Trent Ernst, Editor
Standing at the till of at Ace Hardware, waiting for the person ahead of you to finish paying for their items, your eyes cast down to the shelf full of candy lining the front. And there, amidst the usual Mars Bars and LifeSavers, you spot an honest to goodness pack of A&W Root Beer Hubba Bubba.
Your eyes light up and you reach down and grab the pack as the person in front of you leaves. “I haven’t seen this since I was a kid,” you exclaim to the man behind the counter. And he smiles.Standing at the till of at Ace Hardware, waiting for the person ahead of you to finish paying for their items, your eyes cast down to the shelf full of candy lining the front. And there, amidst the usual Mars Bars and LifeSavers, you spot an honest to goodness pack of A&W Root Beer Hubba Bubba.
The man behind the counter is Dean Turner, and over the last number of years he’s become a connoisseur of nostalgic candy. Candy that was popular in the 1970s and 80s, but is no longer very common.
“I have a sweet tooth,” he laughs, when you ask how a hardware man has become an expert in tracking down hard-to-find candy that was popular when you were a kid. “And who doesn’t like candy? We’ve always had the chocolate bars and the chips, but as I’ve gotten older I notice that there’s not as much candy that we had as kids to be found, so I started dabbling in looking around for the more nostalgic candy.”
So, just for fun, he started stocking some candy that he hadn’t seen on the store shelves for years. The first was boxes of Pink Elephant Popcorn. It was an instant success. “That would always fly off the shelves, but we couldn’t get it all the time. Then we’d get CrackerJacks and things like that. Our hardware chain isn’t reliable in getting that sort of thing, so we started branching out, looking for that sort of stuff. And we like theme parks as much as anyone, so I started branching out and asking around with those guys, where you can get it.”
“As I started digging, I started remembering this and that, so you bring a few in and the conversation starts from there. Someone comes in and asks ‘can you get this?” And I realized that people are looking for this. It brings a smile to everybody’s face. People come in and say ‘I used to eat this all the time.’ Now I have a whole list of things that people want me to try and source. There’s some things that are just outright discontinued, the machines are broken, but other things you can find, and I can bring them in. They may not be under the same name that we knew them as kids. We have Curly Wurlys, which used to be WigWags when we were kids. Down in the states they were Marathon bars. But they’re the same.”
Turns out, there’s a burgeoning industry in nostalgic candy, though it still requires a lot of work. “It’s to the point where, if you can find one thing it usually snowballs from there. It’s a tonne of work finding this stuff, but it’s a lot of fun.”
What’s the most popular item? “The one that flies off the shelves is the old fashioned tray toffee that comes with a hammer you use to break it up. It comes in original, and I have it in black licorice, too, which I remember as a kid was my grandma’s favourite as a kid.
“The thing that is most nostalgic is Astro Pops or Razzles. I wasn’t such a huge fan of Razzles as a kid, but I still remember them. They still come in the old paper packs that Bottle Caps used to come in. The old Country Store Taaffe is pretty nostalgic. Another one is Hubba Bubba. We have a bunch of flavours from Hawaiian Punch to Rootbeer to Grape Crush. A lot of people like that one.”
What’s his biggest success so far? He smiles, and lowers his voice. “I have a zinger coming in the New Year that I’ve been looking long and hard for, that has taken so long to get. Pricing is high, but I’m going to put it out there at exactly the cost I’m paying for it. It’s purely for nostalgic factor.”
On the other hand, Mojos are his biggest disappointment. “Everyone remembers Mojos. We all ate a gallon of them, but the machine that makes them is broken, and they’re trying to source a part for it, but when you’re talking a penny candy…Apparently the piece that is broken is so expensive they can’t afford to repair it. Hard to believe there’s only one machine that made Mojos. But they patent everything, from recipes and flavours to size and dimensions of the candy, the consistency of the taffy, and how it’s wrapped. This one machine used to do it all, and that’s what has killed it. Bonkers was facing the same thing, but they should be available inside of the year. They’re bringing them back.”
Turns out, there’s a burgeoning industry in nostalgic candy. “You’ll find them in, say Banff and Jasper and places like that. I’ve found a couple of suppliers, and it’s kind of snowballed from there. One thing I’ve found is that, if they’re in the candy business, they’re in it because they love it. We’ll start reminiscing about this and that and the supplier will say ‘I have this buddy who works over here, why don’t you give him a call?’ You can’t just make one phone call; you have to do a lot of digging. Quite often, if you find something retro, it’s coming from a little farther away. You’d be surprised at what’s been discontinued here but is still available in the UK, or maybe it’s being made in Brazil now.”
