Ask one of the confectioners in Baltimore’s expanding candy-scape to name his or her top holiday for sales, and you’ll get as many different answers as there are fillings in a box of chocolates. Christmas is a big candy-giving holiday, and so is Valentine’s Day, of course. But this is also a town that turns to its candy
traditions to fill Easter baskets. And today, Baltimore’s sweet tooth can enjoy tasty traditions, new and old.
Every year since 1917, fans have been flocking to Rheb’s Candies store at 3352 Wilkens Avenue, the original home of company founders Louis and Esther Rheb and site of its factory. This year marks the first time in 101 years that Rheb’s is not 100 percent family owned, a decision made before the founders’ grandson Wynn Harger passed away in January 2017. “My husband felt that distributing ownership to employees would make them that much more invested,” says Pat Harger, Rheb’s president. Today, two longtime employees are owners and join four generations of Rheb family members in shepherding the company into its second season.
Wynn Harger’s vision for moving beyond the West Baltimore location also inspired Rheb’s first-ever seasonal pop-up-shop at a kiosk at Towson’s Shops at Kenilworth. Harger is pleased with the kiosk’s response from longtime and new customers, who bought the family- recipe butter creams, truffles, chocolate bunnies and more.
“We might add a new flavor like coffee cream, but we keep our product line very traditional,” Harger explains of Rheb’s continued popularity, which includes robust online sales. “The secret is quality.”
Rheb’s, Goetze’s Candy Company and Wockenfuss also have all reached the century mark, with the latter two now under fifth-generation family ownership. Mary Sue Candies’ filled chocolate eggs have been Baltimore favorites for more than 50 years.
“Back at the turn of the century, there were over 100 candy companies (in Baltimore),” explains Mary Sue’s president, Bill Buppert. “As the world and companies evolved, that changed, but having such proximity to the Port of Baltimore and the Domino Sugars plant made a difference.”
Buppert is a member of the second family to own Mary Sue, which he purchased in 2001. He updated the packaging and equipment and opened a sparkling new $8 million facility in Middle River last summer, but he hasn’t messed with the recipes. “The bunny is still pink,” he says with a laugh about the company’s colorful mascot. “Our lifeblood is nostalgia. We still make everything in small batches. So much of our food has been industrialized that there’s something to be said for using basic ingredients.” That means a lot of pecans for Mary Sue Candies’ top-seller, the Pecan Nougat Egg.
Tradition is also what drew several of the area’s newer confectioners into the candy business. B.G. Purcell, founder and self-titled captain of Mouth Party Caramels, has been making caramels since she was 12 with her stepmother, Jane Drake Cummings. In 2007, Purcell introduced her stepmother’s fourth-generation family recipe to the Baltimore marketplace to raise money for cancer awareness and research after Cummings was diagnosed for the second time with lymphoma.
The response to Mouth Party was positive (as was Cummings’ recovery). One of the reasons that her company has grown regionally and nationally, Purcell notes, is that Baltimore’s candy-making tradition “encourages and embraces product innovation and evolution.”
“It’s definitely a family affair with my father [head and neck surgeon Dr. Charles Cummings, executive medical director/vice president for Johns Hopkins Medicine International] as my business partner, and my cousin Mimi Cummings is a significant investor and supporter,” Purcell says. She offers limited-time flavors in addition to a five-flavor lineup of caramels (and caramel sauce for the dental-work challenged). The newest flavor — Chesapeake Caramel — has the hometown kick of Old Bay Seasoning, and this fall, Purcell has plans for another product to join the party, but is tight-lipped on details: “You’ll just have to wait to discover what it will be.”
While Ben and Jennifer Hauser, the husband-and-wife team behind Glarus Chocolatier, know that a love for chocolate can last forever, their line of bespoke Swiss delights comes with an expiration date: “We combine Swiss traditional chocolate-making techniques with no preservatives and nothing artificial,” Jennifer Hauser says. “We strive to educate customers on quality and what chocolate is supposed to taste like. All our truffles have fresh cream as part of the ganache, which makes them more perishable than a pure chocolate bar, for instance.”
The lone exception is their Sagamore Whiskey Truffle, made exclusively for Sagamore Spirit. Thanks to that whiskey, a natural preservative, the truffes have a longer shelf life.
Glarus’ family connection is in its name: The company imports raw chocolate from Switzerland and uses traditional recipes and techniques that Ben learned from his father, an immigrant from Glarus, Switzerland. That pedigree helped put Glarus at No. 6 on Complex Magazine’s 2012 “Top 50 Chocolatiers in America.”
Though the Hausers are busy filling Easter baskets for their three young children, who love their informal role as tasters, spring is not the busy season for the 13-year-old company. “Historically, it’s been Christmas, then Valentine’s Day and then Easter,” she says. This year, Glarus didn’t even make its line of chocolate bunnies and filled eggs. The Hausers were too busy closing their Timonium storefront and retail operation on Feb. 15 as they moved to a larger commercial kitchen, also in Timonium. There may be a seasonal pop-up shop in Glarus’ future, but, for now, the Hausers are concentrating on growing the company’s wholesale business.
One of Baltimore’s newest producers, photographer-turned-toffee-maker Bill McAllen, also uses a family recipe to make his McAllen’s Toffee. Think Heath Bar but with a lot more butter and dark chocolate. “I stole it from my wife 30 years ago and made it my own,” he says with a laugh. Friends and photography clients quickly joined his list of toffee recipients.
In the last few years, he realized that he was making enough to start a small business, so in 2017, that’s just what he did. Working alone out of a small commercial kitchen and selling his toffee online and at Baltimore wine, flower and food stores, McAllen keeps it simple.
“I make one flavor, chocolate almond toffee,” he explains. The original recipe card is on his website, though he’s tinkered with the recipe a bit over the years.
“Why mess with success? I have tweaked it a bit but what really makes good toffee is time and temperature,” McAllen says. “People have loyalties to their chocolate, but I am finding that they are receptive to something new.”