Sweet Memories

I try not to be redundant when I post to my blog. However, a few days ago I read an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette regarding the McKeesport Candy Co. which brought back memories on so many levels. The article is included in this post. I’ve written about some of my favorite penny candy before, but feel compelled to resurface the discussion again.

Nothing was sweeter (if you pardon the pun) than when Mom gave me a nickel for helping her with something around the house. That 5 cents was a gateway to a whole lot of fun and pleasure as I would head to either Puski’s, Hilltop Dairy or to Avenue News (aka – Elsie’s) to spend my nickel. There was another candy store that was across from my grandfather’s house in the 800 block of Hamilton Ave.

Although the store on Hamilton Ave. was the one I  visited the least amount of times, I remember the interior better than any of the other places I bought my penny candy.  I had to climb about 6 or 7 steps to reach the door. Once inside, I recall a huge storefront window that flooded the interior with sunshine. The store was VERY sparsely furnished with a few glass front candy cases that were anchored by a dark wooded counter behind which stood the “proprietor.” Since a was just a wee one, Dad would accompany me into the candy store. After the scary man asked me if I wanted help, Dad would usually place his hand on my shoulder and instruct me to answer the man with a polite “Yes sir.”

In a rather shaky little boy voice, I’d tell the man behind the counter that I have a nickel to spend and wanted to buy some candy. I’d always start with the pretzel rods that were kept in glass canisters on the top of the counter. I think they were 3 for a penny. God only knows where this guy got the patience to deal with little kids trying to make up the mind about candy. Spending 5 cents was an arduous talk for me! Like most children, it took me a long time to finally make up my mind. Red licorice coins, red licorice strings, Ben-Hurs, Pixie Sticks were among my favorites.

Eventually I began to buy full size nickel candy bars as penny candy “purveyors” began to diminish. Elsie’s and Hilltop Dairy had stopped selling penny candy altogether and the Hamilton Avenue Store where I used to buy penny closed for good. Dad told me they were busted for being a numbers joint… or so he said. One candy I forgot about until recently was actually one of my favorites. Bonomo Turkish Taffy! In retrospect, I am sure it was responsible to half of the missing fillings in Duquesne.I remember that you had to slap it as hard as you could on a solid surface in order to break it into bite size pieces. I loved all of the flavors, but my favorite was banana.

I was also a big fan of 3 Musketeers, Hershey bars, and Milkways. I was able to find some of the old TV commercials for these candys on Youtube. I guess Madison Avenue was trying to play with the minds of kids as soon as TV became the advertising medium of choice. The links to the commercials are posted at the end of this post.

The following is the article that appeared in the Post-Gazette recently. Besure to check out the vintage commercials following the article. And as Jackie Gleason always said –

                                                                  “How sweet it is!”

                      The McKeesport Candy Company

By Molly Hensley-Clancy / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the representative from a Madison Avenue jewelry store called the McKeesport Candy Co., she wasn’t craving chocolate. She didn’t want their signature Brach’s candy, or their hard-to-find vanilla Tootsie rolls. She wanted pearls.

Jon Prince, the company’s president, had just the thing.

In the city-block-sized warehouse of the McKeesport Candy Co., Mr. Prince, of Squirrel Hill, keeps a shelf stocked with industrial-sized bags of gumballs. They come in traditional colors like pink and red, but he also stocks them in lime green, shimmer-blue and, yes, even a pearlescent white.

Mr. Prince sold the department store around 200 pounds of them.

For more than half a century, McKeesport Candy, which has been in business since 1927, did business by supplying bulk candy to independent grocery stores. The company also owned several retail locations scattered throughout Pittsburgh.

The advent of the Internet, though, allowed the business to get into a much quirkier game: the selling of retro, novelty and themed candy, like the gumballs that eventually graced the Madison Avenue store’s stylish display.

In late 2001, the company closed its last retail store in order to focus solely on Internet sales, and the decision has paid off.

Today, hard-to-find candies are the backbone of McKeesport Candy’s business, and their website is the top organic result on Google for “wholesale candy.”

McKeesport Candy opened its first website, the now-defunct mckandy.com, in 1998, long before most small businesses had bought into the Internet craze. At the time, the company called itself the “fundraising candy specialists,” and sold almost exclusively to customers in Western Pennsylvania.

