Chicago’s confection connection

By Sophia Coleman

Melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, minty-fresh gum, sour candies and decadent caramels are all within your reach. No, this isn’t a dreamed up fantasy or a trip into Willy Wonka’s factory—this is Chicago, the candy capital of the country.

The city has been home to some of the biggest names in candy land—from the Baby Ruth bar, Wrigley gum, Tootsie Rolls and Frango Mints—as well as artisanal chocolate makers, such as Vosges, 2211 N. Elston Ave., and Sarah’s Candies, 70 E. Oak St. Home to more than 100 candy companies, the city earned the candy capital moniker back in its heyday of candy making in the 19th century, according to Chicago historian

Leslie Goddard.

Chicago also boasts the country’s largest wholesale chocolate manufacturer, Blommers, 600 W. Kinzie St. The smell of sweet chocolate wafting over parts of River North and West Town fills people’s noses and induces cravings among passersby, but most are unfamiliar with the scent’s origins. Many people believe it belongs to the country’s biggest manufacturer of chocolate, Hershey’s, which has never called the city home.

“People usually don’t know the name [Blommer’s], which is ironic because they’ve probably tasted it,” said Goddard, who has expertise in the candy industry. “For most of its history, Chicago has produced approximately one-third of the nation’s candy.”

Goddard said that while a few cities have come close to producing as much candy as Chicago, not one city has come close to being home to as many candy factories. She said that two trends have occurred in the last decade that make the city sweeter than the rest.

“So many people are nostalgic for the candies that they had as a kid, [and] Chicago companies are benefiting from that,” Goddard said. “Also, the growing trend of artisanal chocolates is creating a new outlet for exotic flavors and unique shapes.”

One Chicago tour pays tribute to some of the city’s most popular chocolate hot spots. Now in its sixth year, the tour takes small groups through select chocolate shops, bakeries and cafes around the city. While walking throughout the city and sampling its finest chocolates, guests are given a brief history of Chicago’s candy-coated past .

Valerie Beck founded Chicago Chocolate Tours in November 2005 after feeling unsatisfied with her job as a lawyer. She decided that chocolate was the only cure for her 14-hour per day desk job. Because Chicago’s infrastructure was built largely on chocolate and other candies, she figured that both locals and tourists would enjoy a tour that pointed out some of the best spots for treats.

Beck also wanted people to realize the massive amount of history behind the candy-making industry.

“In the 19th century, when chocolate was becoming popular in the Midwest, it was still a high-end luxury,” Beck said. “Companies were very cautious of their product and searched for locations near railroad lines, lakes and rivers so that they easily could get their products in and out.”

Beck said that because of the city’s ideal geographical location, nearly nine-months of chilly temperature and influx of immigrants from countries with candy-making expertise—like Germany, Poland and Italy—chocolate and candy-making became a staple of the city.

One of the oldest candy companies in the Chicago area is Forest Park’s Ferrara Pan Candy, 7301 Harrison St., which is best known for creating American favorites like Red Hots, Lemon Heads and Atomic Fireballs. The factory opened in 1908, when founder Salvatore Ferrara came to America from Italy. Along with his two brothers-in-law, Salvatore Buffardi and Anello Pagano, the threesome set out to create sugar-coated almonds for Greek and Italian families.

Jim Buffardi, chief financial officer of Ferrara Pan Candy, said a few years after the company’s opening they began manufacturing a variety of confectionaries that were distributed nationwide. The candy company even survived both world wars when sugar rations

were implemented.

“We took all the sugar we were allotted and we were able to produce 100 percent of our pan-candy needs,” Buffardi said. “We had cut out a lot of our other manufacturing—with the chocolate and spearmint leaves—so we were able to save the company.”

After the war years, Ferrara went back to the general line house, where they began producing their chocolates and spearmint again, in addition to their pan candy.

What started out as a modest candy store grew into a fourth-generation family-run business providing America with quality pan candy. Buffardi’s sons are currently working at the factory, and do the same work of running the machinery and cleaning the facilities as

previous generations.

“I’m part of the third generation, and our families made us work in the plant with maintenance and packaging,” Buffardi said. “If we were going to sit in the office, we had to know what was going on behind the scenes.”

Buffardi said he felt lucky to be one of the surviving candy companies of Chicago after recently seeing a list of 25 Chicago-born candy companies that have gone out of business since the ’50s.

Brach’s Candy Company, which was founded in Chicago in 1904, was one of the businesses that left Chicago when Farley & Sathers Candy Company acquired it in 2007. One of the last standing factories was blown up in “The Dark Knight,” during the scene in which the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, blows up Gotham General Hospital.

“It was a sad moment for the Chicago candy business,” Goddard said.

One relatively new and prosperous confectionary of the Chicago chocolate scene—and a popular stop of Chicago Chocolate Tours—is Sarah’s Candies. Owner Sarah Levy began her business with a passion for making desserts in her mother’s kitchen, and after honing her skills at The French Pastry School of Chicago, she built up a wholesale business that included Whole Foods Markets in the Midwest and smaller gourmet grocery shops across Chicagoland.

Since the opening of her main store in 2005, Levy has expanded the business by baking wedding cakes and pastries and running a smaller store within Macy’s. She said most of her time is devoted to creating delectable chocolates. Levy’s signature candy is the Chocolate Delight, which is a combination of caramelized almond, roasted pistachio and a touch of rice crispy, covered in dark, milk or white chocolate.

“Chicago is a great food town, and chocolate is one of the many things the city does well,” Levy said. “It helps that Midwesterners aren’t afraid to indulge in candy.”

Another mouthwatering stop at Macy’s is on the 13th floor, where the famed Frango mints were once produced. The vastly popular Frango Mint is usually what comes to mind when one thinks of Marshall Field’s. However, Goddard said that the mint chocolates actually originated in Seattle in 1918 at the Frederick and Nelson department store. Both the company and Frango trademarks were acquired by Marshall Field’s in 1929.

While Chicagoans cannot fully claim the Frango Mint as the city’s signature chocolate, Marshall Field’s did play a large role in the production of the mints between 1939 and 1999, on the 13th floor of it’s State Street flagship store. Many of the iconic flavors were created within the factory, from the intense mint flavor to a particularly salty extra ingredient.

“The perspiration from the women’s fingers that were handling the chocolates gave the chocolate the salty taste that people craved,” said Jenny Nelson, a tour guide for Chicago Chocolate Tours. “When machines were implemented and gloves were used to handle the chocolate, people complained that the taste was different. Eventually, they changed the recipe to add more salt.”

For a brief period, the production of Frango Mints was moved to Pennsylvania, but when Macy’s merged with Marshall Field’s in 2006, part of the production was brought back to Chicago, this time located at Cupid’s Candies, 7637 S. Western Ave.

Goddard said sugar prices in the last decade have put strain on Chicago’s candy makers, and though many of the major factories have left, a substantial portion still remains and has been boosted by the smaller,

artisanal businesses.

“Chicago has produced not just candy, but played a role in many generations’ livelihoods,” Goddard said. “Candy is one of those things that we get really deeply attached to, and it brings back nostalgic memories.”