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Andrew Blechman
Robin Helfand, owner of Robin's Candy in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, with a box of Squirrel Nut Zippers.

U R Famous: WSJ is Wink Wink Nuts 4 local confectioner and her stash of Sweethearts XOXO

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By Thursday, Feb 14, 2019 Life In the Berkshires 13

It’s not easy to get on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Usually you need to have made a lot of money. Or stolen a lot of money. Or something in between.

But the news of Robin Helfand, and her eponymous candy store in Great Barrington, was read by more than two million Journal readers this Tuesday and the story was far more sweet than sour. According to the Journal, Helfand was Smarties enough to corner the market on Sweethearts — those chalky font-kerning challenged but beloved heart-shaped candies that few romantics, from pre-school to Kimball Farms, can imagine Valentine’s Day without.

Cornering the market may be a bit of an exaggeration, and Helfand was actually featured in the Journal’s mirthful A-Hed column. But Helfand nonetheless got a jump on big name national competitors when she sensed a heart-shaped sugar withdrawal was imminent.

New England Confectionery Company Sweethearts that will no longer be available since Necco has gone out of business. Photo: Andrew Blechman

News of New England Confectionery Company’s (“Necco”) demise came as a surprise to some, but not to those in the candy business. Traditional confectioners have fallen on hard times, their brands often picked up by hedge funds keen to make a quick buck. Brands of yore are frequently traded like baseball cards among financiers and competitors as they slice and dice what’s deemed valuable and what’s deemed best spun-off. Necco is no exception.

The family company, in existence for more than 150 years went belly up last year. Its brands (and formulas) were bought by a hedge fund, who then sold off several of the brands. Sweethearts ended up in what might be assumed to be the capable hands of Spangler Candy Co., makers of candy canes and Dum Dum lollipops. Spangler let it be known that they’d have plenty of Sweethearts ready for V-Day 2019. But rumors snaked their way through trade journals like Candy and Snacks Today that consumers would be left, well, heartbroken.

From Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.

“I read about it in a national trade journal, and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw it mentioned in a regional candy journal,” Helfand says. “That’s when I began amassing them.”

Helfand started hoarding them last April and went into full Jaw Buster mode by mid-summer, while her competitors were seemingly stuck in Now and Later mode. By Labor Day, she was Queen Midas of Sweethearts, with one-thousand pounds of loose love wishes and nearly a thousand boxes of the packaged ones. Her savvy prescience paid off: the day before Valentine’s Day and she was down to less than a hundred pounds of loose hearts and a few dozen of the boxed variety.

A fascinating thing about walking into a candy store is not just that you can legally buy enough sweets to make your tummy ache. It’s the smell the moment you walk in. And the sight of so many wrappers that bring back memories from deep recesses of layered memories, sepia toned in taste. Offer up the year you were born and where in the country you spent your formative years, and Helfand will give you a Willy Wonka tour of some of your tenderest memories. Having grown up in Princeton in the 1970s, she guided me to her stack of memory-faded Now and Laters, just like the ones I bought at the public pool snack bar for 10 cents and shared with my pals as we ran back towards the pool barefoot on the hot pavement in our period swimsuits only to hear the lifeguard’s whistle and admonition to walk not run. The simple visage of that packaging brings back memories of Wacky Packs, my dad’s Buick that was a total lemon (remember when cars could be lemons?), dodgeball, and Dutch boy haircuts.

Candy carries memories. Candy Dots on Paper, Jolly Ranchers, Malt balls, Smarties, Pez, Laffy Taffy, Sugar Daddies, Pop Rocks, Hubba Bubba. All memories, strengthened by multiple senses, taste, smell, and perhaps the sound of laughter.

Pure innocence from a time when some of us had to walk to school, uphill both ways.

“The best is when three generations of a family walk in together,” Helfand says. “The grandparents might grow animated when they see the Mary Janes or Squirrel Nut Zippers. The parents when they see Necco Wafers or Skybars. And the little ones are excited to choose their first lollipop. After all, who doesn’t remember their first candy purchase?” Indeed, for many of us, it was our first independent purchase, something to save up for and proudly pay for with a pocketful of pennies.

Helfand has particularly fond memories of her Sweethearts. “We used to call them ‘conversation hearts’ when I grew up in New Jersey,” she says. “We’d trade them and have conversations with them and see how long we could keep a conversation going during school. ‘How RU’ to ‘Hug me’ to ‘UR so Nice’ and the like. Sort of like early text messaging.”

Whoopi for Sky Bars!

Now in her second decade of business, Robin hasn’t lost her sparkle for sweets and their heritage. In an age of corporate franchises and bland selections, Robin’s Candy Store remains a carefully curated collection of sweet memories. As we tour her hoarded stash of Necco candies — Mary Janes, Sky Bars, Necco Wafers, Clark Bars, Candy Dots on Paper, Squirrel Nut Zippers — she quick to note the truly rare ones. The Sweethearts, Clark bars, and Squirrel Nut Zippers? “Those are ‘behind glass,’” she explains with a plain earnestness reminiscent of a museum curator. “They’re nearly extinct, at least for now.” She rations them, one per, collectors’ items awaiting a fanatical sweet tooth willing to pony up for a joyful longing. Or a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.


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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Bob says:

    I always find Robin’s candy shop funny when you see the job listing posted (which seemed pretty regularly for a while) where she had all of these demands for someone who was potentially just making minimum wage in one of the most progressive towns in New England. No tattoos, no smoking, must be able to lift 50 lbs, subject to background and credit check… haha

    1. Laura C says:

      I wouldn’t want to walk into a candy store with a small child and see some “face-tattooed employee that reeked of smoke, with a piercing going through his forehead” waiting on me. She has every right to screen her potential employees. Do you see anyone working at Big Y that looks like that?