Except for some stock images of candy bars and a link to an order brochure, mckandy.com didn’t offer much. The company’s office, said Mr. Prince, wasn’t even equipped with an Internet connection.

Then they got a call from a woman who wanted to place an order. She’d seen the site and wanted some Brach’s ice-blue mints.

“How are we supposed to get it to you? You’re in West Virginia,” Mr. Prince remembers telling her, baffled.

But they packed up the mints and sent them to her via UPS. It was a revelation, he said, about what the business could become. Soon after, McKeesport Candy began offering candy for sale on the Web. Mr. Prince believes it was only the second candy company to do so.

That the company’s first-ever Internet order was for sweets made by Brach’s, one of the oldest candy companies in the country, was a sign of things to come. McKeesport Candy had been carrying Brach’s since its inception, when Mr. Prince’s grandfather, Ernest Prince, operated the business out of the back of his truck.

“We sold retro candy before it was retro,” said Mr. Prince.

When so-called “nostalgic” candy became popular in the mid-2000s, demand for Brach’s surged, and McKeesport Candy’s online business did, too. Brach’s candies, the most well-known of which are candy corn and individually wrapped golden butterscotch discs, are now among the company’s bestsellers.

So, too, are retro favorites like Clark Bars, a onetime Pittsburgh institution now manufactured by Necco, and marshmallow-filled Mallo Cups, which hail from nearby Altoona.

The sales of retro and novelty candy wouldn’t be possible without the innovative design of McKeesport Candy’s current website, which was launched in 2000 to replace mckandy.com.

Picking up on the popularity of candy nostalgia, Mr. Prince came up with the idea of offering candy sorted by decade, from Brach’s, which is “pre-1919,” to Bonomo taffy from the World War II-era and Pop Rocks from the 1970s.

Mr. Prince said he is constantly updating and changing the website to pick up on new trends, especially the retro candy craze. Most items available for sale on candyfavorites.com are accompanied by a brief history of the sweet. An informational section of the website offers candy timelines, facts and images of nostalgic candy ads.

The “History of Candy” part of the website brings in large amounts of traffic, said Mr. Prince. A page that displays colorful magazine ads for Brach’s from the 1950s and ’60s, for example, links to a page where the wrapped candy can be bought in bulk.

Sales from the website now allow the company, which employs around 20 people depending on the season, to ship out several hundred packages of candy every day.

Though Mr. Prince once balked at a single out-of-state customer, he now ships boxes to every corner of the country and even the globe. A load of hard-to-find red, white and blue Tootsie rolls recently made their way to London for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Though Mr. Prince is the brains behind candyfavorites.com, it is his longtime general manager Tom Griffin, who has been with the company for more than 40 years, who keeps the stock fresh.

“We’ll try anything once,” he said.

He searches catalogues for anything that looks new and exciting, with a soft spot, said Mr. Prince, for whimsy. A whole section of the warehouse stocks strange novelty candies geared towards kids, like candy dog bowls, edible cell phones and even candy toilets.

“The grosser, the better,” Mr. Griffin said.

But the bestsellers are a constant, said Mr. Griffin. “People will always love their Snickers bars and Reese’s cups.”

Mr. Prince cut in. “I’ve never even tasted a Snickers,” he said. “Just never seemed exciting enough.”

Molly Hensley-Clancy: mclancy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.

First Published August 9, 2012 12:00 am

Now, enjoy the following commercial break!

 

 

 

This entry was posted in Food and Restaurants, McKeesport. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Sweet Memories

  1. Ken Denne says:

    Bob Vislay..Where the hell are you??? I thought you were dead..
    Ken Denne

    • Jack Schalk says:

      Ken,

      The Bob Vislay that you knew ( my cousin) has passed away.

      This Bob V. is our other cousin. He used to live across from St. Joe grade school but was younger than us.

  2. Barry Long says:

    After reading these my mouth is watering & I’m going to buy a Snickers Bar!

  3. Jack Schalk says:

    Bonomo’s vanilla flavored Turkish Taffy was always my favorite.
    I went without for a lot of years till my wife and I stopped at a specialty candy store In Wakarusa, In. to buy their exremely large jelly beans for the grandkids Easter Basket, and lo and behold, there were all the candies from my growing up years including the taffy.
    I have been a customer ever since. They finally had to open a second store closer to me.
    Incredibly, the taste is exactly as I remember.
    They could possibly be buying from McKeesport Candy Co.

