Courtesy of Sockerbit

Regional specialties, rare imported sweets, and one-of-a-kind housemade confections deliver a satisfying sugar rush with an added dash of nostalgia.

Meredith Bethune
January 06, 2015

“We have a circus and sideshow mentality to the way we do business,” says Brandon Hodge, owner of the retro-inspired Big Top Candy Shop in Austin, TX. “When customers walk in they can have a few minutes where time stands still.”

The yellow and red tent-themed walls are crammed with items to surprise and delight: antique instruments, vintage circus posters, and, of course, overflowing selections of colorful (often nostalgic) candy. Lines for the old-fashioned sodas and Blue Bell ice cream served at the ’50s-style counter regularly snake out the door on weekends.

Beyond satisfying a sweet tooth, well-stocked candy stores like Big Top entice grown-ups with the possibility of rediscovering a forgotten childhood treat. On New York’s Lower East Side, for instance, Mitchell Cohen and his family pack in an overwhelming selection of nostalgic sweets. “Economy Candy has almost 2,000 different items to choose from and sells every candy and chocolate from your generation, your parents’ generation, and even your grandparents’ at the lowest prices around,” he states.

Such old-time shops that highlight regional candy-making traditions provide travelers with a taste of a destination—and the chance to pick up sure-to-please souvenirs. In Philadelphia, two brothers recently restored Shane Confectionary to its antebellum glory while continuing its longtime production of animal-shaped sugar sculptures and handmade buttercream chocolates.

At Old Port Candy Co. in Portland, ME, Anna Largay sells gummy lobsters and salt water taffy, though locals are partial to her homemade fudge; the rotating selection includes orange chocolate swirl and brown sugar sea-salt caramel. “I love my little candy store, and I think a lot of other people do,” she says. “We’re just having a ton of fun.”

Join the party at these candy shops across America.

Shane Confectionery, Philadelphia

Brothers Eric and Ryan Berley recently took ownership of America’s oldest candy store in continuous operation and have restored it to its former antebellum glory. The Old City looker displays gorgeous Chippendale-style cabinetry, an antique cash register, and a fresh coat of blue and white paint—the same color scheme as nearby Independence Hall. The duo preserves the bygone Pennsylvania-German tradition of clear toys, which are sugar sculptures often done in the shapes of animals. They also continue to sell Shane’s beloved buttercreams and other handmade chocolates.

Amy’s Candy Bar, Chicago

Opening her own sweet shop in 2011 fulfilled a dream for Amy Hansen, who drew on her training at the French Pastry School and a background in marketing and accounting. The glass jars neatly lining the shelves are full of rare and imported candy, licorice, and gummies. But regulars turn up for the handmade turtles and sea-salt caramels. Her signature OMG Candy Bar—with layers of sea-salt caramel, crunchy hazelnut praline, and creamy chocolate ganache—is a heady sugar rush. Across town from the Lincoln Square shop, Amy’s treats are also available through spring 2015 at a pop-shop in Hyde Park.

Big Top Candy Shop, Austin, TX

“People are barraged with colors, sights, and sounds when they walk in, just like the circus. We pride ourselves on that,” says owner Brandon Hodge. Texans with a sweet tooth have been flocking to his whimsical shop on South Congress Avenue since 2007. Big Top specializes in handmade chocolate-covered bacon dipped in dark chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt. For traditionalists, it also offers a soda and ice cream counter, a 16-foot wall of nostalgic candy, a 12-foot wall of concession-style candy, and more than 40 flavors of taffy.

Candy Babel, Portland, OR

The vintage tins and baskets at Candy Babel are loaded with organic, kosher, vegan, gluten-free, or non-GMO treats imported from around the world (chewy British foam candy and caramel robin’s eggs, for example). “Living in Denmark, I discovered the joy of chemical-free candy and decided to share it with the Pacific Northwest,” explains owner Armani Greer. What makes it really special, though, are her 300-plus flavors of organic cotton candy—including glow-in-the-dark varieties made using LED technology—and available only in summer.

The Candy Store, San Francisco

Growing up in a candy-free household did much to encourage owner Diane Campbell’s sweets obsession. Today, she and her husband, Brian, stock an exacting selection of hard-to-find confections at their stylish Russian Hill showroom. “We opened with the intention of creating a carefully curated shop, where candy would be given the same respect accorded to fine wine and cheese,” she explains. On display are glass jars filled with salted caramel balls, matcha balls, and other colorful bulk items that contrast with the light walls. If those don’t suit, you can choose from specialty candy bars like San Francisco’s own Dandelion Chocolate and Japanese green tea Kit Kats.

Economy Candy, New York City

The Cohen family has been satisfying the Lower East Side’s sugar cravings since 1937. “From Abba-Zaba to Zagnut, if we don’t have it, they probably don’t make it anymore. And if they do, we’ll find it for you,” states third-generation owner Mitchell Cohen. Indeed, the aisles of this neighborhood favorite are jam-packed from floor to ceiling with every candy imaginable. It also carries fresh dried fruits, nuts, halvah, and gourmet chocolates.

Lola’s Sugar Rush, Littleton, CO

Perhaps it was inevitable that a woman whose nickname is Sugar would open a shrine to sweets. About 200 glass jars line the shelves of Lola Salazar’s fanciful pink and white boutique. “We serve every single customer, and we welcome them and tell them how it works. We want to make sure everyone who walks through the door has personal assistance,” she explains. Besides the gummies, jelly beans, and other bulk candies in the jars, the store sells nearly 900 types of novelty and retro treats like candy cigarettes, Astro Pops, and Sky Bars, as well as ice cream and cookies.

