Giant Eagle looks to set a trend by creating an open-air European market for the candy aisle, which includes making a variety of sweet treats on-site. 

By Carla Zanetos Scully

Usually when shopping for candy in a local grocery store, there will be a candy aisle filled with all the usual national brands, supplemented with boxed chocolate assortments from Russell Stover and perhaps a local candy manufacturer. But at Giant Eagle Market District, customers will find a full-service Sweet Shop that makes many of their confections on-site.      

Giant Eagle’s Market District stores, which focus on providing shoppers a full-service, fresh-food experience, has created an open-air European market feel that portends to be a trend for the future.      

The Pittsburgh-based grocery chain, which owns Giant Eagle stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland, has created this new Market District concept brand at three Pittsburgh-area locations and one in Columbus, Ohio, the most recently opened facility. Each have a full-service candy production on-site, explains Erica Price, merchandising manager for the Market District.      

“These locations hand-dip various treats each day to ensure the customer has the highest quality, freshest product possible,” Price notes. “We also have more than 200 Giant Eagle locations that have an extensive candy selection in-store.”     

 “When the Market District brand began to take shape, the idea was to ensure we provide a unique shopping experience to our customers,” she continues. “What better way to bring a memorable and enjoyable shopping experience with a full service Sweet Shop on-site!”  Its Bethel Park location, near Pittsburgh, was the first to have on-site production. “However, with the opening of our new locations, the product offering has expanded and grown along with the brand,” she says.      

Demographics did play a role in finding the best location in Columbus, says Mike Maraldo, executive store leader at the Columbus branch. His store, which opened Oct. 14, is located at Kingsdale in the affluent Upper Arlington neighborhood. “It’s an area that’s receptive to this,” he notes.      

The Sweet Shop, as this section of the Market District is called, has a generous area for making and showcasing its candy, gourmet popcorn, freshly-roasted nuts, gelato and sorbet.     

 One of the specialties are hand-dipped kettle chips fried on site, dipped in Belgian chocolate and topped with a little salt, says Samantha Bosma, candy team leader at the Kingsdale Market District in Columbus. “It’s the perfect combination of salty and sweet.”

A Sweet Shop employee pours Egg Nog fudge into a pan 

The Market District concept and format is one of “magic,” says Maraldo. “It’s a democracy of choice,” he says. “Customers have an opportunity to share their thoughts.” For instance, the chocolate-covered kettle chips were driven by customer requests. “The whole format is centered on customer service. We really believe it. We really preach it.”      

Bosma and her staff daily hand dip items like crispy rice treats, sugar wafer cookies, marshmallows, Chips Ahoy! cookies, pretzel rods, Twizzlers, Oreos and Nutter Butters in Barry Callebaut chocolate. Other favorites are the buckeyes, an Ohio-themed peanut butter and chocolate confection resembling the state nut, as well as pecan turtles. And taking an idea from one of their Pittsburgh employees, they make caramel s’mores dipped in chocolate.      

“We try and make sure we have not only unique hand-dipped items, but also the everyday staples people know and love,” adds Price.      

The company is trying to establish “a whimsical candy land,” she continues. “You want to walk into the department and feel like you have been transported somewhere else.” From going back in time with the extensive nostalgic candy selection to seeing various treats being chocolate-dipped right before your eyes, the concept is to have customers feel “as though you have left your shopping experience and landed in candy land!”      

Candy is not just for kids, she says. It’s for everyone. “Candy is universal and we hope to have something for everyone's sweet tooth!”       

The Sweet Shop makes its own cotton candy on-site -“which the kids love,” says Bosma - as well as over 20 varieties of fudge, including holiday favorites, egg nog and candy cane. They make their own kettle corn and popcorn including such flavors as hot jalapeño, barbecue, cheddar, white cheddar, gourmet and chocolate drizzled.

From holiday displays to bulk roasted nuts, the Sweet Shop encourages browsing and buyings

The glass candy case showcases eight organic truffles as well as other chocolate-covered confections from Lake Champlain Chocolates of Vermont and Bissinger’s from St. Louis.      

Bosma, a pastry chef by trade, says there are more than 30 different varieties of gelato and sorbet made in the store using recipes straight from Italy, including the popular pistachio and unique pear parmesan, an old-school gelato flavor. Holiday flavors include pumpkin pie and pecan pie. The gelato and sorbet is sold by the pint and in individual serving cups.      

Outside of the candy-making area and counter, there are various candy-themed sections. A Jelly Belly unit houses individual flavors as well as mixes in peg bags, boxes and novelty items. One table displays large glass candy jars filled with various flavored malted milk balls, including mint cookie, lemon meringue, Neapolitan, peppermint twist, strawberry and crème and ice cream sundae. Customers help themselves.      

Those looking for mini chocolate pretzels, French truffles, barks, brittles and toffees can find them on a wall unit in the Confections Collections of Market District Chocolates, also available in other Giant Eagle stores. Another section contains Bissinger’s chocolate bars and confections, chocolate-covered fruits and malted milk balls. One wall features local candy companies, currently displaying boxed chocolates from the Columbus-based Anthony-Thomas Candy Co.      

Even allergy-free products, called Divvies, have their own wall section. These are made without tree nuts, peanuts, eggs or dairy. “During Halloween, it’s very popular candy for parents,” Bosma says. It includes items such as jelly beans, jawbreakers, rock candy and popcorn.      

A separate area wall unit has a wide selection of gum. There’s also a display of Ferrero Chocolates and one for Lindt as well as a wall unit filled with the standard bagged grocery candies displaying familiar items such as Twix, Snickers and Reese’s.       

One table holds a variety of penny candy, such as candy dots and Ferrara Pan Candy Co.’s Lemon Heads and Atomic Fireballs, all in self-serve glass candy jars. There are candy sticks and a sucker tree. Another display table holds holiday moulds, gift bags and party trays all containing chocolate items made in-house or purchased from chocolate manufacturers.      

Besides candy, the Sweet Shop roasts its own nuts, offering salted and unsalted versions of pecans, almonds and cashews. Bosma says they also make mixtures and toss them into the following mixes: sweet and spicy almonds or pecans, sweet pecans or cashews, and cinnamon and sugar pecans or almonds.       

Pre-ground, homemade nut butters are available in containers or customers can grind nuts themselves to make natural peanut butter, honey peanut butter, almond butter and cashew butter.     

 “Some of the creative ideas I bring to the candy section are the interactions I have with the customers, brainstorming with people about different candies they can make with our products,” says Bosma. “I recently showed a few customers how to make a simple chocolate croissant using our dark chocolate. I also work a lot with our gelato and sorbettos trying to invent different flavor combinations that have an old school Italian influence, two of my favorites being the mascarpone cherry gelato and pear parmesan sorbetto.”      

As far as being a trendsetter, Maraldo says, “I think it’s something (grocery) chains are looking at.” He notes a Texas chain visited the Sweet Shop in Columbus recently to see how the Sweet Shop was designed. “With dark chocolate’s health implications, people are taking (candy) seriously.”      

Price also sees this as an emerging trend. “As people become more conscious of the quality and freshness of their food, people will have a more critical eye on the sweets they are purchasing,” she says. “Knowing they can purchase fresh, handmade items with high quality ingredients on-site is becoming a priority for customers.”      

When asked whether the candy department will affect local candy stores, Price says the company wants to learn from its customers and their candy experiences, including those of local candy makers. “This increased knowledge provides the basis to not only allow the Market District business to grow, but other business as well,” she says. “I think this allows the candy business as a whole to continue to progress and provides customers with new and innovative products to keep their mouths watering.”