The Boston Phoenix
March 16 - 23, 2000


The kings of candy

Once, Boston could lay claim to being candy capital of America. Today a few survivors carry the sugar-dusted torch.

by Steve Almond

SWEET SURRENDER: Bob Stengal worked for Squirrel Brand for 30 years before watching the Cambridge factory shut down in August. "I'd like to stay in candy," he says, "but the opportunities are not there."

Forty-five years ago, when Bob Stengal took over the Boston territory as a shortening salesman for the Durkee food company, candy was king. Near the old Coast Guard station, off Atlantic Avenue, four companies -- Royal, Cole, Haviland, and Liberty -- pumped the smell of chocolate over the North End. Across the river, in Cambridge, candy dominated the landscape. "You could start at one end of Main Street and work your way down," recalls the 71-year-old Stengal, a trim man with neatly cropped white hair and a rabbity face. "It was all candy back then."

In those days, Main Street was confectioners' row. The names trip wistfully off Stengal's tongue: James O. Welch (Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies), Jack Smiley (hard candy), the Dagget Chocolate Company, Fox Cross (Charleston Chew), C.A. Briggs (candy cough drops). Farther west, on Mass Ave, lay the New England Confectionery Company (Necco), the region's oldest sweets manufacturer. To the east, in Charlestown, was the boxed-chocolate giant Schrafft's.

In 1970, Stengal became general manager of Squirrel Brand, whose leading product, a vanilla nut chew known as the Nut Zipper, was first introduced in 1888. Up until last year, he worked in the company's four-story brick factory on Boardman Street, just off Main. "We made one of the best taffies in the industry," Stengal says. "It chewed beautifully. A good taffy should be soft enough to pull without snapping. Why, you could pull ours forever."

Over the years, Stengal saw his neighbors disappear

one by one. "I used to talk to these folks on the phone all the time. They would discuss their problems with me. You know: what should they do? Some of them sold out, others relocated. A lot went under. It's the same story as any business, I guess: consolidation in the hands of a few."

Squirrel was struggling as well, Stengal says. Despite his efforts to update the factory, despite a loyal staff, and despite a pop-music group named after the brand's namesake chew, the company was losing money. When Hollis Gerrish, the son of the founder, died four years ago, at 91, he left instructions for the company to be sold. Last year, a Texas nut company purchased Squirrel and the operation moved south, marking the departure of the city's last major independent candy manufacturer.

Today, Greater Boston, once considered a rival to Chicago as the candy capital of the world, has become a remote outpost in the sweets industry. Only two players of any consequence remain -- Necco and Cambridge Brands -- and neither is locally owned. Necco was purchased in 1963 by BYS, a holding company currently headquartered in New Jersey. Cambridge Brands, whose Main Street factory is the last remaining vestige of confectioner's row, is now owned by Tootsie Roll Industries, a company based in, of all places, Chicago.

CANDY MAN: Walter Marshall of Necco is Boston's unofficial confectionery historian, and the public face of the company that produces not only Necco wafers and candy hearts, but Mary Janes, Haviland chocolates, and -- as of last year -- the Clark Bar.

The first thing you notice about Walter Marshall is that he looks more like a pharmacist than a candy executive. He wears a white lab coat with his name above the breast pocket and a tie that appears knotted a bit too tightly, and he's bald. The second thing you notice about Marshall is that he's incredibly busy, all the time. He whisks around the corporate offices of Necco, atop the current Haviland factory on Cambridge Street, with his white lab coat fluttering behind him. Marshall's official title is Vice-President of Corporate Planning/Logistics, which really translates to The Guy Who Has To Deal with All the Hassles, Including Martha Stewart.

Martha Stewart, it seems, wants to do a Valentine's Day segment on conversation hearts, one of Necco's signature products, and Marshall -- who is, in a promotional flourish exquisitely unsuited to his laconic demeanor, called the King of Hearts -- has drawn the duty of entertaining America's überhausfrau. This is to be expected; Marshall is generally responsible for dealing with media inquiries. But for a man like him, already several years behind schedule, this role can hardly be a cherished one.

"All right, here's the story of how I got into the candy business," he says, settling behind a desk littered with candy hearts and memos regarding candy hearts. "My father used to be a traffic cop in front of the Schrafft's building. When my brother got out of high school, in 1938, there were no jobs. So my father went into the personnel office and asked if there was any chance his son could have a job. They said, `Yeah, we can use him for the summer.' I came in 1953. Same process. I worked summers while going to school, and started full-time in 1959. When I left in 1978, I was executive vice-president/general manager, the equivalent of the president. So I'd gone from stock boy to president, which was kind of nice."

