There is time to shop before I meet Margaret Gile, so I eye up her merchandise and decide which extra calories should be transported home. It is not an easy decision, but an unexpected reward comes when I finally make a purchase.
It is a single, exquisite piece of fairy food, also known as angel food or sponge candy, an instant reminder of childhood and Christmas. This version has a double-dousing of chocolate, and beneath it is a light and sugary interior that vanishes soon after it hits the tongue. There is a hint of molasses, but no gummy or brittle texture.
The confection for 90 years has been made by Quality Candy, a third-generation family business that since 1960 also has owned Buddy Squirrel, the state’s largest retail nut and popcorn operation.
The company is headquartered at St. Francis Industrial Park, near Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field airport. Twelve retail outlets extend from Racine to Milwaukee’s Bayshore Town Center, then west as far as Madison.
Scraps of paper with handwritten recipes for butter almond toffee, and candy with cream centers, are framed and on the walls here. Visitors see them during tours of the production area.
The handwriting belongs to Margaret’s grandparents, Joseph and Lottie Helminiak, Polish immigrants who began this business venture on the cobblestone streets of Mitchell Street in 1916. It was an ice cream parlor, too, and everything – candy canes and taffy to ice cream and sauces – were made from scratch. Chocolates with a flavored cream center became their specialty.
Premium ingredients were a priority from the beginning, says Margaret, who since 1998 has been president of Quality Candy/Buddy Squirrel. One of the biggest challenges came during World War II, when butter and sugar were rationed and “supply and demand were not working in their favor.”
The business survived, but that’s when ice cream products were dropped. Sons Edward, Leonard and Ray took over when their parents moved to Arizona because of crippling arthritis.
The two-person operation eventually turned into a 200-employee enterprise that has had three homes in 90 years. The most recent is a former bicycle warehouse that was deliberately designed to accommodate tour groups.
Margaret says the average employee has worked there at least a dozen years. One spent 54 years at Quality Candy before retirement; two others are on their 48th year.
“We learned early to respect it as a business,” Margaret says, of her introduction to candy making during girlhood. “It was not just candy as a treat.”
She speaks lovingly of the “wonderful colors and enticing smells” of her family’s business, the kind employees who welcomed her into the workplace, the huge and heavy pots of caramel and cream.
“It’s a very happy industry,” Margaret says.
Fourteen types of Quality Candy chocolates have earned the Wisconsin State Fair Seal of Excellence: pecan caramel tads, macadamia caramel tads, chocolate caramels, butter macadamia toffee, cherry cordials, pecan meltaways, peanut butter meltaways, cashew caramel tads, fairy food, nougats, mint meltaways, butter almond toffee, chocolate grahams and peanut butter crisps.
What’s new? The peanut butter products, and there is experimentation with candy cream flavors, but Margaret likes to say that “whatever you haven’t tried is new.”
Today the products are sold online, and wholesale customers make up one-half of the business. They include Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Dillard’s. A Buddy Squirrel mascot shows up at charitable events and “we try to do as much as we can for the community,” Margaret says, through donations and sponsorships.
“We know we have been in business for 90 years because of our loyal customers,” she adds.
Tours of Quality Candy/Buddy Squirrel candy and nut production will resume in early January. Tours are scheduled twice a day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The cost is $1 for ages 10-13 and $2 for people older than 13.
Samples are distributed at the end of the 50-minute tour. Reservations are necessary, and minimum tour size is 10. Not traveling in that large of a pack? You may well be able to join another tour group.
The production facility has a retail outlet that sometimes carries candy and nuts at a discount. A 17-ounce gift tin of assorted chocolates, for example, recently was $17.95, which was $6 less than typical.
The business hosts an open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the Sunday that is two weeks before Easter. People stand in line to get free samples and watch candy/nut production.
“If it’s cold, we serve hot chocolate,” Margaret says. “And if it’s warm, people get an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate.”
Quality Candy/Buddy Squirrel is at 1801 E. Bolivar Ave., St. Francis. For more: www.qcbs.com, 800-972-2658.