How Sweet It Is

From 100-year-old stalwarts to modern upstarts, Virginia’s confectioners are feeding a nostalgic niche.

As childhoods go, it’s tough to beat the one George “Buzz” Helms IV enjoyed.

He was raised in Bristol, Virginia, where his great-grandfather founded Helms Candy in 1909. As a kid growing up in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Helms often rode the prestigious Santa Claus float in the city’s Christmas parade. When reporters visited his family’s candy factory, where seven furnaces blazed amid the scent of peppermint, he enjoyed getting his picture taken. Best of all, he could stop by the candy factory with his sister and brother every day after school.

“Back then we had 35 or 40 employees at any given time, and they were like family,” Helms recalls. “We ate all the candy we wanted.”

Helms, now 57, is vice president of sales and marketing for the candy company, the only place he’s ever worked. Though Helms Candy no longer runs three shifts a day and is down to two furnaces and 15 employees, the 50,000-square-foot facility still smells like peppermint, among other flavors, and each year it produces about 500,000 pounds of treats: fruit-flavored King Pops suckers; classic chocolate peppermint, key lime, and sassafras Red Band stick candies; banana, birch, and clove Virginia Beauty stick candies; and many more flavors, including what is perhaps the most unusual and old-fashioned—horehound, which some describe as tasting like a blend of mint, licorice and root beer.

Helms happened to grow up as the heyday of candy manufacturing in Virginia was ending. In the early 1900s, dozens of confectioners operated statewide—in Alexandria, Bristol, Lynchburg, Manassas, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond, Roanoke, Suffolk and Winchester, among other cities and towns.

At the start of 1915, for example, Richmond was home to several, including the Westmoreland Candy Co., best known for its 5-cent Peconut Crisp. A Westmoreland advertisement in the 1913 edition of The Southern Planter urged readers to try this “healthful” candy “in the dust proof packages.” Extolling the nutritional aspect of peanuts, the ad claimed Peconut Crisp “supplies the body fats that every healthful person needs.” It’s unclear when Westmoreland went out of business. Its four-story plant was ravaged by fire in early 1915, according to the 25-cent Confectioners Gazette published that May. But as late as 1921, the company earned praise for its Peconut Crisp display at the Made in Richmond Exposition. The Richmond Times-Dispatch called the candy exhibit “most attractive.”

Richmond wasn’t alone in having a vibrant candy industry in the early 1900s. By 1915, Roanoke boasted at least four candy makers, and the Planters Nut & Chocolate Co. in Suffolk had announced it would make a large addition to its factory in spring 1916. At one point, Helms recalls, a combined total of nine companies made candy on the Virginia and Tennessee sides of Bristol.

Candy makers came and went, however, and most didn’t last long. Competition was tough. Consumer tastes changed as chocolate gained mainstream popularity over traditional hard and stick candy. Timelines of candy production in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s highlight a gradual shift to candy bars fashioned from various combinations of chocolate, nuts and caramel. Nestle’s Baby Ruth, for instance, was released in 1920. Mars Inc. (family-owned since its inception in the Midwest in the early 1900s, and headquartered in McLean, though no manufacturing takes place in Virginia) came out with Milky Way in 1923, Snickers in 1930 and Junior Mints in 1949. Chocolate bars got a big boost after World War I, during which the U.S. Army had commissioned multiple chocolatiers to produce blocks of chocolate for shipment to military bases overseas. Chocolate makers eventually chopped those blocks up themselves and sold them to the public in bar form.

 “I wouldn’t say making candy is a lost art, but it is an art,” Helms explains. “The biggest problem or challenge today is the small accounts and family businesses that we used to supply, they aren’t there anymore. The larger companies—the big box mentality—has taken over.”

Yet against considerable odds, four candy manufacturers founded in Virginia have remained in business more than 80 years—two of those, including Helms, for more than a century. They exist in a sweet sort of limbo, selling traditional candies to aging longtime customers and to those customers’ children and grandchildren, who taste nostalgia in every sugary bite.

Meanwhile, other longtime Virginia confectioners have taken a different tack and survived by adapting. When necessary, they changed their names, ownership, product lines and distribution channels to stay relevant and broaden their appeal.

And then there are the upstarts. Within the past 20 years, a couple of Virginia candy manufacturers have succeeded on decidedly modern terms. They’ve embraced Internet sales, tapped into the lucrative corporate-gift market and capitalized on the consumer shift away from hard and stick candy toward chocolate and fudge. Together, they’ve proved that candy making in Virginia has more than a rich past—it also has a bright future.    

