The original Cracker Jack

The "Sweet" in Sweet Home Chicago is Candy

In 1936, when blues musician Robert Johnson inked the song Sweet Home Chicago while in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio he must've been thinking about the city's status as the candy capital of the world. Indeed, since 1884, when the National Confectioners Association first organized in Chicago, the city has been at the forefront of candy making and still produces the most candy.

Although technically not a candy, but still a confection (as candied popcorn), Fritz Rueckheim introduced Cracker Jack in 1872 while helping to clean up after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was first mass produced in time for the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

At the same fair another legend -- William Wrigley -- began handing out samples of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum as a premium for his soap in 1892. Folks were more interested in the gum than the soap, so he soon went all-in with chewing gum manufacturing winning key military contracts for soldier's mess kits in the Great War.

Juicy Fruit was used to quench the thirst of the soldiers while in combat. At the same time Wrigley launched Spearment gum as well and Doublemint in 1914. In 1920, Wrigley built the first skyscraper north of the Chicago River as the company's headquarters. The building, clad in white terra cotta tiles was illuminated at night, because of its location it can be seen for miles when looking north toward the river.

The Famous Wrigley Building, Photo by Geoff Burton
The gum was manufactured at a southside plant at 3535 S Ashland which, after over 100-years, was finally closed in 2005. Now manufacturing and world headquarters are located at the Global Innovation Center on Goose Island.

Who else was at that 1893 fair? None other than Milton Hershey who spotted a chocolate-making equipment from a gentleman named J. Lehmann. He bought the equipment at the fair, moved it to Pennsylvania and the rest is chocolate history.

By the early 1900s Chicago had over one thousand candy manufacturers, most very small shops. The next significant candy maker was Otto Schnering who began manufacturing the Baby Ruth, named after President Grover Cleveland's daughter Ruth (not after Babe Ruth as many still think).

It was a huge hit and by 1928 was the best-selling 5-cent candy in the nation. Not long afterwards, Curtiss introduced the Butterfinger Candy bar and business was really booming. All of this started at 3256 North Clark before moving to 3222 North Halsted before building more facilities at 337 East Illinois near Navy Pier. Manufacturing and ownership of the Curtiss candies bounced around the world but have ultimately landed right back in...Chicago ... by Ferrera Pan Candy. More on them later.

The year 1928 proved to be a great one for candy-making moves in Chicago. It is the same year that Frank Mars constructed what he called the most beautiful candy factory in the world on Oak Park Avenue and moved manufacturing of the famous Mars and Milky Way bars here.

The Milky Way became a huge seller considering it was ten cents and business boomed. Though Mars Inc has since moved its headquarters to just outside Washington DC, the candy bars -- Milky Way, Mars, 3- Musketeers bars are still made at that Oak Park Avenue facility.

Tootsie Roll was invented by Leo Hirschfield in New York in 1896 but the candy business wasn't his own; he was an employee of Stern & Staalberg. Unlike his chocolate flavored confection, his personal story did not end happily, he committed suicide after the company pushed him out in 1922.

The company grew and in 1968 moved to Chicago with their present location on 74th and Cicero; a big sprawling facility that churns out 64 million Tootsie Rolls per day. They also make Dots at the plant.

In 1908 Salvatore Ferrera began selling candy coated almonds called confetti -- today's Jordan Almonds out of his bakery in Little Italy on Taylor Street. Once the candy started outselling the pastries, he started manufacturing what is called "pan" candy on the second floor. Pan candy is the process of rolling sugar around in giant pans either alone or to coats nuts or chocolate.

His signature candy was the Jaw Buster, a rolled ball of flavored sugar that turned different colors. His candy business quickly grew and soon he was manufacturing Red Hots, Atomic Fireballs, and Lemonheads. Today, after various acquisitions and mergers they now make everything from Boston Baked Beans, Jujyfruits, Now & Laters, Rain-Blo gum, Chuckles and other candies

Speaking of big, Emil Brach began making candy in 1904 when he opened Brach's Palace of Sweets selling caramels. The business grew as he added Starlight mints, Candy Corn, Jelly Bird Eggs and other loose candies.

By 1923 the company built its famous factory at 4656 West Kinzie on the west side of Chicago and at its peak was the largest candy factory in world cranking out two million pounds a week. Alas, the company changed hands several times between 1966 and 2003 suffering from egregious mismanagement and cost cutting.

The plant closed and was blown up for a special scene in Christopher Nolan's film The Dark Knight in 2007. Ironically the company was purchased by none other than Ferrera and is back in Chicago. Through all of the travails, their primary product now -- Brach's Candy Corn -- remains the number one version in the world. Way back in 1869, Gustoav Goetlitz started making candy in Belleville, Illinois. Much like Brach, Goelitz started making various candies like candy corn, cinnamon and other pan candies, spice drops, jellies and jelly beans. But it wasn't until 1965 that they created miniature jelly beans with unfused flavors; they originally named the jelly beans.

