A Q&A with 3 longtime Lancaster County small business owners | Local News

Steve Evans describes his business as one that just keeps getting sweeter. 

Since taking the helm of Evans Candy from his parents in 1995, Evans says the business that cranks out a variety of treats off Willow Street Pike south of Lancaster has seen steady year-over-year growth to the point where it’s now quadrupled.

Corporate clients have a lot to do with that. Evans started expanding that part of the business in the early 2000s. His parents – who started making chocolate at home when Evans was young – might get the occasional order from companies buying 30 or 40 boxes for employees. Now companies are ordering in the hundreds for both employees and customers.

“That has been helped by technology. We can do more personalization … (and options that) we can offer businesses either on the chocolate or on the box,” Evans says. “So that has a lot of appeal.”

The Easter rush on the other hand is almost entirely individuals looking to fill some baskets. 

“Almond bark is huge. Chocolate covered pretzels are huge,” he says. Add all the peanut butter-and-chocolate combinations and those are the top seller, he says, but adds that caramel combinations as a group would be a close second.

The workforce shifts a bit with the season but 12 is a typical number, he says.

“It would be a joy to see it remain in the family. We’re working in that direction, though it’s not always foreseeable – all the ins and outs and twists and turns that come along,” Evans says. “I have four of my own children and we have a number of other family involved in the business. I can certainly see it continuing and I would be hopeful for that.”

Here’s how Evans fielded our questions for the longtimers. 

Anything about the pandemic that made it feel like Evans Candy was a new business again? Supply chain comes to mind. You can’t always count on products … so when it’s there, you buy more and figure out ways to store it … And when something’s not there week after week? You’ve got to come up with an alternative …. We’ve been able to navigate the challenges very well. But they’re there. 

Trickiest year for the business pre-pandemic? That’s one of the joys of this business. It comes with a fair amount of predictability, actually. But … as the business grew, I needed somebody to help me oversee production and to have enough skill sets to handle all the different products that we make. Finding the person to fit that role – that would have been one of the bigger challenges. But we have that now. 

Adjective that best describes the climate for small businesses in Lancaster County? Strong. We have enjoyed a really good resurgence of people buying local. They’ll come in and tell us, “We love your product but we’re also really happy to be here to support local. We’re your friends. We’re your neighbors. We’re part of your church. We’re part of the circle of people that you know.” I think that’s one of the beneficial side effects of the pandemic. It kind of brought about a better awareness of all the little shops that are actually close by. When you’re in the business of life and flying from point A to point B, and back to work, and the kids are having school activities, you don’t always stop and look at what’s around you…. And I think by having this slowed-down time, people did take the time to notice. Just a theory. 

Moment you knew you made the right move taking the business? Within the first year or two really. I’d been working with chocolate since I was 4. So that wasn’t too much of a change. The logistics of the business were an adjustment. … But my dad was there to help guide me through. He was great. He told me, “I’m not going to look over your shoulder. You’re calling the shots. I’ll give you advice and my thoughts but I’m not going to question your decisions.”

Best piece of advice for new businesses? Be willing to roll up those sleeves and do what it takes. Get very hands-on with it. There are a lot of long hours. In time, that can pay off. But it’s not going to be glorious at first.

Elizabethtown Sporting Goods

The next time you’re at the kid’s ballgame have a look at the uniforms out on the field. There’s a chance someone with Elizabethtown Sporting Goods put the team logos on those.

ESG has been around for 45-plus years, says Mitch Gibson, whose family bought into the business as owners around 2001. ESG sells customized corporate apparel, organizational clothing, and sports equipment and uniforms. 

Customer or team logos are added to attire via ESG’s three embroidery machines, one automatic screen printing press and two manual presses. Hunting down the right items to put into those machines has lately been a challenge given current supply chain problems.

“I do all the ordering. It used to take me maybe an hour a day. Now it’s about three hours,” Gibson says. “Luckily, we have lots of vendors that we can pull from.” 

Gibson’s business is reliant on a textile industry that in recent decades moved much of its remaining domestic production from the southern United States to plants overseas. 

“Nothing’s made in the U.S. anymore. If it’s coming from Central America, we’re seeing that stock get replenished a little quicker,” he says. “But if it’s coming from China, like hats? This summer it was almost impossible to find hats in certain colors.” 

Gibson says he just keeps looking. 

“Our thing is to be transparent and just make it a good customer atmosphere so that you feel like we care,” he says. “Because we do.” 

