Bill Mitchell, owner of Mitchell's Fine Chocolates, discusses growing up in Cleveland Heights and running his father's business. He says that he has many fond memories of growing up in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. He recalls several of the businesses that used to be there and several businesses that are still there. He then moves into a discussion of Greek Immigration and how many concession stands were owned by Greeks throughout Cleveland. He concludes by talking about how he runs the chocolate business today. He talks about the various pieces they sell, their expansion efforts, and the difference between dark and milk chocolates.
Mitchell, Bill (interviewee)
Rotman, Michael (interviewer)
Michael Rotman [00:00:00] It's going. Okay, awesome. Okay, so the date is...
Bill Mitchell [00:00:04] The 11th of June 2012.
Michael Rotman [00:00:06] My name is Michael Rotman. I'm with Bill Mitchell. We are on Lee Road talking about Mitchell's. Boy, what's the formal name of the store? I'm sorry. I don't even know.
Bill Mitchell [00:00:16] Mitchell's Candies, Mitchell's Chocolates, either way.
Michael Rotman [00:00:18] Excellent. So why don't we start? Can you tell me where you grew up?
Bill Mitchell [00:00:23] Cleveland Heights.
Michael Rotman [00:00:25] Okay.
Bill Mitchell [00:00:26] On Coventry, on the Coventry Village area, now known as Coventry Village. I went to Coventry, the original Coventry School, and not the abortion... That structure there, that is now, I can't help the editorial comment on that one.
Michael Rotman [00:00:40] It's always okay. Don't worry.
Bill Mitchell [00:00:41] So I went to school there. I went through the Heights public school systems. My father began the chocolate business next to the old Heights Art Theater, which you folks would know it today as Centrum. When it was the first art theater. People know the Cedar and Lee as the art theater today. The international scope of what the films that they show that was what used to be in Cleveland for from about the early 1950s through 1969, '70. And we were right next to there for 52 years. And then somebody purchased that building and decided to remodel it. So everybody had to vacate the building and hence we had to move. And we moved up here on Lee Road and opened up at the very end of May of 1991. So I've been in continuous business for 73 years.
Michael Rotman [00:01:42] And so that was the, you said that was the late '80s, early '90s when you moved from Coventry?
Bill Mitchell [00:01:48] 1991 is when we opened we.
Michael Rotman [00:01:49] 1991. Okay.
Bill Mitchell [00:01:50] Yeah.
Michael Rotman [00:01:50] Was that difficult after being in Coventry all that time to move to Lee?
Bill Mitchell [00:01:55] Only in our minds. Once we actually had to do it, it became a fairly, relatively simple process in the sense that that space there was very small. And so everything was essentially a hand-dipped operation. When we got here, we continued the hand-dipping as the predominant method of production, but we began introducing more machine, machinery into the system, into the way we approach production of chocolates and the, the confections that we make. And so and of course, the space here was bigger. The other big advantage here, there was always a trade-off, but the big advantage here was the fact that we had a parking lot in the back. And I viewed this particular segment of the Cedar and Lee business district. Well, I'd call it the Legacy before Legacy was, you know, an image in their own minds of the people that were created in the sense that you could come to Lee Road, park your car, and do shop two, or three, or four things, you know, and go back into your car then, which is what you do, at Legacy potentially. The big trade-off, as I indicated earlier with Coventry, was Coventry was a little bit more iconoclastic. It was a higher density population with the apartment buildings in that vicinity. You had a lot of more college kids there. People in the professions were there as well. The, the theater brought a lot of people in. Even after high art theater became essentially a porno theater with Rocky Horror Picture Show at night, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show that sustained that theater through the '70s and into the beginning of the 1980s. So we had and it was a different type of approach there in that sense. Up here, a little different story. But the big advantage here, again, is the parking. And we have five times the space here than we had down there.
Michael Rotman [00:03:55] Now, so you grew up in Coventry, do you have any early memories of? I was going to say by Coventry I live right around the corner on Euclid Heights. Do you have any memories of being there as a child the things you did with your friends or the stores you went to?
