Hearing of chocolate sprinkled with salt, Anna Sammartino screwed up her face in distrust. Yet her eyes lit up once the candy touched her tongue, with the familiar lilt of chocolate pushed in a new direction.
“Imagine, just that little difference,” the 99-year-old Scituate resident marveled before she went for another bite. “Oh, I like it. It adds a little zing to it.”
This addition to the chocolate menu is only one of the many changes Phillips Candy House has made since 1925, when Sammartino’s parents began the business in the basement of their Revere home.
Yet as Boston’s oldest chocolatier, who will turn 100 on Friday, toured the company’s 60-year-old Dorchester shop, peeking around kitchen corners she once knew well, it was clear that some things never change.
“My dad always said if you make quality candy, they will come in droves. People will come for a good piece of chocolate,” Sammartino said. “He never wanted us to change it, either, and we never have.”
Though Sammartino officially retired with her husband, Joe Sammartino, in the 1980s, she still pitches in as an occasional taste tester and business consultant.
“Prior to my dad’s passing one and a half years ago, they came up a few times a year — had lunch and talked to employees,’’ said Sammartino’s daughter Mary Ann Nagle.
‘My dad always said if you make quality candy, they will come in droves. People will come for a good piece of chocolate. He never wanted us to change it, either, and we never have.’
“My mother always asks, ‘How is business?’ We discuss trends and she comments on the seasonal nature of the candy business. Her family ties are so strong that she commented on how happy her mother would be to see what [Phillips Candy House] has become.”
Sammartino said that although her parents, Phillip and Concettina Strazzula, didn’t start making chocolates until Anna was 12, her father used to joke that she had arrived in a bag of sugar.
Joke or not, candy is in Sammartino’s blood and she was put to work soon after the business began.
“I was 13. My mother and father said, ‘Now you can go out and sell in the store.’ And the inspectors would come around and I’d say I’m all of 15 years old.
“They’d look at this half-shrimp,” Sammartino said with a hearty laugh. “They used to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, we know.’ In the old days, they were lenient.”
As the business expanded, Sammartino learned the trade, keeping the books and handling the cash when the first retail shop opened in Belmont in 1930.
In 1952, Sammartino, her husband, and her three brothers opened Phillips Candy House on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester.
Phillips also opened and closed a shop in Brookline, but the Dorchester shop remains, along with a store that opened in 2004 at Braintree’s South Shore Plaza.
Through it all, the family dynamic has been a constant.
“My mother was a very serious person. She was always business, right? Business, business, business. But my dad could see the humor in everything. And you know something? We used to have more fun, work late at night . . . we would double over with laughter,” Sammartino recalls.
Another constant has been the chocolate, a blend of two types from Peter’s Chocolate that hasn’t changed since Phillip Strazzula taste-tested flavors in the 1920s. Even the centers, made in the Dorchester kitchen, have stayed true to their original recipe.
“We still do what your grandfather did,” Sammartino said to her daughter. “If you don’t have the ingredients, don’t make it!”
The mantra has become almost like a prayer, one Sammartino says often with a wise look before testing all types of flavors.
Her father’s eye for perfection was present during a recent visit to the Dorchester shop, when Sammartino oscillated between critique and praise as she tasted chocolates, her eyes focusing in the distance as her taste buds focused on the flavor.
“Too hard” she announced of a chocolate-covered nougatine, declaring it overcooked, but she nevertheless took another bite. Other tastes left a smile etched on her face, sent her purring with compliments as she jokingly dropped them into her bag.
“People say, ‘I bet you’re so sick and tired of looking at [chocolate],’ I say, ‘No! I’m always nibbling,’ ” Sammartino said.
After trying a peppermint patty, one of her favorites, she nodded in approval at the combination of bittersweet chocolate and the tang of soft mint filling. “A piece to die for,” she said.
After all these years, Sammartino still has an eye for business. With her coarse staccato laugh, she joked that she wanted to go help customers. An empty shelf drew questions, and new merchandise — bags and mugs emblazoned with “Boston Strong” — made her wistful.
“All the things that I never had!” she said.
Sammartino minimizes her current role in the company. “They are the ones who are [making] all these changes,” she said, gesturing toward Nagle and the shop around them.
That ability to leave the business largely in the hands of new generations may be a key to the shop’s longevity.
“Usually it requires great sensitivity and insight in the founder. . . . The good ones know enough to slowly let go and let their offspring take on more and more responsibility, but not all at one time,” said George Labovitz, a professor of organizational behavior and management at Boston University’s School of Management.
Labovitz noted that running a family business is perhaps one of the most challenging types of businesses to run, and those that succeed are the exception, not the rule.
At Phillips Candy, a fourth generation is already on hand, but their vendors, many of them family businesses as well, are dwindling.
More drastic changes have occurred in the business itself. Sammartino remembers the big blocks of ice and fans that used to cool the product dozens of years ago. Today, refrigeration and the advent of the Internet have made it possible to serve customers around the globe.
The pulley system that used to transport chocolates for dipping has been replaced by a conveyer belt; forms of social media have become the new window display.
For Sammartino, who asks “how much?” after seeing every new product, the biggest difference is the price.
“You can remember when chocolates were — how much a pound?” Nagle asked her mother.
“Twenty-nine cents a pound for bittersweet chocolate,” Sammartino said. Today a pound at Phillips costs $24.50.
Memories like those are as rich as the chocolate.
“You know something?” Sammartino asked. “As much as we worked hard, we always stopped off for fun, we always found something funny to do . . . the time went by fast.”