U R Famous: WSJ is Wink Wink Nuts 4 local confectioner and her stash of Sweethearts XOXOMore Info
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.