Confessions of a ‘Candyfreak’

Oklahoma Gazette | October 29, 2004
Steve Almond can still taste the Caravelle, although the candy bar has not existed for more than 25 years. His mouth recalls a specific sense memory of savoring the strip of dark, supple caramel enrobed in a thick chocolate shell. And the Caravelle’s malty, crisped rice retained what Almond likes to call “structural integrity,” providing a distinct snap of an air pocket with a crunchy resistance far superior to the Krackel, Crunch and certainly the 100 Grand.

Almond figures he was 11 years old the last time he tasted a Caravelle in the Seventies. As he was beginning high school, Cadbury acquired Peter Paul and discontinued the Caravelle. This vanishing act caused Almond to question how a candy bar could be banished to oblivion.

The 37-year-old Almond doesn’t think the Caravelle is coming back. Although he claims “the Big Three” — the Nestlé, Hershey’s and Mars corporations — could make a modest profit releasing certain retro bars in original wrappers, sales from a resurrected Choco-Lite packaged with swirled, yellow lettering wouldn’t satisfy shareholders as much as hooking a billion new mouths to a new bar in China.

“To realize that in their economic scheme, they’re not thinking about getting some 35-year-old guy who really loved the Caravelle and would say, ‘Oh my God, it’s back!’” Almond said. “They’re not thinking about the kind of consumers we are that would buy one or two bars a week — because it was really special — for like three weeks.

“And I’m an extreme case, OK? I would buy a shitload. Everybody knows. I’m obviously not the average consumer.”

Yes, candy fans, Steve Almond is a freak. The author has eaten a piece of candy daily for his entire life, and he admittedly thinks about sweet treats at least once an hour. At any given time, the author’s personal candy stash weighs between 3 and 7 pounds.

Almond’s obsession led to a candy quest chronicled in his new book, “Candyfreak,” published by Algonquin Books. Detailing the manufacture of regionally produced confections, Almond explores an industry dominated by stiff competition, trade secrets and shrinking markets. During his tour of some surviving, smaller candy companies, Almond realized the sweet-tooth industry is just a microcosm for what’s happening to America’s economy.

“Mars and Hershey’s and Nestlé can lower the price of their bars to 37 cents wholesale, and everybody else is going to have to go along or they’re f-----,” Almond said. “Those concepts economically are pretty abstract; I felt like if I used candy as my concrete example, I could get my head around them more convincingly.”


When Hershey introduced the Kit Kat Dark bar in fall 2002, Almond bought 14 boxes. The “Candyfreak” author wrote about the limited-edition bar in his own literary, thoughtful way: “The dark chocolate coating lends the fine angles of the bar a dignified sheen and exudes a pudding-like creaminess, with coffee overtones. The more intense flavor provides a counterpoint to the slightly cloying wafer and filling.”

Almond has only three boxes of Kit Kat Dark left in his fridge.

“This bar is f------ amazing,” Almond said. “It’s a great bar. Hershey’s knows that people are digging dark chocolate more. They’ve got a great recipe with this particular chocolate. It’s not quite bittersweet; it has a lower melting temperature and is mildly bittersweet.”

Almond, a resident of Somerville, Mass., doesn’t expect regular Kit Kat Dark bars to be available consistently nationwide, although locals can now buy Kit Kat White Chocolate. Meanwhile, Oklahoma candy aficionados should look for the dark version in the forthcoming bite-size Kit Kat Dark packages set for release in December, according to a Hershey’s spokesman. Candy corporations rarely devote such a production line to these new products without extensive market testing, Almond said.

“I just don’t think that they’ll ever introduce (Kit Kat Dark) full time because it would be cannibalizing their own brand,” Almond said.

“The bottom line is, these brand extensions are a way of getting some variety on the racks. But they have an absolutely mind-bendingly good one that as a piece of chocolate as an oral experience is so clearly superior to the standard brand — it’s not as if they sit there and say, ‘Oh, well, this is just so good. Let’s make more of ’em.’ They are purely working off of what’s selling, what’s moving, what’s the larger strategy. I guess that’s democracy. You vote with your dollars.”

With the big guys gobbling up the little ones, Almond describes an industry that consists of the Big Three and “all the other little freaks.” Almond explains that independent, bantam candy companies can’t afford the slotting fees charged by large retail chains for placement of a certain candy near the checkout aisles. Thus, these “little freaks” don’t get sold at the major chain stores and have to settle on smaller, independent outlets or even discount stores.

