Ice cream and pepperoni rolls are just two of this family’s gifts to Morgantown over the generations.
Longtime residents smile remembering the Mountaineer Chico Challenge: If you could eat a scoop of every ice cream flavor at Chico Dairy Bar with a dollop of every topping, the bowl was yours. More realistic customers might order the Jumpin’ Jerry, named for Mountaineer basketball star Jerry West, or the Hot Rod, named for Hot Rod Hundley. The popular Beechurst Avenue ice cream parlor, near where Chico Bakery still operates today, was the first in a cluster of Chico family enterprises.
Both early-1900s child immigrants from Italy, Sam Chico Sr. and Julia Dinardi met when Sam was a dairy husbandry student at Penn State and worked at her father’s dairy farm. They were married in 1922 and moved to the Seneca neighborhood in Morgantown and, over not much more than a decade, had a big family of 11 children. Meanwhile, in 1925, Sam Sr. started Chico Dairy Co. He grew the business steadily, expanding from ice cream into milk and other dairy products and adding home delivery. Later, Sam and Julia moved their lively household up to Riverview Drive. “They were the first people in town to have a television,” says granddaughter Connie Chico Merandi, “so when there was a boxing match or other TV event, all their friends and family would come and watch.”
Sam Jr., the eldest son, started working with his father in 1941. Able-bodied workers were scarce during World War II, so Morgantown police allowed the 14-year-old to drive deliveries—he just had to be done by sunrise. The siblings all attended St. Francis and pitched in at the dairy after school and on weekends as needed.
Sam Sr. came to see an inefficiency in the operation: Deliveries made up 30% of the revenue, but about 90% of the labor. A chain of stores, he thought, would be more efficient. Sam Jr. carried that out, opening the first Dairy Mart in Clarksburg in 1954. When Sam Sr. died in 1956, it fell to Sam Jr. to ensure that his mother was provided for and his siblings got through college, and he managed that and far more. He was married to Ida DeFelice in 1958 and, as their family of five girls and one boy grew, the Dairy Mart chain grew, too, to more than 50 stores in a 75-mile radius of the dairy plant in Morgantown.
Children Connie, Julia, Monica, Regina, Sam III, and Joann all helped out in different ways. By the time Connie started working in the early 1970s at age 12, her father had added a bakery—eventually Chico Bakery, the home of Julia’s Pepperoni Rolls. “It started out in a small room in the main plant, and I hand-tossed confectioner’s sugar on cake donuts and hand-pumped cream into eclairs and long johns,” she remembers. Soon she was running the register and stocking shelves at the Dairy Mart stores and helping with bookkeeping at the dairy.
The dairy employed family members for various lengths of time over the years—Joann, for example, did the accounting for 25 years. Later additions to the family enterprises, with everyone’s involvement, included the Hero Hut sub sandwich chain. The Dairy Marts were renamed All Star Express.
Some of Connie’s generation inherited the entrepreneurial impulse. To name just a sampling: Connie pursued a talent from her mother’s side—fashion—and, with husband Frank Merandi, opened Coni & Franc dress shop downtown in 1981. The two of them, with Connie’s sister Julia, opened Leggenda bridal shop, and they folded that into Coni & Franc when Julia went to law school. Sister Regina operated Body in Balance day spa for 20 years. Sam III now owns Chico Bakery, which the family kept after it sold the dairy company in the ’90s and the convenience stores around 2010, and he also started Squid Ink Graphics and Aquila Stone. Now a fourth generation of Chicos is becoming both professionally and entrepreneurially successful in its own right.
Sam Jr. and Ida modeled community service for their clan. Sam Jr. served on the Mon General and Farmers and Merchants/One Valley Bank boards for 40 years and chaired the United Way campaign, among many other contributions. Ida was active in the Mon General Ladies Auxiliary, chaired the Ball of the Year, and much more. Their children all contribute actively, too. “We have followed their examples of hard work in our businesses, charity, and community service,” Connie says. “It has been our legacy to do so.”
When Sam Jr. passed on in 2013, Connie gained a richer appreciation for the depth of her father’s presence in the community. “Important businessmen would say, ‘Connie, I need to tell you this,’ about my father starting them out in business, calling on his friends to patronize them so they would succeed—and it wasn’t one, it was 50, and those are just the ones I talked with. My parents touched thousands of lives.”