By SUZANNA LOURIE
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Whether it’s the smell of homemade chocolate, the colorful display of candy or both, it’s hard to deny the appeal of Jo-Ann’s Candy House located in The Shoppes at Wilton plaza off of Route 50.
Now celebrating the local shop’s 30th holiday season, owner Gene Bruno knows a thing or two about how to create a successful shopping experience for his customers.
“We try to hit all the senses with the music, the display and the smell,” Bruno said while gesturing at the rows of candy. “It’s the total experience, and we’re always looking for ways to upgrade.”
Since first opening in the old Pyramid Mall (now the site of the Wilton Square box stores) in 1978, Bruno and his wife, April, say they have continued to run the business the way they originally intended — with quality products, great service and an emphasis on family.
As kids, the Brunos’ two children, Justina and Joseph, spent a lot of time at the shop after school, working behind the counter when they were old enough.
“We grew up here,” said 21-year-old Justina, a 2008 Saratoga Springs High School graduate. “I can’t imagine life without it.”
And she won’t have to. Justina recently began training to take over the business so the family tradition can be kept alive for another generation. Her brother still helps out at the store but has made a career teaching at Maple Avenue Middle School.
“I always say to people, ‘I don’t know if I would be happy right now not knowing that one of us — my brother or I — was going to take it over,’ ” Justina said.
For now, Justina will continue working part-time at the shop until Gene and April are ready to take a step back from the business, which has become an extension of the Bruno family.
“We’re ecstatic she wants to take over,” Gene said. “We feel we’re very entrenched in Saratoga. Both my children were raised here, and even though we’re not downtown, we feel like we’re very Saratoga.”
Jo-Ann’s Candy House could be considered the longest-running business at Exit 15. It was, however, forced to close for three years after the Pyramid Mall was torn down in 1999.
“We were in the mall for 21 years until it came down,” Bruno said. “We always knew we wanted to reopen, so we kept looking for a space.”
Finally, in 2003 the location at The Shoppes at Wilton became available and Jo-Ann’s Candy reopened its doors.
“It was horrible,” longtime customer Mandy Dennis said of the three-year hiatus. “You couldn’t get candy at Christmas anywhere.”
This year is the Bruno’s 30th Christmas season and their ninth at the new location. They say business is better than ever, with customers like Dennis lining up to grab chocolate Santas, Hanukkah candies or any of the shop’s other mouth-watering confections.
For Gene, it’s relationships he has built with entire families that keep the business going.
“The best memories for me are waiting on people who I waited on when they were kids and who bring their kids in. I get goosebumps,” he said. “It’s something you don’t think of when you’re starting a business, but that’s part of why we love what we do.”