That’s a stark contrast to early 20th century America, where nickel bars were everywhere and all confectioners nationwide produced at least one. According to “Candyfreak,” more than 100,000 candy bars have been introduced in America, with nearly a third between World War I and the Great Depression, when they were viewed as sustenance that was cheap, self-contained and filling.

“It’s really about America,” Almond said. “The experience that most people have today is a homogenized experience. ... It’s a cool thing, especially if you’re on the road and all you do is eat at Chili’s and Applebee’s and McDonald’s and Burger King and Shell and Texaco, and they’re all selling the same f------ products. You feel like you’re in ‘Groundhog Day.’ Everything is the same over and over again. I was partly trying to write about a kind of romanticized version of a time when people came from particular places and that meant something.”

Generally speaking, the South is underrepresented in the realm of candy manufacturing, if for no other reason than the North is more industrialized. Cities such as Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Milwaukee have produced “a zillion bars” throughout the years, Almond said.

“You have to remember, up until 30 years ago, if it was hot, you could not really work with chocolate, because there weren’t refrigerated trucks, there weren’t refrigerated warehouses,” Almond said. “It’s only with the advent of refrigeration and refrigerated storage and transportation that you were able to move bars around the country.”



Claude Woody Jr. does not make chocolate bars, but his Oklahoma City-based business is the last family-owned candy company in the state that produces and manufactures candy in excess of 100,000 pounds a year. Woody Candy Company, which was founded in 1927, is small peanuts compared to the Big Three.

“We’re a very small candy company that does gourmet candies,” Woody said. “What we manufacture here today is so different from what we did 20 years ago that there’s no comparison.”

Woody, who serves as president, took over the family company when his brother died and his father — the founder of the company — didn’t want to see the family business close. A retired lawyer, Woody initially tried to expand the Oklahoma City-based business with wholesale grocers but soon learned that his candy company was considered to be somewhat insignificant by that industry. Woody then decided to go directly to the grocery trade.

“There were many, many independent grocers around the state at that time, and so my idea was to contact every single grocery store owner, individually, and offer them 15 cases of candy delivered to their back door at a certain price,” Woody said. “This way, they didn’t have to do business with a wholesale grocery company — they didn’t have to pay the middleman — and it was very successful.”

In the late Nineties, Woody decided to expand his company’s hard candy division — lemon drops, mints, ribbon candy — and purchased $250,000 worth of equipment. Then the North American Free Trade Agreement nearly broke the company after its implementation in 1994.

“NAFTA said if we wanted to, we could go to Mexico and buy sugar on the world market for 7 to 8 cents a pound, manufacture candy there and bring it back to Oklahoma and sell it for whatever we wanted to sell it for,” Woody said. “A good many companies did that.

“At my age and so forth, with my financial resources, I wasn’t able to do that. So I stayed here and tried to compete with candy that was made using world market sugar, and I was paying 32, 33, 34 cents a pound for sugar and the minimum wage was going up — and we were paying more than the minimum wage anyway because we tried to upgrade our help — and I hired a very fine candy maker that I found in El Paso, Texas, to come work for me and be my foreman and handle production. Unfortunately, we couldn’t compete in the business.”

Woody said the world market has grown stronger since NAFTA passed. And import quotas won’t allow Woody to bring Mexican sugar into the country, although products made with that ingredient can be imported.

“If I were 30 years old, I’d take this company and move it to Tiajuana or Juarez or someplace in Mexico where they would give me probably free rent. I would employ 200 Mexicans to make my candy at ... $2 an hour ... which includes all workers’ compensation benefits and everything,” said the 71-year-old Woody.

After five years of losing a considerable amount of money, Woody made a decision. He struck a deal with San Diego-based Quality Candy Co., which manufactures across the border in Tiajuana. The Woody Candy Company trained Quality’s staff and agreed to close out its hard candy manufacturing business.

“When I realized it was go broke or change, we decided to change,” he said. “We buy candy from (Quality) by the truckloads. I buy candy delivered to my door to my warehouse for about 20 percent less than it costs me to make it.”

A decade after the introduction of NAFTA, Woody and his candy company are back on their feet. Upon farming out the hard candy line, Woody’s company now does 25 percent of its business in the retail and corporate gift department. The local company also has agreements with Hobby Lobby and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, which carries the Chewy Caramel Praline with Pecans and Walnuts. That product also is available at the Crescent Market, 6409 Avondale Drive.

Woody decided to increase the company’s manufacture of more expensive candies such Pecan Toffle. This signature product — essentially a rich butter crunch crammed full of pecan halves — was featured in Food and Wine magazine and is sold nationwide.

