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VOL. 7 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Sweet Spot

Candy companies still thriving in Memphis

By Bill Dries

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Gary Wilkes usually doesn’t notice the smell at the family business, Wayne’s Candy Co. Inc., unless he has just returned from vacation.

“It’s bubble gum,” he said of the smell most visitors to the 30,000-square-foot warehouse with a retail showroom at 164 E. Carolina Ave. notice when they come through the door of what is the capital of candy in Memphis. “We are the best-kept secret in Memphis, but we are open to the public.”

His father, Wayne, started the wholesale business in 1947 when he returned to Memphis from World War II.

“Nationwide all these veterans were coming home from the war. … They were tough. They had seen the worst the world has to offer. They were great entrepreneurs,” Wilkes said. “They wanted to get off the farm and get busy. … These stores that were popping up all over America were independent – neighborhood grocery stores, mom and pop.”

Wayne’s prospered as a result.

“In that atmosphere, my dad’s customers were these World War II veterans,” Wilkes said. “The company would service these newly formed stores and neighborhood groceries. … We had about 30 or 40 of them. They covered North Mississippi, East Arkansas all this part of Tennessee and it was an awesome time.”

That was also true for Memphis companies that made candy. Wilkes, who is just as much candy historian as candy wholesaler, estimates there were 19 Memphis companies in the 1940s making candy, from small operations to large operations like what is now the Hershey plant at 975 Kansas St. It was the plant that made Super Bubble gum as well as hard candy.

“One reason why we’re in existence is because of them and they credited us for them being in existence,” Wilkes said. “It’s not candy as we think of it. But in the heyday when they made Super Bubble, it was a phenom. It was the best bubble gum in the world and it was so high tech that they made bubble gum for their competitors. My dad used them to supply him when he got back from World War II and they were so generous.”

The candy manufacturing tradition remains part of Memphis business today and as in the 1940s there are big and small and medium-sized operations.

Jerrod Smith’s family had a tradition of giving handmade candy at Christmas. The Memphis attorney turned that tradition into Shotwell Candy Co. in December 2012, operating out of his kitchen at home, which has been improved to meet production demand as well as state health standards for commercial food production. Shotwell is now building out a 2,000-square-foot production space and is about to hire its first full-time employee, not that the company isn’t a full-time job for Smith.

“I’m a corporate lawyer. … I have been for years. It’s still what I do during the day,” Smith said. “I make the candy at night, every night. I start at about 8 o’clock every night. I go to about 1 o’clock every morning. … For the last year or so, my sleep number has been going down and down. That’s OK. I really enjoy the creative aspects of it.”

There’s no secret family recipe involved, though the company takes its name from Smith’s great-grandfather, Lee Shotwell George, who owned a general store in Kansas that Smith recalls fondly. Smith develops his ideas in the same atmosphere that makes Memphis a culinary hot spot.

“I think that Memphis is certainly growing on the culinary scene and the food scene throughout the region and the country. I think that’s a testament to some of the brighter minds,” Smith said. “They are setting a nice tone within the city to branch out and think about food and candy differently than perhaps they would have five or 10 years ago or 15 years ago. I sort of think that my caramels sort of fit right in the sweet spot of handmade products that are high in quality that provide that sort of perfect bite of sweetness that someone might want but they don’t want to eat a whole candy bar.”

Smith is experimenting and his experiments have spilled over into other parts of the local culinary scene.

“We started with the salted caramel, which I guess has become a pretty common flavor in recent years,” he said as he ran through other flavors including “old fashioned cocktail” and “espresso.” “For the craft beer and pretzel caramel, we use the Ghost River brewery beer in that caramel to add to the pretzels.”

Among the places Shotwell caramels are sold locally is Social in Laurelwood, a shop that bills itself as “a shop for gracious living” which means they sell antiques, gifts and home furnishings as well as the caramels from Shotwell.

Laurelwood is where the kitchen of Dinstuhl’s Fine Candy Co. Inc. was once located before moving to Pleasant View Road in Raleigh in the 1980s. Dinstuhl’s has retained a presence at Laurelwood, and from it once supplied the old Goldsmith’s department stores, which have since became part of the Macy’s national chain. Dinstuhl’s recently began supplying Macy’s stores with their chocolate.