Bill Mitchell [00:04:07] Sure. Sure. Well, one of the first things I remember just, just a glimpse. I don't remember the trolley cars that existed on the boulevard, but I do remember the tracks there and picking up those big nails that used to be the things that they used to spike into the ground to hold the rails in place. I remember as a kid going into the old sewer systems because the original Coventry was forward on the basically at the intersection of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Washington Boulevard. And Washington Boulevard used to be a through, a through street that used to be a major four-way intersection instead of three or whatever it is now. And then they closed that off back in the late '60s, early '70s by not making it a through, a through street, but. Then the playground of the Coventry was in the back of the school and behind that was a ravine that that butted up against that first house as you walk up Washington Boulevard. So we used to play back there all the time. Of course, gym classes and football and baseball were all played on there. Another thing we used to do is we play Wiffle ball down at the Lancashire Lane that unites Lancashire with Hampshire. With about five or six guys, we had our own little league and we had all, you know, stats. You know how good of a pitcher you were, your batting average, your ERA, all that kind of stuff. You know, the typical things that kids did in when they were youngsters at the time.
Michael Rotman [00:05:41] And you work at your dad's store from a young age?
Bill Mitchell [00:05:44] Yeah, I was kind of in charge of the penny candy counter, you know, the wax lips, the little chocolate candies on buttons, and things like that.
Michael Rotman [00:05:51] And that was a whole separate counter?
Bill Mitchell [00:05:53] That was this, like was a tabletop. Like this one, probably twice as long.
Michael Rotman [00:05:57] Oh, okay.
Bill Mitchell [00:05:58] And because candy is basically at that time, we offered also stuff that wasn't chocolate-oriented. We used to do our own cinnamon apples. We used to do our own popsicles and cinnamon bars. We used to do things of that nature, caramel corn, peanut brittle, aside from the chocolates. We recently got out of that and just became a more of a chocolate house.
Michael Rotman [00:06:24] Why, what was the reason for that move? Because, yeah, I always hear chocolate shop. I didn't realize there was more.
Bill Mitchell [00:06:29] Well, chocolate was always the predominant one. The others were more sort of like accent pieces or an ancillary to the main effort, which is chocolates. And I think it was largely economics and also regulatory if you think about it. The move actually also played a big role in that. But if you think about it, the regulatory side, you know, the old popsicles used to be in Dixie cups. You know, we got old timers that come in and remember that fondly. But today, if you had to sell that, number one, it wouldn't be for the seven cents or ten cents or a quarter that we charged back, you know, 30, and 40, and 50 years ago. But you'd have to have tamper-proof lid, tamper-proof lids. You'd have to put nutritional labeling on things of that nature. The other one, the other items were also more cost issue, the caramel corn. And we're using fresh butter, the pecans, and we're fighting the inflation has always been an issue, especially when you're using higher end quality products. And I may add parenthetically that anybody that thinks there's no inflation in the last several years hasn't been to a supermarket or has brought raw materials because we've seen it on a consistent basis.
Michael Rotman [00:07:34] And when you were younger, did you ever hang out around where we are now in the Cedar-Lee?
Bill Mitchell [00:07:40] Very little.
Michael Rotman [00:07:40] Okay.
Bill Mitchell [00:07:43] Basically, a little bit up here when I got into my high school years because I had to come up this way, but it was more from Washington Boulevard and occasionally would come up here to do things like fix shoes or to build a shoe repair, which is our next-door neighbor. Who would have thunk that, you know, we would have been neighbors? Yeah. But basically it was around the high school a little bit further down where Miether's [Ice Cream] was, used to be.
Michael Rotman [00:08:07] Sure.
Bill Mitchell [00:08:08] Where, which is now that Oriental restaurant down further north on Lee Road. But basically no. It's basically, I hung out at Coventry.
Michael Rotman [00:08:16] And how did you see Coventry change from, you know, the earlier days of the Jewish neighborhoods to the hippie days? Were you cognizant of that?
Bill Mitchell [00:08:25] Oh, yeah. Very much so. When I was a youngster, I remember jewelry shops and I remember a Fisher. I think it was either Fisher, Fisher Fazio's Supermarket, just vaguely remember that, which is now Tommy's because they had the double door system. If you look at his front, that layout basically was the double door system. And a lot of these businesses, I should add, look like they were designed for that kind of approach where you had two doors, sort of like in a perpendicular layout for in and out kind of thing. There was the C-Saw Cafe across the street where the bikers used to hang out. But you said, you're right, there's a jewelry shop there. There was a couple of other pharmacies down there. Buberstein's used to have a wonderful hot fudge when I was growing up. I remember that. And I remember my first, my first recollection of what inflation meant when I said to my dad, I said, my God. Hot fudge sundae reached 25 cents. Of course, we're talking in ancient times, there was a wonderful donut shop down there as well, the floral shop that's there now, Heights Floral, has always been there, as far as I can remember, where the Winking Lizard is now used to be Leo's Delicatessen.