Ann Litchfield sits in the tiny office of H.E. Williams Candy Co. in Chesapeake, laughing frequently as she relates the long history of her family’s company. Williams Candy still makes Peach Buds (old-fashioned peach candy with a coconut center) and other hard candy on many of the same tables and machines used by Litchfield’s grandfather when he founded the company in 1919. (Candy is stretched on a machine that was built in 1908 and looks similar to a taffy puller.) “You pour the [heated] candy on the tables and run cold water on them, and it cools the candy down,” Litchfield says (water tables have wooden legs and metal tops). “There’s no point in buying new tables if the old ones still work.”

Williams Candy is now owned by Litchfield’s mother, 81-year-old Lillie Williams. She’s retired, so day-to-day operations are managed by Litchfield, 60, and her brother, Gene Williams, 58, in a modest, barn-like house in a residential area that now allows commercial uses. Candy boxes are stored upstairs. The first floor is completely open aside from a small bathroom and an equally small office. In the main area, three full-time employees make and package sweets in clear, 5-ounce bags, which are stapled shut by hand. The building didn’t have air conditioning until three years ago. “We’d just go home when it got too hot,” says Litchfield.

Williams distributes nationally through several wholesalers, including a few in North Carolina. A handful of Virginia retailers—country stores, fruit stands and C’s Candy Apples & Sweet Treats in Chesapeake Square Mall—buy smaller amounts of candy directly from Williams. “They just come and pick it up,” she explains. All of this business takes place without the company having a web site or even a computer. “I do the payroll at home,” says Litchfield. She adds that Williams has never advertised its sweets: “Just word of mouth, that’s how everything gets around.”

Like many old-style candy makers, Williams makes most of its money in the months leading up to the winter holidays. In fact, the company sells twice as much candy between September and December as it does the rest of the year. Litchfield attributes that trend, in part, to the fact that Williams is among the few candy companies still making traditional hard Christmas candy.

Less than 20 miles away is a company nearly as old, Forbes Candies in Virginia Beach. Forbes was founded in 1929 by Charles and Marion Forbes in the basement of Marion’s parents’ home. (Originally, the young couple went door-to-door selling their saltwater taffy, peanut brittle and fudge.) The company now has a 20,000-square-foot facility, where 30 full-time employees—and as many as 100 during peak summer season—make 500,000 pounds of saltwater taffy each year alone.

To survive the rationing of sugar and corn syrup during World War II—when Charlie Forbes served in the Merchant Marines—Marion Forbes began selling popcorn to keep the company in business. According to the company’s official history, Marion owned the only popcorn machine in Virginia Beach at the time, and “lines of people, up to a block long, waited their turn to buy a 5-cent bag of popcorn.”

Today, the company operates eight retail stores, split evenly between Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks. Forbes also wholesales its candy from Maine to Florida and along the Gulf Coast of Texas. In the beginning, the Forbes’ pulled the taffy by hand from a hook in their basement kitchen’s wall. Today, the making of taffy is automated, and fudge is mixed by machine. “But all of our chocolates are hand-dipped and hand-packed. We’re still a local, hometown candy company,” says Marty Cochran, co-owner and vice president of Forbes for the past six years (neither he nor the company’s president are members of the original Forbes family). “I think there’s always going to be a niche for hand-crafted, smaller batches—the personal touch that we put on it that you don’t get” from the largest candy manufacturers.

There also seems to be a niche in Virginia for longtime candy makers willing to transform their products and persona to meet the needs of modern consumers.

Old Dominion Peanut Co. in Norfolk, for instance, has changed hands three times since its inception in 1913 as a producer of peanut butter, caramel, taffy, fudge, peanut brittle and hard candies. Owned by Denver-based Hammond’s Candies since 2013, Old Dominion has used the same commercial kitchens and brittle recipe for many years. But the company has grown in the past decade to occupy several buildings and employ up to 150 people in the peak season—from mid-summer to Christmas—says Jeff Armbruster, vice president of sales and marketing, who joined Old Dominion 11 years ago.

Selling mainly through retailers, Old Dominion is trying to appeal to diverse markets and boost year-round sales by expanding into walnuts and almonds. And in 2013, the company unveiled new flavors for its Brittle Crisps, including jalapeno lime, cashew cayenne and coconut spice. Says Armbruster: “Peanut brittle is nostalgic, but more important, I think it’s a classic candy. We’ve been out to prove that it’s not just a holiday item.”

