The boxes are plain, lightweight and stamped simply in red or black. The contents are luscious, fresh and full of chocolate – a jumble of textures and flavors.
There are no neat rows, no candy identification chart – and no need to pay more than $9.50 for a pound, providing you can show up to pay up.
Since 1940, chocolate lovers have headed to the south side of Oshkosh, a couple of blocks west of Lake Winnebago, to order Hughes’ Home Maid Chocolates. It is as special for its setting as it is for the dozen kinds of candy produced.
The business, which does not advertise, looks like any other bungalow on Doty Street. It is in a residential neighborhood, in the house where Tom Hughes’ grandparents lived and learned how to make chocolates that others would buy.
Tom, born in 1959, is running the place at full tilt during this time of year. The candy is made and sold in the basement. Box upon box is filled, stacked and stored upstairs until a customer takes it out the door.
I visited as a large, heated copper kettle of toffee was being spread onto a greased marble tabletop. Then the goo was rolled and cut into small squares, which were broken apart as they cooled and drenched in light or dark chocolate.
“We can’t smell it, because we’re always around it,” Tom says, grinning.
The rhythm is smooth and fast, the atmosphere Zen-like and congenial. The work gets done as customers take a peak from the checkout counter.
It is an endearing and cramped space, bright and stark walls in a white cave where employees deftly dance around each other’s steps in order to prevent calamity.
Inga Rathkamp of Pewaukee and Harriet Joy Quinn of Milwaukee have made an annual pilgrimage to this house for 15 years. They were doing Christmas shopping here in early November, checkbooks in hand. Credit card payments aren’t an option.
How much is sold? “A lot,” Tom says, asserting that the floor to ceiling stacks of boxes that fill more than one room will vanish by the time Santa hitches up the reindeer.
Choices include oysters, which have a vanilla or chocolate center, are dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed peanuts. Snow on the mountain is layered pecans and caramel in milk chocolate, plus a vanilla cream topping. Pudding, by Hughes’ definition, is a double chocolate candy.
There also are the more traditional vanilla, maple and coconut creams; peppermint and wintergreen mints; caramels, nut clusters, nougats and toffee.
“It’s pretty much the same recipes as my grandparents had,” Tom says.
Coming to 1823 Doty St. to shop in person is the way most people do it. Don’t try to phone in an order unless it’s for at least 50 pounds of candy. “Then we’ll set it aside for you,” a phone clerk says.
That will happen, especially at this time of year, but the customer still needs to pick up the order. There are no shipments or deliveries, unless they are placed through 877-762-4563 or www.mailmechocolates,com, a chocolate reseller that operates independent from Hughes.
That move hikes the price to $18.50 per pound, plus about $7-17 for delivery.
Candy making by 11 full-time Hughes employees, six seasonal workers and a couple of part-timers goes on from mid September to mid May.
The shop closes from Memorial Day weekend until after the Fourth of July.
“Nobody want to buy chocolate when it’s 90 degrees out,” Tom says.
Oh, yeah? Just try us.
Hughes is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, call 920-231-7232.
It would be a crime to ignore three other longstanding and high-quality candy makers in the Fox Valley.
Seroogy’s, DePere, specializes in meltaways (mint, peanut butter, almond, chocolate or chocolate crisp) and cashew clusters. The business, run by brothers Jim and Joe, began in 1899. The recipes have not changed. For more: 800-776-0377, www.seroogys.com
Oaks Chocolates, Oshkosh, has Seroogy’s beat by nine years in longevity. There are three locations (including a shop at the factory outlet mall on Hwy. 41). ‘Tis the season for handmade candy canes, too: peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon, cherry, anise, lemon and clove. Also check out the Melty Bar candy bars. No online orders; call 920-231-3660, 920-231-2323 or 920-230-4548.
Wilmar Chocolates, Appleton, has been around a mere 49 years, but its candy makers have won 15 Wisconsin State Fair awards, almond bark to Wisconsin butter toffee. Want to try them all? Boxed assortments include the Award Collection, but it’s not offered as an online ordering option. For more: 920-733-6182, www.wilmarchocolates.com.