Michael Rotman [00:09:45] Yes, I've heard a lot about it.
Bill Mitchell [00:09:46] And Leo's was a wonderful, I mean, this man made one hell of a, sandwich, corned beef sandwich. And he was good friends with my father for all those years because, you know, Leo opened up a few years before my father did. Yeah, there were a lot of stores down there. There was a wonderful, also another drugstore right on the corner of, of Mayfield and Coventry. The old classic style of pharmacy. You look at the old B movies, the black-and-white noir movies that had gangsters walking in and out of drug stores making phone calls. That's what those that drugstore look like in terms of how the inside looked. The Marc's used to be a Pick-N-Pay.
Michael Rotman [00:10:39] Yes.
Bill Mitchell [00:10:40] And one of the things I remember when I went off to college to Washington, D.C., where they had different rules there, I said, my gosh, this supermarkets here open late. I mean, back then, their unions used to control it and they used to be closed at six o'clock. And then I think they had one day a week or they open until eight. I think it was a Thursday night. Yeah. That began to change by, they think the '70s or, you know, by the 1970s. But certainly into the '60s, they, you if you didn't get there by 6:00, you were out of luck.
Michael Rotman [00:11:12] That's interesting.
Bill Mitchell [00:11:12] This is pre 7-Eleven. This is all and obviously, the whole marketing is and the method of shopping has changed as consumers, consumer buying patterns have changed.
Michael Rotman [00:11:22] How is that affected, has that affected the candy and the chocolate business too?
Bill Mitchell [00:11:26] Yeah, actually, we've done the reverse. Basically, we've gone more of the way of Pick-N-Pay rather than open up, because in the old days, because of the theater and also because a lot of people used to go down for. For example, drive by and go down to the orchestra on Thursdays, and Fridays, and Saturdays. We'd stay open late, maybe open from 11:00 until at least 11:00 on Fridays and Saturdays with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Especially well past 12, because kids were coming in and buying candy before they went to the movies. But up here, again, it's a different style. And we, we opened earlier, but closed earlier too.
Michael Rotman [00:12:05] So I have to ask you. I read some of the articles on the website about the history and so your family they were, they were Greek immigrants, correct?
Bill Mitchell [00:12:12] Correct.
Michael Rotman [00:12:14] And Greeks owned something more than a dozen candy and popcorn shops.
Bill Mitchell [00:12:20] In Cleveland. The peak, and the peak was 17.
Michael Rotman [00:12:23] How did that what was the connection there? How did that come to be?
Bill Mitchell [00:12:26] Monkey see, monkey do.
Michael Rotman [00:12:28] Yeah.
Bill Mitchell [00:12:29] These most of these immigrants, the people I'm, we were talking about, we're all actually not only Greeks, but they were Asia Minor Greeks, meaning they were from what is not part of Turkey. And the vast majority of them came to the United States, either before, during, or right after the First World War. And at its peak, and I'm guessing the peak was probably in the '30s or '40s before theaters became hip to concession stands, these particular individuals, they were from an island in the Sea of Marmara called Koutali and which in Greek means spoon, because it's spoon-shaped. The island that is. So when they came here, they came their aunts and uncles and so forth came maybe 15, 20 years before working on the railroads and all that. Turn of the century America at that time. The next wave, as I said right before, during, and after World War I, when they arrived, they started doing odds and ends, but they ended up migrating into these candy shops. And we're not talking about stores like you see ours today, they were they had, they had chocolates, but they were a lot more simple. They were more, they were basic. Their biggest sales were popcorn, and caramel corn, and things of that nature. My one of them also aside from my father, was my aunt, my godmother, my aunt, who had a shop down in East Cleveland and Chardon. And I remember them telling me at its peak they would go through an a fantastic amount of popcorn. I mean, we're talking on a Saturday, you could go through 200 pounds of popcorn. Actually, that's popping a lot of popcorn, but that was the golden age of cinema. And just, I can mention also we'd see it, older customers now would come in because we're now on, what, four generations, in some cases five. They come in and they'd say, I remember when my dad and mom gave me a quarter and I'd come and get popcorn from your dad for a nickel and I'd have ten cents entrance into the theater. And I felt like a king because I had ten cents left for my piggy bank. And so, you know, this is World War II-era now, you know, for most of these people, when they were youngsters, the golden age of cinema. Yeah, there were 17 at its peak. The vast majority by the '50s had died out. Their children ended up going into other professions. They basically it was a mirror image of the if you follow the path of immigrant families in the United States, you see every generation is changing. I mean, one, I give you one example, one family that I sort of related to us on the West Side, most of their offspring went into education. So, you know, it's just an evolution of from one generation to the next. And we were the last... And we are the last Greek candy makers in Cleveland, basically Greek extraction.
