Sweet on the classics

Baby boomers drive a resurgence in retro candies

By Lyn Dowling 
for Florida Today 
October 12, 2005

On a typical autumn afternoon, Buck Rogers, general manager of the Brevard County Manatees, was talking about what a lot of people talk about on typical autumn afternoons: baseball. Then the conversation turned nostalgic.

"You know what I really miss?" the eternally enthusiastic Rogers asked, his voice rising. "Remember those little orange marshmallow candies we always had around this time of year . . . circus peanuts? When I was a kid, I used to eat the devil out of those things. I was a circus peanut junkie. Now if I see them once a year, I'm lucky. Oh, how I love that old-time candy."

Ask anyone around Rogers' age, 46, and you're likely to hear the same thing: Baby boomers miss those candy dots, Chick-O-Sticks, sticks of Teaberry gum, Zagnut bars and other sweet treats that have disappeared ingloriously from candy counters, or have been relegated to lesser positions thereupon.

But there's no need to fear, "retro candy" or "corner store candy" is here, given rebirth by baby boomers eager to pass on the Slo-Pokes and Laffy Taffy of their childhoods to children and grandchildren who are more than willing to bite.

The truth is that most retro candies never have gone away. About 50 American candy companies have been in existence for 50 years or more, and most of the ones that produced the favorites of 40 years ago continue to do so, albeit more quietly.

"It's available somewhere, just not widely available," said Colleen Chapin, founder of Hometown Favorites of West Palm Beach.

"I keep Atomic Fireballs in my purse. I always have Atomic Fireballs," said Babs Rogers, Buck's equally ebullient wife and manager for group sales of the Manatees.

So, although old-time confectionery shops may be gone, old-time candy is hotter than Hot Tamales, with millions of pieces and bars selling at upscale candy stores such as Dylan's, nostalgia-rich eateries like the Cracker Barrel and in some supermarkets that see the writing on the register tape.

And there's no time like the present for candy sales, with Halloween on the horizon.

"Trick-of or-treating has a lot to do with it," said Susan Fussell of the Washington-based National Confectioners Association (www.candyusa.org). "Most children go trick-or-treating . . . and a lot of so-called 'retro' brands originated in the '50s, when trick-or-treating became as widespread as it is. Remember Pixy Stix? Every kid would find one in his or her bag, and it's still that way."

Distributors such as Jon Prince, owner of McKeesport Candy in Pennsylvania, (www.candyfavorites.com) and Internet entrepreneurs such as Chapin say the past is working well for them, with increased sales annually, especially at this time of year.

Chapin, who specializes in corner store candy, sells about $2 million of it a year, much at Halloween.

But both -- and representatives of the Washington-based National Confectioners Association (www.candyusa.org) -- say it's not all about profits, but about sentiment and memory and legacy.

"The obvious reason for the popularity of retro candy is that it is a snapshot of where you were, what you did, and who you were with at a particular time. A lot of it has to do with memories," Chapin said.

"Basically, we live in tenuous times . . . and people want to be nostalgic, and nostalgic at a price that doesn't cost an arm and a leg," said Prince, whose company, founded in 1927, is one of the oldest candy distributors in the country. "Candy serves as a metaphor; you are buying a piece of the past."

Chapin agreed. "The obvious reason for the popularity of retro candy is that it is a snapshot of where you were, what you did and who you were with at a particular time. A lot of it has to do with memories," she said.

That is true. Open a package from Chapin's company -- stamped with "Do Not Open Unless You Are a Child of the '50s" (or '60s or '70s) and just the aroma of the wrappers causes it to all flood back.

"I loved hard candy, especially those sticks. I remember going to the store with my grandmother and she used to buy them for me," said 35-year-old Lisa Pamintuan of Viera.

"And Moon Pies, of course. My grandmother always had Moon Pies for us. I can actually remember the smells of her house . . . in those days. She'd always be cooking, and would give us a Moon Pie before dinner, while we were waiting."

"I remember going to the store with my mom, around Gulfport (Miss.), and she would buy us those candy dots; the ones that you pick off the paper. You would buy them by the foot and they would roll them up," Babs Rogers said. "You can't do that anymore, can you?"

But nostalgia may be for something as new as the last trip to the candy store. If the sweet tooth is contagious, modern kids have caught it.

"Candy necklaces! I love those candy necklaces we see at Cracker Barrel," said 8-year-old Sarah Skorjanc. "And those little wax bottles where you suck out the juice and then chew the wax. Mom showed them to us. They're good!"

"But the wax gets in my braces," her 11-year-old sister Erin protested. "I like Sno-Caps, myself. I love Sno-Caps."

"But circus peanuts are the best!"' Sarah proclaimed, wide-eyed at the sight of a bag of the bright confections.

Buck Rogers agreed, but only after having removed a pair of garish, red wax lips from his mouth.

"Yeah, circus peanuts are the best! You gotta love circus peanuts," he said, grinning as he handed Sarah one of the orange candies.

"People like old-fashioned candy because it's just good stuff. It isn't psychology. It isn't philosophy. It is good memories. Old-fashioned candy is fun."