Muth’s Candies, Louisville, KY

A family-owned Louisville institution, Muth’s opened in 1921, way before East Market Street was trendy. Horse and horseshoe-shaped chocolates and other Kentucky Derby–themed treats are a staple of this modest candy shop with old-fashioned wood and glass cases. The sparse décor belies the lavishness of its buttery Modjeskas (a Louisville specialty of marshmallow encased in butter caramel), boozy chocolate-covered bourbon balls studded with pecans, and crunchy peanut brittle.

Nelson’s Columbia Candy Kitchen, Columbia, CA

In a historic Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Nelson Family’s original candy shop looks largely unchanged from the 19th century, when it was founded by a Danish immigrant. Amid faded floral wallpaper and old black-and-white photographs, customers can watch through windows as the fifth generation of Nelsons and their employees use copper kettles and antique marble tables to make fruit jellies and fudge and even host candy-cane-making demonstrations at Christmastime. Their signature treats, which include lollipops, nut brittles, lemon drops, and hand-dipped chocolates, are also available at outposts in the nearby towns of Sonora and Murphys.

Nisshodo Mochiya, Honolulu

Founder Asataro Hirao immigrated to Hawaii from Hiroshima in search of agricultural work, but making traditional Japanese candy proved much more appealing. More than 90 years later, the glass case at this Kalihi-area shop is packed with pastel-colored mochi filled with Hawaii-inspired ingredients like coconut or peanut butter. Its best-selling item, though, is chichi dango, made from rice flour, sugar, and milk. “It has the texture of a pretty dense marshmallow—not sticky like taffy, a bit more soft and pliable,” explains the founder’s grandson and current owner, Mike Hirao.

Old Port Candy Co., Portland, ME

Owner Anna Largay earned a reputation in college for constantly carrying around candy bars. Fast-forward two decades, and she was swinging open the doors of Old Port Candy Co. Summer tourists clamor for New England classics like chocolate-covered blueberries, gummy lobsters, and saltwater taffy. Mainers are often partial to the homemade fudge. Largay has about 100 different flavors in her repertoire, among them, orange chocolate swirl and brown sugar sea-salt caramel. “I like to mix it up and keep it fresh for the local people, to keep them coming back,” she explains.

Sockerbit, New York City and Los Angeles

Swedes Florence Baras and Stefan Ernberg brought the Scandinavian tradition of smågodis, or little candies, to New York in 2011. Their West Village boutique (whose name translates to “sugar cube”) tempts passersby with more than a hundred varieties of bulk sweets like gummy sour skulls, tiny banana-shaped marshmallows, and a huge variety of salty licorice. The jewel-like treats contrast with the whitewashed walls and minimalist décor. A new outpost is schooling Angelenos in Scandinavian candies—well beyond Swedish fish.

Southern Candymakers, New Orleans

This family-owned French Quarter store with a bright yellow exterior has perfected pralines. Customers watch as candy makers turn out Louisiana’s favorite confection in flavors like sweet potato, coconut, and peanut butter. The real showstopper is the heavenly creamy praline made with nothing but cream, butter, sugar, and jumbo pecan halves. The counter also overflows with southern-style treats like caramel tortues, divinity, and gator-shaped chocolates.

Sweet! Hollywood, Los Angeles

Welcome to Hollywood, where you can buy candy bars designed by celebrities like RuPaul or Kaya Jones—or one of your own creation, built inside the Sweet! Chocolate Lab (owner Gary Shafner encourages it). The Lab is one of 12 different themed “candy boutiques” spread across 30,000 square feet at Sweet! Another area focuses on Wonka candies, while the Peace of Candy boutique promotes imported candy from around the world. The Route 66 room, decorated with vintage gas pumps, teepees, and other southwestern-style kitsch, celebrates the classic road trip route with American candy by Hershey’s and M&M and nostalgia candy bars. This massive emporium also makes its own treats like truffles, turtles, and peanut brittle on site.

Sweet Mickey’s, Seattle

“Come for the fudge. Stay for the memories,” proclaims owner Randy Brinker, who makes the confection in several decadent flavors. Sweet Mickey’s stays true to the Scandinavian roots of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with its impressive collection of licorice. There are also more than 100 bulk gummies, jellies, saltwater taffy, and an ice cream counter in the mint-green store. The name and logo pay homage to Brinker’s grandmother, who raised him.

Schimpff’s Confectionery, Jeffersonville, IN

Along the Ohio River in the southern Indiana town of Jeffersonville, the Schimpff family has made candy here since 1891. With an old-fashioned soda counter and its original tin ceiling intact, this landmark is famous for handmade cinnamon hard candy, Kentuckiana classics like rich Modjeskas (caramel-covered marshmallows), and more than 20 flavors of hard candy in the shape of fish. Today the store has grown to include a museum displaying antique candy memorabilia, artifacts, and equipment.

Ye Olde Pepper Companie, Salem, MA

America’s oldest candy company occupies a typical New England–style building across from the House of the Seven Gables. In operation since 1806, it was founded by Mary Spencer after she was stranded in Salem after a shipwreck. According to legend, sympathetic townspeople donated a barrel of sugar after learning she was a candy maker, and she invented the hard-lemon- and-peppermint–flavored candy called the Gibralter, which is still sold there today. The store is also notable for another original candy, the Black Jack, made from blackstrap molasses. Actually, almost everything sold in the store is handmade. From the sidewalk, you can even see the candy makers pulling saltwater taffy if you look through the windows into the kitchen.

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