      1. Bob says:

        With tattoos on their arms? Yeah I think so. As well as many other successful businesses in the Berkshires. Its 2019. And drug screening? I wouldn’t have any problem with my employees smoking cannabis in their free time. This isn’t brain surgery. Its running a register and selling gobstoppers.

    2. Andrew says:

      To demean a hardworking female entrepreneur / neighbor and on Valentines Day no less. Really?? Thanks but no thanks for the Manspaining, Bob. I hope you can find some happiness and legitimate joy on this day of love. Love beats anger every time, and it sure as heck beats spite.

  2. Stephen Cohen says:

    What type of character assassination is this? Bob seems obsessed by demeaning Robin and her store. It’s a shame he doesn’t say who he is, and why he is airing these hearsay slurs and conclusionary opinions. The store is a great asset to the area, it is local, interesting in its concept, and obviously has attracted employees and customers over the years.

    1. Craig Okerstrom-Lang says:

      The point of the story is the wide selection of timeless candies Robin has at her fantastic store and her astute research about “Sweethearts” going out of production. The article hitch in the WSJ was a coup for both Robin and Great Barrington. Very well written story by Andrew Blechman. I too stop in the store now and then for that classic ‘Bridge Mix” that I got at our local Woolworth’s in Northern Michigan, growing up.

      Bob (whoever he is) is making pointless remarks that have nothing to do with the story – he needs to crawl back in his cave.

  3. Regina says:

    This article was engrossing… Even sentimental.
    Sorry to see the Conversation Candy’s go. Especially Mary Jane’s!! Too much change in this world…
    But as for the store and the store owner… Granted she is a smart business woman BUT NOT A VERY NICE PERSON. NOT A KID FRIENDLY STORE EITHER!!
    We boycotted Robin’s candy shop after going there when my youngest was 2.
    She had just finished potty training… 1 of her 1st outings in big girl undies. We were there to treat the 2yr old but somehow ended up with $40 plus in sweet treats for the whole family.
    As we were paying for our contraband (lol) my little 1 starts bouncing her knees together and saying she has to potty… Almost crying… In all the candy excitement she had held it to the point of an emergency. Any parent I’m sure can picture this seen and understand the dilemma. I kindly asked the store owner who was checking us out if the baby could use her potty. She was after all privy to this whole discussion, the urgency in which this small child needed help & and the sheer panic of an accident in my toddlers eyes and voice.
    I COULDN’T BELIEVE WHEN THAT NASTY WOMAN BLUNTLY TOLD US NO! WE COULD NOT USE HER RESTROOM, AS THERE IS A SIGN AND WE R NOT EMPLOYEES.
    AS I STARTED TO LEAVE THE STORE TO HURRIDLY FIND HER A POTTY TO USE; MY DAUGHTER STARTED TO CRY…. SHE COULD NO LONGER HOLD IT. AND SO, I CALMLY TOLD HER IT’S OK BABY. JUST PEE. AND PEE SHE DID! RIGHT ON THAT MISERABLE LADY’S PRECIOUS CANDY STORE FLOOR.
    Any business owner who treats children that way, especially at store that targets them to enter does not get my or my family’s business.

    1. George G says:

      How old is your youngest child today? How many years later did you decide to get your revenge — anonymously, of course, apparently afraid to be accountable. Should we even believe your story?

  4. Andrew says:

    BTW, Bob, Robin’s store is considered to be one of the top 30 independent candy stores in America. No small feat and clearly the result of vision, hard work, and high standards.

  5. Craig Okerstrom-Lang says:

    Regina (whoever you are),
    Public restrooms are unfortunately not very convenient in Great Barrington. The only one is at Town Hall on Main Street. We really need one someplace convenient, especially on the weekends. Sorry to hear in such vivid detail your experience with your daughter.

    Restaurants and places that serve food have restrooms for their customers to use. There are many problems with the public using employee only restrooms in stores and shops, the main one being product theft and then plain ole security.

    Kinda brutal to blame a specific store owner over your young daughter’s pee incident; this has happened to many of us parents with our younger kids – most of us just move on and don’t hold grudges.

  6. Geo Smyth says:

    Bravo Robin for carving out a unique niche in a small community! And for ALWAYS promoting Great Barrington!

  7. Geo Smyth says:

    Bravo Robin for carving out a niche in a small community! And for ALWAYS promoting Great Barrington!

  8. Barbara says:

    I must praise Robin for being such a persevering specialty retailer considering the tough economic climate in our region (and overall) and very challenging retail sector everywhere. And, kudos to you, Robin, for having such business savvy that even the WSJ recognized you for having the foresight to stock up on those candy hearts before the manufacturer closed!! Imagine how much those last 100 lbs. of your remaining candy hearts would garner on E bay someday!!!
    As far as Robin’s managerial skills are concerned (as an ex department store retailer, myself), it sounds to me like Robin knows how to run a very professional operation considering it is “only a candy store”, after having read some of the letters and comments. Her on-boarding and training process, that includes performance expectations, is what results in the consistency of the experience her customers expect from her “brand” when shopping there: a high level of service, an enormous and enticing assortment of goodies, cleanliness, fair pricing and fun displays. My head spins when I think of the amount of “stock keeping units” in Robin’s inventory! I would think that working here for a young adult would be an outstanding opportunity to learn about retail in a really fun and fast paced environment- a perfect first job to learn about business!!

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