Marshall, who joined Necco in 1987, is fond of referring to himself as "a man in the twilight of a mediocre career." In addition to playing Necco's media mascot, Marshall serves as Boston's unofficial candy laureate. His knowledge of the city's confectionery past, which he delivers in hurried soliloquies, is unrivaled. It begins in 1765, when an Irish immigrant named John Hannon established America's first chocolate mill, on the banks of the Neponset River in Dorchester. Fans of historical congruence should note that Marshall himself was born in Dorchester. "I used to walk by that factory every day," he says. "You could smell the chocolate. You could almost feel it in the air."

Boston's earliest candy companies were what Marshall calls "roadside operations: they cooked stuff up in the kitchen and sold it out front." The proximity of the chocolate mill and two sugar refineries, not to mention a sizable population, made the area an ideal site for the fledgling industry. With the introduction of the steam engine, local companies began producing the first candy-making machines. Foremost among these was Oliver R. Chase's lozenge-cutting machine, which back in 1847 began producing the wafers later known as Neccos. Both Chase and W.F. Schrafft, the city's other major candy concern, served as major suppliers during the Civil War. In 1901, Chase bought two other companies and dubbed his outfit the New England Confectionery Company, producing the world's first candy conglomerate.

"The first 50 years of the 20th century was Boston's golden era," Marshall says. "We had 140 companies here. By 1950, we had sales of $200 million. You have to remember, there were no snack foods. You had fruit and you had candy."

Necco's own Sky Bar, which had been introduced in 1938 with a then-exotic skywriting campaign, was among the most popular candy bars on the East Coast. "When World War II ended, all the New York papers ran stories reporting that the famous Sky Bar billboard in Times Square was finally illuminated again," Marshall says. "That was big news."

The beginning of the end, for Boston, came with the rise of the national candy conglomerates, chiefly Hershey's and Mars/M&M. "They understood that distribution had changed," Marshall says. "There were no mom-and-pop stores. You had to get involved with the big chains. And you had to be more centrally located, where you could ship everywhere."

BEHIND BARS: Joe Sloane's company, Kendall Confectionery, is one of the few remaining family operations in an industry once dominated by them. Sugar runs in Joe's blood; his Uncle Nate used to manufacture Charleston Chews.

Nate Sloane can tell you the story of how candy went corporate. It's a story he lived.

Sloane went into the candy business in 1925, at age 16. He was living in a tenement house in Chelsea, and his neighbor was a wagon jobber who needed summer help. Jobbers were the earliest distributors. They bought penny candy from manufacturers or supply houses and sold it to mom-and-pop stores. With its abundance of candy producers, the Boston area once supported 200 jobbers. Sloane was among the most ambitious.

Upon graduating from high school, at 18, he bought his neighbor's jobbing company, truck and all, for $200. In the next dozen years, he bought out six more jobbers. "Back then, this meant nothing more than me walking into the shops with the man I'd bought out, and him saying to the owners, `This is Mr. Sloane. It would be nice if you bought your candy from him now.' "

Sloane eventually bought Kendall Confectionery, one of a half-dozen distributors nestled around Kendall Square, and American Nut and Chocolate, a nut roaster in South Boston. "But my real dream was to become the manufacturer of a successful candy bar," says Sloane, now 91. "After so many years of cutthroat competition, I wanted to be the bottom-line seller."

In 1955, Sloane purchased the Fox Cross company, producers of a chocolate-covered taffy bar known as the Charleston Chew. He moved the business from Cambridge to a larger factory in Everett, automated production, and built the brand name through advertising. His efforts did not go unnoticed. A number of the candy conglomerates, including Hershey's, came calling. In 1980, Nabisco made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Fox Cross suffered a fate typical in the industry. Nabisco sold the business to the drug firm Warner Lambert, who sold it, in 1993, to Tootsie Roll Industries. The Chicago-based company also owns the remains of another storied local outfit, the James O. Welch company, best known as the maker of Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies, and Sugar Babies.

"I remember buying candy from Jimmy Welch," Nate Sloane says. "He was a friend of mine. They're another good family business that's gone. They're all gone now. It's sad." Sloane used to drop by the old Welch factory, at 1812 Main Street in Cambridge, where Charleston Chews are now cranked out under the auspices of Tootsie Roll. "I still know a lot of folks there," he says. "But I stopped visiting. I wasn't made to feel at home."

