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THE FEW, THE PROUD, THE CHOCOLATIERS : The art of candy making by small entrepreneurs is melting into fewer hands--and Easter is their prime sales time.


If you're looking for people who don't believe in the Easter Bunny, forget about going to the candy maker.

There, you'll find not only true believers--consumers and vendors--but assorted bunnies that seem to multiply every late winter and early spring like, well, rabbits.

At a confectioner called The Candy Factory in North Hollywood, for example, the shelves are stocked with Easter bunnies--each 2 1/2 feet tall and made of seven to 10 pounds of pure chocolate.

They stand as ample testimony to Easter's preeminence on candy makers' calendars, the biggest single holiday nationally in sales volume, according to the National Confectioners Assn.--bigger than Valentine's Day (but not Christmas or Hanukkah, which are considered not individual holidays but seasons lasting a few weeks). The association reported sales of $864 million in chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs in 1992.

As proprietor Frank Sheftel of The Candy Factory points out: "Easter, in terms of candy making, offers more chances to be creative. There's a bigger variety of symbols--eggs, bunnies, chicks--and you're not restricted to just one or two colors. At Easter, we use all shades of pastels."

But that's not to say the Easter Bunny stands tallest everywhere.

At Custom Candy by Pam, an Agoura Hills chocolatier, Easter runs second to Valentine's Day, if only because Easter's appeal--as a religious holiday--is more limited, co-proprietor Jerry Seidman says.

"Easter, of course, is very busy for us," says Seidman, who with his wife, Pam, has operated their 1,000-square-foot shop, mom-and-pop style, for five years in a shopping strip. "But our clients keep us a lot busier during Valentine's because it has no religious theme. On the other hand, Easter treats aren't something people are inclined to order if they happen to be Jewish or any other religion that doesn't recognize Easter."

Although chocolatiers make up a growth industry ($6.7 billion a year), the art of candy making by small entrepreneurs such as the Seidmans, Sheftel and their handful of Valley-area peers now melts into fewer hands because the risks are said to outweigh the rewards.

"Most shopping malls charge you an arm and a leg to lease space in them," Sheftel says. "To pay the rent at $3,000 a month, you've got to sell a lot of $1 pieces of candy."

What's more, hand-dipping--and tempering the chocolate, instead of offering simply chocolate- coated candy--are skills that require painstaking attention to detail, Jerry Seidman says.

"Our candy is a specialty item that used to be made by a lot of folks who had enough and decided to retire after 20 or 30 years," says Seidman, who operates a tempering machine that stirs molten chocolate imported from Belgium and Switzerland, assuring that when the chocolate hardens after it's molded into candy, it won't melt at room temperature.

"But today," Seidman says, "a lot of people simply go to their supermarket, pick up a box of candy that's been coated--and somebody has thrown color onto it--and they'll say, 'Wow! Look at this!' "

The relatively few storefront candy makers who remain acknowledge that some of their competition comes from underground--an undetermined number of "bootleg" chocolatiers who operate in their homes in defiance of health codes.

Los Angeles County health officials say they know of no specific code violations by bootleg candy makers, but bootleggers are tolerated by at least one commercial candy maker because some are believed to be customers also.

"If they go out of business, then I go out of business," says Joyce Boston, proprietor of Candy Plus, a candy and cake maker in Lancaster for five years since moving her shop there from Burbank.

For Jovina Zetlian, the road to entrepreneurship started when she happened to meet a woman who owned 10 candy-making shops in the Midwest.

"When I saw what she was doing, I said, 'That really looks like fun!' " Zetlian recalls, adding that she ultimately persuaded her father, Panos Zetlian, to let her piggyback candy making onto his Mediterranean pastry shops.

"I told him, 'Listen, we can make it!' but he was skeptical," says Jovina, who operates Jovina's Chocolates at Panos in Encino, as well as two other shops in Hollywood and Glendale. "Finally, he told me, 'Well, as long as you're my daughter, I'm sure you're going to make it.' "

In Agoura Hills, Custom Candy by Pam traces its candy-making origins to the egg--the chocolate Easter egg.

"I started making them at home as a child," Pam Seidman says, "and when I grew up around the Farmers Market, I watched the cake decorators there for hours."

Today, she and Jerry Seidman often work 12-hour days two doors away from a Weight Watchers outlet ("They love us," Jerry quips) to meet the demand for their specialty chocolates (including a coffee-stirring spoon made of chocolate), which they fashion from as many as 8,000 different clear-plastic molds and can ship overnight around the world.

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