisfied."
The family decided to take the best practices from both businesses to create a model for franchises. Although the two companies use the same CPA and legal services, the family has opted not to work formally with a family business adviser.
And despite the complicated family history, the family members have not taken formal steps to separate family and business matters.
"We all care about each other and have a good time together away from work," Jennifer says. "But because we grew up this way and it was part of the family, part of who we were and who we are—we can't separate that."
The family is using lessons learned from the growth of both businesses.
"Growing the business was probably the biggest challenge. When you start out, everything is small," Tonya Strickland says. "You can handle everything on your own—you can run the cash register, make the candy and make everything look pretty."
It can be challenging to ensure the consistency of the candy and packaging as more people become involved. All the family members have learned over the years of growth that they can't always be as hands-on as they used to. "You can't do everything that your heart loves doing," Tonya says.
Franchises as the future
The family plans to use the joint company not only for expanding its franchise business but also for opening new stores that the family members run. A realistic goal is to open 25 to 30 new stores in the next five years, Tim says: "After five years, we will make some decisions about growing faster or slowing down growth."
"We see the future being bigger than where we are today," Jennifer says. "We're planning on opening more stores together this year than either of us could have opened individually."
Jennifer and Tim are looking at the next generation's role in the business as well. Tim has a daughter in college who is planning to work for the business. Jennifer's two sons are younger, but "the store is a part of their lives, just as it is ours," she says.
Still undecided is exactly how ownership of the three businesses will eventually change. And for now, at least, there are no plans to combine all the stores under one brand. "The two brands are so strong, it just wouldn't make sense to come under one name," Stan says. "What we're really excited about is taking our strong regional brand and basically making it national," Jennifer says. They plan for growth to come through the mail order business as well as through franchising.
"We have evolved from one product to now hundreds of products that we make," Jennifer says. "Every year we try to make new products; every year we try to be better. We're going to keep evolving."
Margaret Steen is a freelance writer based in Los Altos, Calif.
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