He's not alone. Tootsie Roll, in fact, forbids any outsiders from visiting its plant. "For competitive reasons," says company president Ellen Gordon, from her office in Chicago. "So much of what we do there is proprietary and unique to the products." The company's equipment is "beyond state of the art in technology," Gordon says.

Beyond state of the art? Junior Mints shaped with lasers? Genetically engineered Sugar Babies?

Sloane is doubtful. "There are no secrets in the candy business," he says, chuckling softly.

Today, Sloane's strongest link to the candy business is through Kendall Confectionery, which has been handed down from his brother Morris to his nephew Joe. Now housed in a low-slung brick building near Alewife, the company distributes a dizzying variety of candies and snack products, many of them to vending-machine companies. It is one of the few remaining family operations in an industry once dominated by them.

"What I think happened is that a lot of the kids looked at how hard their parents worked," Joe Sloane says. "I remember my father leaving the house at dawn and coming home at seven to have dinner. I can picture him working at home on Saturdays, with his ledger in bed. He always told me, you've got to love candy to stay in the business."

ORIGINAL UNWRAPPER: Manny Da Costa's job lets him indulge a Necco-wafer habit that reaches back to childhood. "We used to go to the movie theater and fling 'em at the people in front, and the screen. Actually, we threw the ones we didn't like. I didn't like clove, so I threw those."

This attitude permeates the staff at Necco, which still has the feel of a family operation. But the truth is, Necco has had to transform itself from a local player into a national conglomerate -- albeit a small one -- in order to avoid being devoured in today's bigger-is-better candy market.

By the early '60s, with the candy-bar giants gobbling up revenues, Necco was flirting with insolvency. The company was forced to sell out to BYS. Over the next 15 years, Necco managed to hang on, thanks mostly to its wafers and conversation hearts. When Dom Antinellis took over as president, in 1978, he realized Necco was going to have to grow in order to survive. In the late '80s, he began buying up struggling competitors. There was no shortage: Candy House Buttons, a firm that made those curious strips of brightly colored candy dots on wax paper. Stark, Necco's only competitor in the wafer-and-candy-heart world, and producers of the legendary peanut-butter taffy known as the Mary Jane. Great American Brands, best known for its Cambridge-based Haviland chocolates. And, just last year, the venerable Clark Bar Company of Pittsburgh.

What Necco has amassed, not entirely on purpose, is a retro candy empire. At Necco headquarters, on Mass Ave, the retro theme is embodied in the décor, which might generously be termed Late Eisenhower. The elevator has a gold-plated dial above it, with an arrow to indicate the floor. The filing cabinets are wooden. On the wall is a poster, illustrated in the manner of a Watchtower magazine, that reads NECCO: THE MODERN CANDIES WITH A TRADITION OF QUALITY. The only indication that the Korean War has, in fact, ended is the 'N Sync poster in the receptionist's cage.

"This building's been here since 1927, so a lot of this stuff is from quite a while ago," Manny Da Costa says. "We don't really throw anything out." Manny, who is quite possibly the sweetest man on earth (and who is therefore impossible to refer to by last name), has been the facilities manager at Necco since 1984. His father, an elevator operator, helped him land a job as a shipping clerk there 33 years ago. Today, he oversees six floors and some 400 employees. He dresses in a suit and tie, which he accents -- for visits to production areas -- with a white gauzy shower cap that sits on his head like a collapsed soufflé.

Manny's good nature extends to his staff. If a factory can be said to be relaxed, then Manny runs a relaxed factory. The workers, a multinational crew outfitted in blue smocks, exhibit none of the grim intensity of Oompa-Loompas. They're more like cheery, slightly overgrown elves.

The secret to virtually all candy production, Manny says, is time and temperature. The longer and hotter you cook the staples -- sugar, corn syrup, starch -- the harder the candy becomes. On the fifth floor, where Necco makes taffy, the staples are heated to 243 degrees in gigantic kettles. The taffy then gets poured onto cooling wheels the size of steam rollers, which squeeze the stuff into sheets that look like colored vinyl. The taffy -- still a blazing 180 degrees -- is cut into 67-pound batches and heaved onto cooling tables, then lugged onto mechanical pulling hooks.

"Used to be we had two hooks on the wall," Manny notes. "It was all done by hand." The taffy, yanked to and fro by two rotating arms, gradually softens and turns opaque. At this point, the glob gets hoisted onto the batch roller, a pair of scary-looking knobbed rotating wheels that massage the taffy into a thin rope. The next machine chops the rope into bite-size pieces, wraps them in waxed paper, and sends them whizzing along a conveyer belt for packing. The taffy that comes off the line is still warm.