Michael Rotman [00:15:32] So, I mean, I have to ask, what do you think allowed you guys to, to stay in business?
Bill Mitchell [00:15:37] Perseverance.
Michael Rotman [00:15:38] Yeah.
Bill Mitchell [00:15:40] I think that. I think it was the nature of where we were at also. I think we were a little different also in that I must tell you one thing, most of the candy operators, even to this day, emphasized milk chocolate. We, we from the beginning, we were always specializing more in dark chocolate and that my father began that. And milk sugar was added later in the late '40s, early '50s, when more customers and customers asked for more milk chocolate. So even if you go to other parts of not just Cleveland but parts of the United States and the predominant sales are going to be in milk chocolate. Even within an hour's drive of Cleveland, if you go, especially towards western Pennsylvania, for example, until recently, you'd go into candy stores and see milk chocolate. Occasionally a few trays of dark. In our case, we're basically our sales are 65 percent dark, 35 percent milk.
Michael Rotman [00:16:40] What, what's the major difference, or what's the significance of that? How come most people did milk?
Bill Mitchell [00:16:46] I think it was just they got into what I call it, the Hershey bar mentality. They grew up on milk. They want sweeter, something sweeter than... So it's got, it's got milk in it. So, you know, between the sweetness in the milk. I mean, they gravitated towards that. I think also some people have a negative connotation of the dark from their childhood. I'm talking parents and grandparents of previous generations. But I think the perception is, is one thing, the reality is different. Because in the dark chocolate, there are variations of dark and a lot of people just associate it with a certain bitterness, a bitter taste. And that's not necessarily true because dark chocolate really I mean, to keep it simple, it falls into two categories. One is semisweet and the other would be bittersweet. And most, again, there are exceptions, but in the main, once you get in and what determines that also is the aside from the milk content, is the number of cocoa solids or cacao and in the production of that particular type of chocolate. So once you get above 50 percent, you get into the usually get into the semisweet zone and that's into the 50 percentile zone is semisweet. Once you get above 60 percent, you now into the bittersweet. And there are other things that come into play too. How the bean is processed is called conching, the length of the roast of the bean, different styles. And dark over the last I'd say 15 years, has become very popular as the health benefits have become more known and dark chocolate is associated with health benefits. Most people don't know this. I was told by one physician that. Biochemically speaking chocolate and I'm referring to dark chocolate here is in its purest form, is in the same biochemical family as olive oil. So a little dark chocolate is always good for you, especially Mitchell's dark.
Michael Rotman [00:19:00] Of course. So just lastly, what do you see for the future of the business? Do you think you'll stay on Lee Road or keep doing what you're doing? Any change?
Bill Mitchell [00:19:07] Well, you know, we've always, we've, we've evolved. We've expanded internally. We went from basic the selections that we have and over the years, we've added things. We... In this... In the '60s, we added... We expanded the fruit selection to include apricots and other fruits. In the '70s, we added truffles. And all the way through the period, we've also expanded our, our molding pieces for different holidays. And every day, I mean, we've... We probably have several hundred molds, both every day and holiday-oriented, you know, fabrications. Lately, we added what I call the gratia collection, which is more in the European style, much more complex impact on your tongue, both in terms of taste and texture. Those European couverture are different than the other, the everyday candies that we have. The cocoa solids are higher. The ingredients are a lot more expensive. And they're more complex, in other words, you buy, for example, a chocolate-covered peanut or a caramel, it's a single flavor. I mean, you got the chocolate, but the center is the same. Creams are just one flavor to the next. The gratia collection is a whole different experience because you're combining flavors, and textures, and they're layered. So there's always things like that we're always playing around with. And we're going to add, we add, we added another, another truffle a few years ago. We're probably going to add another one this fall. We've done more wholesaling lately also because a lot of our clientele has moved away from the inner ring suburbs of Cleveland Heights. And in our case, being East Siders have migrated to further out suburbia or even exurbia going beyond Cuyahoga County. So, for example, the last couple of years we've been offering a limited selection box selections with Heinen's. So customers that can't come down in Cleveland Heights can buy something from Heinen's.