There’s a trio of suppliers that Turner turns to when he’s looking. Trying to find one type of candy can take up to an hour on the phone with these suppliers. And if they don’t know how to source the candy, that’s when his work really begins. “I’ll go do research on the candy, and trace it right back to the roots. I’ll find out when it was first made and I’ll start sourcing who bought that company. It’s basically detective work from there to find out where it’s gone and why it’s disappeared. It can eat up a lot of time. I try and do research after the kids have gone to bed. There’s been a number of times when I’ve talked to a supplier and they tell me they can’t get it, and I’ll give them my background research, and a month later, I’ll get a call and they’ll say ‘found it; thanks for the insight.’”
He’s still looking for a source on tiny Chiclets (the ones that used to come in the Nerd-like boxes) and Freshen Up gum, which were little pillow of gum with a flavoured liquid inside.
Turner says what his personal favourite is varies from day to day. “I have a really bad sweet tooth that flares a lot. I have a whole bunch of different favourites, but Hawaiian Punch Hubba Bubba takes me right back to ten years old.”
Sometimes, people will turn him onto something that he’s never seen or heard of before, though, he admits, not often. (“I ate a lot of candy as a kid,” he says.) “I had a lady looking for black licorice stick that you’d dip into a sherbet candy. I don’t remember those, but I’ve found those for her.
Sometimes, it’s not just about finding the retro candy, but finding the retro packaging, too. “I found Dentyne in the original packaging, which is great. Bottle Caps are disappointing. We’ve got them in the sticks, but I’d love to find them in the paper package.”
One of the biggest problems when dealing with nostalgic candy is getting it to Tumbler Ridge. “Freight’s a problem sometime. Remember Tahiti Treat? They’ve rebranded it Tahitian Treat. I can get it, but it would cost too much to ship. It has the same artwork but it’s in cans.” He makes a face. “I’d like to find it in glass bottles. It doesn’t take on a tin taste or plastic taste. But it’s a carrot dangling in front of my face. Same thing with Pop Shoppe pop. It’s available in Ontario, but the freight kills you. By the time it gets here, it’s at a gourmet price point. We have some gourmet pop, but when you’re trying to source something that was nationwide, it’s tough to justify it as a $2.49 pop.”
That said, he’s not above bringing in some gourmet pops and candies, including Jarritos, a Mexican pop that is made with cane sugar, which he points out, is easier to digest.
That leads him into a whole discussion around the trend to use cheap sweeteners in modern candy. For someone who deals in hardware, he seems a little … obsessed. Has he ever thought about starting up a candy store? He laughs. “No, but if it keeps up the way it is going…it’s a department that brings a smile to everyone’s face, whether you’re nine years old or 99.”
But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have visions of sugarplums dancing in his head. He says if it keeps going like it has been, he may take and create a candy nook or corner near the front of the store. But its hard. “Like most things in Tumbler we have a hard time reaching out beyond the town,” he says. “In summer, we have tourists who make a point of stopping by because we have the best candy. It’s fun to see what people remember. It could be the littlest thing, like a wax moustache, that puts a smile on people’s face.”
But ultimately, he says, there isn’t enough demand for a stand-alone candy store in Tumbler Ridge.
Speaking of sugarplums, what about nostalgic seasonal candy? “I’ve found a supplier that is doing seasonal stuff, but I didn’t find them early enough to have seasonal stuff for Christmas. I’ve got Jelly Tots and Fruit Pastels in a tube. They’re still available in the UK and their very popular over there. In the UK they make a Chomp bar, which I’ve got in a seasonal wrapper. That’s about it for seasonal nostalgic candy. Next year, I hope to have more. We’ve got the rock candy and stuff like that.”
Tracking down classic candy can take Turner to places he never thought he’d go, or rather, bring stuff to him from places he would have never imagined. “There’s stuff still available in Brazil and the UK that isn’t available here,” he says. “And I have chocolate bars that come from Turkey. The Wish Bars, which are like a Bounty Bar, are very popular. The chocolate is richer and creamier than the stuff we find in Canada. That’s getting a ways away.”
So if you’re looking for that last minute stocking stuffer for someone with a sweet tooth, Turner can hook you up.