Down on the third floor, they make wafers and hearts. (Aficionados should note that Necco also makes lozenges, a thicker version of the wafer, which can generally be found on two-for-a-buck racks.) To visit this floor is to experience the overwhelming olfactory blast known as Halloween Smell -- a free-floating bouquet of sugar, cocoa butter, and flavorings.

These hard candies are not boiled. They're pulverized in giant mixers, producing a paste that is rolled out into sheets and punched, cookie-style, into the desired shape. At peak efficiency, a single assembly line can kick out 38,000 pounds of candy per day, or 15,390,000 wafers or hearts. Manny, who has an endearing, if not entirely hygienic, habit of sampling the raw paste for quality, has been a lifelong fan of the wafer. "We used to go to the movie theater and fling 'em at the people in front, and the screen. Actually, we only threw the ones we didn't like. I didn't like clove, so I threw those."

The purple clove wafer is generally cited as the weak link in Necco's eight-flavor pantheon. Manny himself is partial to chocolate, the only variety to have earned its own package. "But everyone's got a different favorite," Manny says. "I just talked to one of my distributors and she says to me, `Manny: why don't you make a package with just clove?' " Manny shakes his head, in a manner gently suggesting the absurdity of the notion.

The packing process has changed very little over the years. Trays of wafers are fed into a giant hopper and poured down a giant pipe from the third floor to the second, where they funnel into rows. A crew of women must then pinch them up, by hand, and place them in racks. Picture having to fill roll after roll of quarters in a faint cloud of sugared starch, and you get the idea. A final inspector surveys each package to make sure all eight colors are represented among the 38 to 40 wafers per pack. If not, she plucks out repeats and inserts missing colors. All this happens in approximately four seconds. The floor in the packing area is a fresco of broken wafers.

The big buzz these days at Necco is the company's new acquisition, the Clark Bar. And with good reason. It is possible to say that you have not lived a fully actualized life unless you have eaten a Clark Bar straight off the assembly line. I am qualified to make this judgment, because I have eaten a Clark Bar straight off the assembly line. I have eaten two.

The Clark Bar, for those of you with a less-than-catholic sense of the candy-bar world, consists of a crunchy peanut filling covered in milk chocolate. It is both lighter and less brittle than its nearest relation, the Butterfinger. It is also less likely to get wedged in your molars for six weeks.

A native of Pittsburgh, the Clark was one of the most popular bars of the post-World War II candy boom. Necco itself used to produce a chocolate-covered peanut crunch known as the Bolster Bar. But everyone seems to agree the Clark Bar is tastier.

This, according to Manny, is because of the Clark's unique production process. The staples are boiled into a sticky glop, cooled, and pulled into a beige, taffy-like consistency. The filling is then fed into a huge machine, which flattens it and spreads a layer of real peanut butter on top. A single worker, hovering over the machine with a spatula, then rolls this combination into a sort of giant burrito. This step is the linchpin of the entire Clark gestalt. It ensures that the filling is striated into sections of peanut butter and crunch. Next, the burrito goes into a batch roller, where it is funneled down and comes snaking out, ticker-tape style, to be cut into segments.

The peanut crunch is now ready to be covered in chocolate, a process known as enrobing. Enrobing is the money shot of candy production, a sight so dizzyingly sensual as to seem pornographic to chocophiles. The conveyer belt carries the naked Clarks forward, into a curtain of chocolate, which, in spilling down, creates the delicate ripples and wavelets you find atop most candy bars. The enrober also paints a layer of chocolate on the bottom of each piece.

The bars, still wet, then disappear into a vast cooling tunnel. A half-hour later they emerge, 100 yards down the line, ready for packing. The entire genesis of the Clark, from raw ingredients to wrapper, takes 90 minutes. A fresh bar is softer, more supple, than a store-bought bar. The peanut butter is more redolent. The chocolate melts the moment it hits your tongue. "Fresh off the line is a different thing," Manny says. "Hard to say why. But it's like from someone's kitchen. I eat 'em all day long. That's why I'm as big as I am."