After another flavor breakthrough in 1976 those mini jelly beans were called Jelly Belly and came in interestingly intense flavors like cream soda, root beer, bubble gum etc. Now made in the company's North Chicago plant the demand soon exceeded production and a second bigger plant was built in Fairfield California. Eventually, the company relocated it's headquarters from suburban Chicago to Fairfield and renamed itself Jelly Belly.

Frango Mints, which were connected to the Marshall Field's department store, was not created in Chicago but in Seattle, Washington by Frederick & Nelson department stores in 1918. When Marshall Field's acquired F&N, they moved the mint chocolate making to the 13th floor of their State Street store with a viewing kitchen on the 7th floor -- though F&N continued to make a Northwest version as well.

But it was the Marshall Field's version that became a hit as people traveled to the store specifically to by the mints. Alas, Field's changed hands several times and in 1999 then corporate owner Dayton-Hudson shut down production in the State Street store moving it to Pennsylvania. There was a huge local outcry and eventually production was returned to Chicago, but to Cupid Candies on the south side at 77th and Western. The seventh-floor kitchen was reopened also but only shows the chocolate coating part of the process.

In 1939 Henry Blommer founded his Blommer Chocolate to process cocoa and manufacture chocolate, which is sold to commercial chocolatiers. They became the third largest chocolate provider in the world. In fact, Frango Mints use Blommer chocolate. The original plant, still at 600 W Kinzie, is famously known for its early morning aroma of roasting chocolate billowing from the chimney stacks -- the delightful smell can be had for miles.

The original Dove Candies store
George Demet started making his pecan/caramel/chocolate candies in 1898 and began advertising them as Turtles in 1916. He sold them out of his candy shop on the south side of Chicago. The company was bought several times but is now owned by a Turkish company.

Contrary to what many locals claim, Fannie May Candies Pixies - which look like Turtles - weren't developed until after World War II well after H Teller Archibald opened his first store at 11 N LaSalle. They built a factory in the west loop that operated for 80-years until financial difficulties hit and the company changed hands a few times. It's now owned by the Ferrero, the Italian company that makes Nutella. The one-time plant is now a Target Store.

Dove Candy got its start when Leo Stefanos opened his store near Midway Airport, at 60th Street and Pulaski. When he saw his son running after a Good Humor ice cream truck, he came up with his own ice cream bar by coating ice cream in his store's rich chocolate. He named it the Dove Bar and it was an instant local hit.

His son grew up, took over the company, and marketed it nationwide. That led to M&M/Mars acquiring the company and taking over production. They also stuck the name on several gourmet chocolate bars to compete with European chocolate bars. The original Dove Candies store is long gone, replaced by a real estate company.

Candy innovations didn't end in Chicago with the Dove Bar. In 1988, Katrina Markoff opened Vosges Chocolates on Armitage near Halsted. There she started crafting candies with exotic flavors, having learned chocolate blending at le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Her most popular invention was bacon infused chocolate; yes, bacon chocolate was thankfully created in Chicago. Some of her other savory flavors include smoke, stout (as in beer), wasabi, and curry. Her confections are now made at their Chocolate Temple at 2950 North Oakley.

La-Dee-Dah Candies

Chris Kadow-Dougherty didn't go all the way to France to learn to love candy; she learned it right in downtown Chicago at the French Pastry School. It's where she learned to swirl caramel and nougat together and dip it in various dips. Thus, was created her La-Dee-Dah candies which come in original dark chocolate, mint chocolate, espresso, and several other flavors.

She didn't stop there. Her company, Whimsical Candy at 175 N Franklin also sells various candy bars with names like Obviously Delicious (tastes like a Turtle candy), S'morelicious, Wow!, and others. The candies are being carried by more and more stores nationwide.

Unfortunately, due to product safety concerns, tours of the candy factories and kitchens are no longer allowed, though Fannie May, Vosges, and Whimsical offer outlet stores where you can purchase their entire line. The rest, candies you no-doubt grew up on, are available everywhere. Every year in May, the National Confectioners Association presents the Sweets and Snacks Expo at the McCormick Place convention center, where candy buyer and manufacturers come together for the world's largest candy marketplace. It's open only to those individuals in the candy business. But the next time you snarf down a Baby Ruth, Tootsie Roll or any of the other candies mentioned above, remember they got their footing in the sweetest city in the world...Chicago.

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Geoff Burton spent 27 years writing about travel, food and film for publications both in the USA and around the world. His articles have appeared in Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan), Der Spiegel (Germany), Le Monde (France). His AfroTrek/CinemaTrek, the number three entertainment website in Chicago area.

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