Michael Rotman [00:21:20] It's funny how it started out, kind of something for the neighborhood people just before the movies to grab quick for a few cents and now it's kind of becoming more complex, more I don't know higher, I don't know higher class but it's.
Bill Mitchell [00:21:34] Well, the cost of, also the cost of, of the ingredients have gone up appreciably. Chocolate, I remember, that was the other one I told you about the sundae going up. But the other thing, too, I noticed when I was in my 20s and I wasn't in the business in the early '70s because I was still in school. But the price of chocolate had skyrocketed. It quadrupled in one period of less than four or five years from the late '60s through the early '70s. And then from then until 1990, '91, when the Berlin Wall fell, prices were stabilized by I would call it, just call it a cartel for what it was, where the international markets controlled by the big boys stabilized the prices by containing in northern Europe, some northern European warehouse, something like 100,000 tons of cocoa beans, and they would withhold or release it to maintain some sense of price stability. Once the Berlin Wall fell and the European, Eastern European markets opened up and the Chinese market, market opened up, and the Indian market opened up, the supply could not meet the demand. The one thing you should know is that unlike a lot of things that we plant in the ground, cocoa beans take up to seven years before you can actually harvest it. And you ask about the challenges we're, we're in a challenge going forward here because a lot of these trees and shrubs that are that they use, the small trees that they use to grow, these are tired, let's put it that way. There, there, the amount of beans that you can harvest from them is lessening. And so the big boys, as I call them, that basically, you know, the big corporations that use them are now in a race to figure out a way to create a new supply of, of cocoa beans for the market going forward. I don't think it's an immediate crisis. That is to say something that's going to hit us this year or next. But I can see it within a decade. And, and unfortunately, one of the offsprings of all this stuff is an increase in the cost.
Michael Rotman [00:23:54] Makes sense.
Bill Mitchell [00:23:54] So, you know, the old days of buying a box of chocolate for, you know, five, and six, and seven dollars are long gone.
Michael Rotman [00:24:03] Interesting. So I, this is the last question. It's just that I forgot before but, I mean, how did you, did you know, you're always going to take over the business or how did you?
Bill Mitchell [00:24:10] No, I went to a school. No, not originally. I was going to go to school in Washington. I was my original plan was to either work in government, or go into foreign service, or do something like that. But once I got there, I realized that I wasn't a paper pusher. And so at the tender age of 27, I had to make a decision. I figured, well, I better come back to Cleveland. And, you know, I always like the business. One of the aspects of what I liked about it was that it was people-oriented, too, in many ways. But, you know, we were like the seasons and we started in September, October, you know, the busiest time during Christmas, and Valentine's Day, and Easter, and then things slowed down. So there was always, you know, we're like the school year in many ways.
Michael Rotman [00:24:59] Heidi was there anything you wanted to ask?
Heidi Fearing [00:24:59] No, you were very thorough.
Michael Rotman [00:25:02] All right. I think that's it.
Bill Mitchell [00:25:03] Well, chocolates are always good to give and receive and always good to eat a little at a time. And we find, you know, every generation finds something that they always like. And equally important, what they don't like because you have to adjust your production and what you offer to your customer based on what they want and their tastes.
Michael Rotman [00:25:20] Clearly after 70 years or more, you guys.
Bill Mitchell [00:25:22] I think we got it down.
Michael Rotman [00:25:23] You guys have been doing that. So cool. Well, thank you again so much.
Bill Mitchell [00:25:24] You're welcome.
Michael Rotman [00:25:25] I really appreciate it.
Bill Mitchell [00:25:26] Thanks for stopping by.
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"Bill Mitchell Interview, 11 June 2012" (2012). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 911075.