The 4th Generation Chocolatiers Continue Their Family Legacy Through Franchising
MilkShake Factory founder and CEO Dana Edwards-Manatos (center, with brothers Mark and Chris) comes from a long line of impressive, entrepreneurial women. She grew up idolizing her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother — three women who taught her the value of hard work, innovation and quality. These matriarchs led their families with love and passion and put the same care and devotion into the family business. They all led by example, demonstrating the importance of putting quality and people first.
Her great grandparents, Charlie and Orania Sarandou, started the family business back in 1914 when they emigrated from Greece to the U.S. “They had very little money and all they knew was making chocolate, so they set up a chocolate cart on a street corner in Pittsburgh,” says Manatos. Eventually, they saved enough money to open a small soda fountain and chocolate shop in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. “They ran the business with my dad’s crib in the back of the store. They did what they had to do to make it work,” says Manatos.
By the time Manatos and her brothers were born, the family had opened their first chocolate factory. For a time, all four generations worked together. Dana and her brothers came to the chocolate factory almost every day after school to help out. “We spent our afternoons in a chocolate factory… something every kid dreams of,” Manatos says.
Yia Yia Cookie (a nickname given to Oriana because of her amazing cookies), walked the aisles of the factory every day, inspecting each chocolate with a discriminating eye. “The business was her labor of love and she worked until the day she died at the age of 99,” Manatos says. Passion for the business ran deep in the family, and Manatos always wanted to continue that legacy.
The MilkShake Factory Concept
As a business major in college, Manatos had the assignment to present a unique opportunity that made an impact on a local business. “I decided to turn our family’s seasonal chocolate shop (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter) into a year-round business. At the time, we were a chocolate shop that sold ice cream. When we implemented the MilkShake Factory concept, we became an ice cream shop that sold chocolate,” Manatos says. “This switch gave us year-round sales.” The first location was opened in Pittsburgh’s South Side area.
The MilkShake Factory complemented the family’s chocolate business in many ways. “When I started thinking about the concept, I thought about how my grandparents only used the best ingredients and never skimped on quality. The MilkShake Factory carries on that tradition,” she says.
An All-Star Fan Base
It didn’t take long for The MilkShake Factory to grow a cult-like following. The Instagram-worthy, hand-crafted milkshakes continue to draw crowds and 5-star reviews because they are beautiful, delicious, wholesome and fun. They also have staying power. “Milkshakes are not trendy. They aren’t going away,” Manatos says.
As the MilkShake Factory expanded around the Pittsburgh area, each location continued to wow customers, including celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Trip Advisor lists the MilkShake Factory as one of the best dessert venues in Pittsburgh. “There is a certain excitement around the MilkShake Factory. It brings people so much joy,” says Manatos.
The MilkShake Factory Franchise Opportunity
After successfully opening 11 locations around the Pittsburgh-Metro area, Manatos and her family did some soul-searching and decided to grow the business nationally through franchising. They partnered with the franchise development group Franworth and brought in an experienced leadership team, including industry veteran Dan Reese who serves as president. “If we have this kind of success all year round in a cold city, imagine what we can do in the warmer states,” says Reese. “Milkshakes are universal. This franchise will do well in just about any area.”
Manatos and Reese agree that hiring VP of Operations Shawn Smith was pivotal to the business. He helped streamline the model and created procedures that made operations more efficient without sacrificing quality. “Shawn developed a genius process for making the milkshakes. Previously, we had 14 ice cream flavors; now we simply have premium vanilla,” says Reese. “The ice cream is flavored by adding high-quality, all-natural purees, which makes the whole process faster and allows us to be more innovative. As an added bonus, they make the milkshakes look beautiful. With this process, we can try out new and special flavors more easily. This is a simpler business model, with much lower overhead compared to other food franchises.” To ensure freshness, the ice cream and purees are made at the store level.
Honoring a Family Legacy
The success of the franchise operation is very personal for Manatos, who gets emotional every time she talks about it. “The decision to franchise the MilkShake Factory was the last business decision my mom made before she passed away,” she says. Her mother, Dona Edwards (above in white shirt), had an untimely death in 2022, just as they started the move to franchising. “She was a shrewd businesswoman and was loved by the whole community. People wanted to work for her because she treated everyone like family. That’s the kind of culture we want to carry on in every MilkShake Factory location. She lives on in everything we do.”
Manatos and her brothers plan on keeping an active role in the business, ensuring the same welcoming culture and commitment to quality that their family established. Even though the business model has changed since the original chocolate shop started, Manatos knows that her Yia Yia Cookie would have been incredibly proud. “She would have been floored to see what her hard work and sacrifice created. It all leads back to my great grandparents. We attribute everything we have to them,” she says.