Anything about the pandemic that made it feel like you were a new business again? I would say yes. We had to streamline some processes and really reevaluate just how to do business with customers not being able to come in. Thank goodness for the restaurants and landscaping industry because the sports side of it was nonexistent. … A lot of the restaurants wanted to sell shirts because customers were trying to help them out, which helped us as well. …  (That seems to be continuing.) I just did an order for a Manheim restaurant where they’ve been selling lots of shirts. There are two or three down in Lancaster that just ordered a few hundred. They’re in about every three or four months. It can’t all be for their staff. … The sports numbers aren’t back to where they were pre-pandemic. Little Leagues? We do quite a few. I would say their numbers are probably down 10% or 20% at least. It’s just one of those things. We’ll print whatever you need. But they’re seeing it on their end, too. Certain families are not comfortable with whatever their choice is. Or kids aren’t interested. I don’t know. 

Trickiest year for the business pre-pandemic? I’d probably say 2019. We had a quarter-owner that decided to go out on his own. 

Moment you knew you made the right move getting into this business? Probably since my son has been born. The flexibility this offers has been great. … He’s 7. He tried some soccer and he wants to do football next year so it looks like I will be coaching that. We’ll see how that goes. 

Adjective that best describes the climate for small businesses in Lancaster County? Competitive. That’s not just in this business but in general. I’ve seen a lot of competing businesses. It just seems like if ever somebody’s not holding their end up to the customers, you can usually find somebody else to meet your needs. 

Best piece of advice for new businesses? Plan.

Russell Locksmith-Safesmith

Doug Russell was once a kid who loved magic. 

“I did stage magic right up into college. I was into Houdini and lock boxes and strait jackets and all that crazy stuff,” he says. “Then I went to college to be a surgeon.”

After a year he realized he hated college and got a job with a locksmith. 

“My poor parents. I’m not sure my mother ever got over it but my father did,” says Russell, who is now 69. “He got to see his name … on a business. He was very proud of me.” 

That business is Russell Locksmith–Safesmith on Queen Street in Lancaster. Russell opened his company in the mid-’80s after moving into digs where another locksmith had been. 

Among his more glamourous jobs are vault doors – which are what tend to make it onto the business’s Facebook page. Russell says he’s glad he’s had a chance to delve in that business seeing how banks more typically contract with a large national company. 

Master locks for landlords are a big part of his business. So are walk-in customers looking for one or two keys. It seems to Russell some people have made a hobby of losing their keys.

He has no interest in getting involved in electronic car fobs. Another locksmith in town is skilled at those, he says. That’s Bill Neff, who Russell says was in Boy Scouts with him back in the day. 

Russell says he recently made a major investment in equipment that will help him and his staff with locks for which numbers must be keyed in. 

The kind you turn are the ones for which Russell appears to have a particular knack. That comes, he says, from realizing that each lock has its own personality – and also from spending hundreds of hours sitting in front of ones he never got open. 

“You can’t teach experience,” Russell says. “You’ve got to be out there working to get better.” 

Anything about the pandemic that made it feel like you were a new business again? Not really. We did close the shop for a couple months but we do a lot of work for … (a) hospital and all of their facilities. So we were still doing that and some business for real estate. It wasn’t as bad for us as it was for a lot of others. Like the restaurants. I felt so badly for them … We were blessed that we pulled through. It wasn’t like we were making 100% of what we normally do but it was enough. 

Trickiest year for the business pre-pandemic? I bought the shop in 1985 from … (a locksmith) who had a couple key machines. Nothing great but enough to get me going initially. In the beginning, I was selling soda and candy and anything to make a buck for the family. And of course, it was only me. So anytime I had a service call I’d have to lock the shop up. So the first years were hard. But I was much younger and had the energy to expend … Now there are three of us working here. We’ve been together, oh, probably 25 years … . I often hear all these stories about employees and scheduling problems and I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that. I’ve got the best guys and we just work well together. 

Moment you knew you made the right move opening the business? I just basically always had the God-given talent to figure this stuff out. 

Adjective that best describes the climate for small businesses in Lancaster County? Difficult. If you’re in the trades you can always find work. … But I can’t imagine what it’s like for anyone who can’t go out and do service calls and not worry so much about what’s happening in the shop. 

Best piece of advice for new businesses? Love what you do and work hard at it.

Minnie Arwood

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