Dinstuhl’s is a 112-year-old Memphis company built on what Wilkes says is the dominant candy in the area for consumers.

Dinstuhl’s chief candymaker Tommy Washington oversees the kitchen and some fudge on a cooling slab.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Chocolate is still king in this part of the world. The rest of the country is what we call non-chocolate,” Wilkes said. “It’s the sour candy, the gummy candy and all that stuff. This is not a licorice and marshmallow part of the country. But it is a candy bar part of the country.”

Dinstuhl’s president, Becky Dinstuhl, says the specific preference in the region is milk chocolate.

“But dark chocolate is definitely moving in and people are discovering that it is the healthier of the chocolates,” she said. “We are seeing a trend toward people enjoying dark chocolate more.”

And Dinstuhl’s growth again affirms that there are no neat borders in the world of Memphis candy. For the Valentine’s season, Dinstuhl’s was preparing to make, over a two-day period, 5,000 pounds of chocolate-covered strawberries.

“That’s an all-hands-on-deck time,” Dinstuhl said of the operation, which includes employees who have worked for the company 30 to 50 years.

And the company got a mention this month in People magazine as the recommended chocolatier for Valentines Day.

“Obviously we are growing and our sales are increasing,” Dinstuhl said. “But we want to make sure we do this growth in the right manner. We don’t want to ever lose the quality of what we provide our customer.”

Dinstuhl’s chocolate is on the pillows of every bed on the American Queen, the world’s largest steamboat, and at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis as well as at the NBA finals and the Kentucky Derby. And the company can specialize with smaller batches as well as large productions like the strawberries.

“We can make a box of chocolates and then insert the corporate logo within the chocolates,” she said. “We customize each box because every box is hand-packed. It’s all hand-made and hand-packed. It gives us the flexibility to be able to provide a product for a company on a small quantity order. We can make it from one box to 10,000 boxes if they would like.”

The smaller-end production is something Smith can relate to with his caramel production.

“We hand cut and wrap all of it,” he said. “We hand stamp our own boxes. We mail our own packages. You name it, we do it. It’s gotten to be a nice business.”

It’s a business that fits into a niche that Smith might expand down the road.

“I eventually think I may move into some different confections down the road at some point,” he admitted. “But the caramels are kind of nearest and dearest to me. There are just not a lot of people making caramel on a basis like mine. … It’s where I’ll focus most of my time, until I feel like we need to branch out a little bit.”

Meanwhile the juggernaut in the made-in-Memphis candy market is the hardest to make contact with, but the transition of the plant from Donruss to Hershey has been documented. Donruss became part of Leaf Inc. in the 1980s. And Wilkes remembers how big the baseball cards made by Donruss and Leaf had become by then.

Kelly Hardcastle and Gary Wilkes, right, of Wayne’s Candy Co. Inc.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Since we were so close and had such close ties, they would let us have the shipment first. That was a big deal for baseball card aficionados,” he said. “We would get a tractor trailer load, which was 1,000 master cases, it was 40,000 pounds of baseball cards. We would get that truck on a Friday. Everybody else would get theirs on Monday. … By Tuesday, every one of those cases were gone.”

What was the Leaf plant became the Hershey Foods plant in 1996, which included a $5.5 million renovation to make “Good n Plenty” brand candy as well as Twizzlers, Rainblo candy and the enduring Super Bubble. Hershey converted, in the 1996 renovation, about 100,000 square feet of what had been warehouse space for production of the new candy brands that were moving to Memphis from St. Louis and Farmington, N.M.

Wilkes has seen a consolidation in candy wholesalers that is a ripple from the intentions of his father’s first customers.

“My dad started this business in 1947. Just out of World War II. Everybody wanted to be their own boss. Money was starting to flow. They didn’t want their kids to be on the truck. They wanted them to get a college education. The second generation typically were college educated and clerical type workers or entrepreneurs in a different vein. We bought out some other companies along the way. … We do a lot of vending stuff now and potato chips are huge and cookies are huge.”

And that led Wilkes to talk about a new scent he discovered at the warehouse when a half load of just-baked cookies were unloaded and stacked in the warehouse.

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