Millcroft Farms in Stanley, a quaint town of fewer than 2,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley, has been evolving, too. The company was founded in Winchester in 1927, and by 1930 it was manufacturing 88,000 pounds of sweets a year as the Shenandoah Candy Co. Best known then for its apple candy, the company was sold in 1997 to the family-owned Millcroft Farms Co., which moved operations to Stanley. The company’s 11,000-square-foot facility is mostly warehouse space, but also includes offices, a commercial kitchen and a retail shop. In the kitchen, four employees do everything by hand with bare-bones equipment, the candy cooked in a large copper steam kettle.

Millcroft Farms still offers its apple candy in six flavors (apple pecan, orange, and spicy cinnamon among them). The candy is cooked and poured into wooden trays before being covered with freezer paper. It cures for three weeks in a cold room with low humidity, then is cut and hand-tossed in confectioner’s sugar. The resulting candy is gummy in a love-it or hate-it way, says Debbie Fox, who owns the company with her husband, Bobby. Sales of these old-fashioned apple candies have dropped to about 10,000 pounds a year, she says, so the Foxes are focusing on jams, preserves, sauces and syrups. But nostalgia is powerful, and the company isn’t giving up on the apple candies just yet.

“We’re not going to become millionaires off this particular candy,” Fox says, “but we’d like to continue making it as long as we can.”

After Sue Charney lost her job as a programmer for a San Diego computer company when it closed in 2000, and after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, she and her husband, Jack, began re-examining their lives. “It was awful,” she recalls. “I stayed home and made candy to make myself feel better.”

With a “seize the day” attitude, the couple decided to sell their house and move to Troy in Fluvanna County, where Charney, now 53, would open her own business, Red Rocker Candy, to make toffee, brittles and chocolates by hand. She installed a commercial kitchen in their new basement and surprised herself by selling $10,000 worth of candy within a year. Five years later, she moved the business to an industrial park. (Sadly, Jack passed in 2014 after a four-year battle with leukemia.) She now leases 4,000 square feet and has four year-round employees (a dozen at Christmastime). Red Rocker makes tens of thousands of pounds of candy annually, with its recent growth fueled largely by its sweet-and-salty Rocking Chair Mix of pretzels, cereals and almonds covered in white chocolate. Charney sells primarily to retailers, but online sales and her own factory store will likely account for half of her sales by year’s end.

Charney has a friend and mentor in Nancy Galli, who founded Nancy’s Homemade Fudge in 1987 in her home kitchen in Meadows of Dan.

Ambitious and entrepreneurial, Galli leased a 7,000-square-foot commercial space two months later. She spent two years driving her fudge to stores in Virginia and North Carolina, and then started exhibiting nationally at trade shows. In 1998, Galli changed the company name to Nancy’s Candy, bought more than four acres along the Blue Ridge Parkway and built a 30,000-square-foot facility for her kitchen, warehouse, offices and factory outlet store.

“The first 12 years, I wore almost every hat, so I was making sales calls, doing administrative stuff, overseeing management to some extent and helping on the factory floor,” Galli says. Nancy’s Candy now employs 33 people and produces hundreds of thousands of pounds of candy each year. The company makes 300 different kinds of candy, including more than 45 flavors of fudge and 20 artisan chocolates.

Galli, who is 60 with no children, wanted her thriving company “to have some sustainability and succession,” so in 2013 she sold it to a younger couple in her area, Jessica and Gary Sturm. Galli stayed on to train the Sturms, and she remains the company’s public face and primary marketing force. She says the challenge, as always, is to convince people to spend disposable income on chocolate and fudge rather than on other non-essentials.

“Candy is not a necessity,” she says, then pauses and laughs. “Well, I think it’s a necessity.”

Virginia’s Confectioners

Forbes Candies, Virginia Beach
Saltwater taffy, fudge, peanut brittle.

Helm's Candies, Bristol
King Pops suckers, Red Band stick candies, Virginia Beauty stick candies.

H.E. Williams Candy Co., Chesapeake
Old Fashioned Peach Buds. 757-545-9311

Millcroft Farms, Stanley
Shenandoah Valley Apple Candy.

Nancy's Candy Co., Floyd
Fudge cups, chocolate covered pretzels, artisan truffles.

Old Dominion Peanut Co., Norfolk
Peanut brittle, peanut butter, caramel.

Red Rocker Candy, Troy
Rocking Chair Mix, cashew toffee, chocolate covered pretzels.
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