  4. BOB Vislay says:

    For those who grew up on Polish Hill, don’t forget “The Little Store”. I don’t know its actual name, but it was on Edgewood Ave. next to the play ground. Good place for a candy store.

  5. Debra Faust-Clalncy says:

    Hey Jim, Loved the article… Just wanted to let you know a friend of mine in Massachusetts, met his wife at a Halloween party when he was dressed as “Choo Choo Charlie” the Good N Plenty
    Engineer! She recognized him and it was a SWEET love.
    Deb

  6. Emily says:

    My wonderful, funny, beloved uncle, B.J. Lynn, was a driver for The McKeesport Candy Company. Thank you for this update on the business. I am glad it is doing so well.

  7. Cliff Warner says:

    I also frequented the Hill Top Dairy in the 1950’s . There was another candy store you did not mention, Umholtzs, (not sure about the spelling) located on Kennedy avenue, ironically right across the street from Mr. Umholtzs sons dentistry office .Talk about one hand washing the other! We used to stop there on the way home from Saint Josephs grade school for our candy fix.

  8. sally morini says:

    Jim,
    Since you are in Ocean Pines, MD, do you have or know of the locals favorite place for Steamed Crabs. I like ON THE BAY on the coastal highway.

  9. sally morini says:

    Enjoy reading your articles, keep them coming!

  10. Joe Haver says:

    I grew up in my father’s drug store in Homestead, and our primary candy supplier was McKeesport Candy. We had a bin, marked “5 for 39 cents” and boy did we sell the candy. Mckeesport Candy was able to supply us 10 cent candy bars that we could sell 5 for 39 cents. I remember Mr Prince, (I suppose Jon’s grandfather )was a real gentleman, my dad alweays looked forward to his stopping by to see what we needed. Also McKeesport Candy had it’s own line of bags of candy called Todds…….. I can’t remember the rest of the name. They were also a big seller.
    Thnaks for bringing back some wonderful memories.
    Joe Haver

  11. Jeff Peck says:

    Wonderful, but you forgot Mrs.Parkers at the bottom of Second Street.
    Thanks,
    Jeff Peck

    • Bob Chermonitz says:

      Jeff, I remember you and Mrs. Parker. She was a very nice old lady back when we were in school. I recall she suffered from Parkinsons, as her hands would shake as she fulfilled your purchase. Good see your name here. We were friends when we both lived close to the Dairy Queen. Hope you’re doing well. As for my favorite candy bar I vote for the 3cent Lunch Bars we got at Elsie’s Avenue News. Chocolate with little bits of nuts mixed in. I’d buy an entire box if I could find them today! 🙂

    • Betty (Pucci) Rubinsak says:

      For those of us who grew up around Crawford Avenue, there was Ivan’s, up across from Burns Heights; they had the biggest variety of “penny” candy. There was a store at the top of Center Street, don’t remember their name, then there was Bedont’s and Bodnars on the corner of 5th street, there was one across the street, but was closed by the 1950’s. Let see, up Crawford, there was Helmeczi’s where you could get a double scoop ice cream cone, the cone had two holes side by side for the ice cream, and we would get different flavors of each scoop. What a treat for us back then.!! There was one of every corner going up Crawford; I guess we were not allowed to venture that far.

      • Lou A. RPh says:

        …and Helmeczi’s used to sell comic books that had the covers torn off; they were the ‘outdates’ for other suppliers, I suppose. But the price was right, a nickel for the quarter ones and a quarter for the dollar ones; I’d go in and spend an entire afternoon, s-l-o-w-l-y flipping thru the pages. Mrs. Helmeczi obviously knew I was reading them, but graciously let me ‘find the one I really wanted.’ I’d select one or two, pay up and walk home and re-read them over and over. We lived on Maryland Avenue right behind the store; I can remember Mom giving me a dollar bill and sending me down to get a half gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a half pound of chipped ham. Yes, there was change…

    • Rich Betters says:

      Jeff
      Would like to connect. Rich Betters In linkd in and facebook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s