“It’s probably the best kept secret in the candy world because we’ve never done anything toward marketing the product,” Woody said. “But it’s a great product. We’ve marketed by word-of-mouth for 15 years.”

As Wal-Mart devoured the wholesaling industry, Woody decided to specialize in what his company did best.

“Wal-Mart is slowly putting all of our wholesale customers out of business,” Woody said. “That’s why we have moved in a different direction. We’re moving into the retail business and out of the wholesale business. I foresee that someday in the near future we will stop doing any wholesale business whatsoever. That division will be sold off to someone else, if somebody wants to buy it. I’d frankly sell it tomorrow because the Wal-Mart influence is there.

“We’ve always produced our candy as economically as we could ... the best we can manufacture with the best wholesome ingredients at a fair price. And there should be no middleman if we can avoid the middleman.”


Barry Yantis gets his nuts from Oklahoma. More specifically, Yantis, president of the Chase Candy Company based in St. Joseph, Mo., purchases Spanish peanuts from the Clint Williams Company in Madill.

Chase is best known for making the Cherry Mash, which features a sweet cherry-flavored center enrobed in chocolate and chopped nuts. The Sooner State has always been good Cherry Mash country for Yantis, but Chase doesn’t have to pay slotting fees — a term describing what retailers pay for the right to place products in the most customer-friendly spots on store shelves. Yantis said one very large convenience store chain charges $10,000 just to get a product into its warehouse.

“We’re too small and just simply can’t afford slotting fees that some of the larger retail people charge,” Yantis said. “And actually our die-hard Cherry Mash customers have gotten us in a lot of those big retailers by asking the store manager for Cherry Mash because if they don’t see it, a lot of our customers ask for it.”

Using refrigerated trucks, Chase sometimes ships its candy with the Merriam, Kan.-based Russell Sifers Candy Company, a small business known for manufacturing Valomilks.

Slightly dark milk chocolate comprises the flowing vanilla cups, described by Almond as “transcendent” and “velvety.” The Valomilk name is derived from “V” for vanilla, “alo” for marshmallow and “milk” to describe the creamy texture. To concoct this sweet little taste of heaven, the Kansas company uses only pure cane sugar, bourbon vanilla — costing $200 per gallon from the island of Madagascar — and pan-dried egg whites, according to “Candyfreak.”

While the Big Three strive to make candy consumption increasingly convenient, Almond said the Valomilk is as anti-establishment as a candy bar can get. The sweet treat doesn’t come in bite-size pieces or individually wrapped. According to the Valomilk owner, you’re in crisis management mode once you take the first bite into the syrupy vanilla. Valomilks are so unique, they explode at high altitudes. Actually, they expand and leak when transported by airplane, Almond said, making it imperative that the Sifers company ship the candy via UPS. Both Cherry Mash and Valomilks are available at Midway Grocery and Market, located at 601 W. Eufaula in Norman.

According to “Candyfreak,” the dream of Sifers distributing Valomilks beyond the Midwest is simply not realistic in a retail world dominated by Wal-Mart. Four groceries existed in Maryville, Mo., when Wal-Mart announced a forthcoming Supercenter. In a single year, three-fourths of those stores went under with the fourth on life-support. Sifers was unable to pay a $20,000 slotting fee requested by the Associated Wholesale Grocers.

Almond said he was shocked to learn that slotting fees existed.

“I get business in its broad dimensions, but like a lot of people, I just thought you go to the store and in this store is this stuff you buy and some of the money goes to the store and some of the money goes to the people that made the product and that’s it,” Almond said. “The concept that a grocery store could charge for their real estate was totally bizarre to me.

“Candy is just a microcosm. It’s just one particular example of an area of manufacturing in which you can say, ‘Oh gosh, that’s what’s happened to our economy.’”

In the end, Americans have chosen convenience and low prices, Almond said, resulting in a drastically more homogenized culture.

“If you move around America, you see the same signs, you eat the same stuff, you consume the same television or video games or DVDs,” Almond said. “That makes America much less interesting. ... What’s interesting to me is the Valomilk. It seems to be about a time when regions of the country had a much more singular identity. Even if it was reflected in their mass-produced products, those products were distinct to their city. You couldn’t get ’em somewhere else. They promised an experience that isn’t as exotic as traipsing around Rome, but you know it’s neat to try a (Valomilk) if you’ve never had one before.

“Americans have decided that they gotta go, go, go and drive this economy. They’ve got a million things going on. They’ve made food and domestic life a matter of quickness and convenience. Wal-Mart is only exploiting our own sloth and our own desire to sort of shop in one place.”

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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