It is precisely at this moment, watching Manny Da Costa pat his stomach and laugh in a jolly vibrato, while offering me a second fresh Clark Bar, that I consider asking him to adopt me. This impulse is reinforced during our brief trip to the sample shop on the first floor, where Manny and his wife -- who, it turns out, works in the sample shop and is, if this is even possible, nicer than Manny -- foist a shameful amount of candy onto me, which I try (not very hard) to refuse, and which I seriously consider donating to orphans, before deciding, instead, to eat it all myself.

Over at the Haviland factory, on Cambridge Street, a similar sense of controlled chaos prevails. It's safe to say that this operation -- unlike the nearby Cambridge Brands plant -- is not a hotbed of proprietary technology. The machines are aging. The ceilings are leaky. The production floors are cramped and awkwardly laid out.

And yet visiting the place is heavenly. The stairwells smell like chocolate. The elevator smells like chocolate. (Is it humanly possible to dislike a facility where the elevators smell like chocolate?)

There is something deeply fascinating about mass production. The huge, precisely calibrated machines, the whizzing conveyor belts, the stainless-steel ingenuity of it all. This is technology in action, concrete evidence that all that stuff we buy actually gets made somewhere. And this fascination is multiplied by a factor of say, 20, when the widgets in question are made of chocolate and corn syrup and peppermint.

The majority of the Haviland factory is assembly lines. On one floor, white discs of peppermint are splashed in dark chocolate, producing a highly addictive thin mint. Another machine plinks out soft kisses of chocolate, then sprinkles them with tiny beads of sugar to create nonpareils. Still another cranks out chocolate-covered marshmallow Easter bunnies. As with its corporate parent, Necco, much of Haviland's business is seasonal, predicated on the cycle of candies hawked before each holiday. Easter candies dominate late winter. One entire room is consumed by the production of brightly colored malted-milk-ball eggs.

In Haviland's panning room, workers in smocks and surgical masks loom over two rows of squat copper urns, known as pans. Panning is one of the oldest industrial methods of making candy. Basically, you throw a bunch of peanuts (or almonds or raisins or malt balls) inside the pan and start them spinning. Using a special nozzle, the operator then sprays chocolate onto the rotating morsels. The constant motion -- along with a cold-air vent that the operator controls -- keeps the pieces from sticking to one another. Once the pieces are coated in chocolate, they move to a second set of pans, in which they're shellacked with a thin, shiny coating that keeps them from melting. More than a dozen nozzles are going at once, and the air in the panning room is permeated with chocolate vapor; it's like breathing chocolate.

The means of production may not seem terribly sophisticated at Haviland, but working with chocolate is a volatile business. You can't just melt it down and start pouring. Instead, it has to be prepped in special kettles, heated, cooled, then heated again. "A piece of chocolate that's been properly tempered has that beautiful sheen, almost like glass," says Eric Saborin, the facility manager at Haviland. "It should snap."

Saborin gazes at the assembly line in front of him, where a fleet of thin mints is chugging out from a cooling tunnel. Rather than being perfectly round, though, this batch is the shape of gibbous moons. "Looks like we've got a mechanical problem here," he says, a bit dreamily. "I'll have to take a look at that later."

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: Ben Strohecker started his own boutique company after watching the giant Schrafft's implode. "I ask people, 'If you could only eat one more piece of chocolate before you die, what would it be?'" The result was the Sweet Sloop, an almond crunch made in Salem.

If you're a candy man in the Boston area, you've basically got two options. You can hope your company gets absorbed by Necco. Or you can launch your own business. Benneville Strohecker opted for the latter, though his story is not quite that simple.

In fact, Strohecker was a witness to what remains the darkest chapter in Boston's confectionery history: the demise of Schrafft's. When Strohecker came to work at the company, he considered himself a lucky man. "I knew Schrafft's, and I was fascinated with the word," he recalls. "It was a holy word to me, one of the holy of holies in the candy business."

Founded in 1861 by W.F. Schrafft, the company enjoyed explosive growth during Boston's candy boom. In 1928, Schrafft's built the nation's largest candy factory, in Charlestown, a 900,000-square-foot behemoth that housed 1500 employees. (The building, with its giant clock tower and red sign visible from I-93, is now an office complex.) The Schrafft name became synonymous with boxed chocolates, and the empire grew to include ice cream and a chain of popular restaurants.

But by the time Strohecker arrived as director of marketing, in 1967, the Schrafft family had long since sold out, and the business was in a tailspin. "I was there 10 years, through three ownership changes and 12 presidents," he says. "When the new guy came in, my job was to show him the way to the men's room.

"The most important thing," Strohecker continues, "was that the owners didn't give a damn about anything but making money. That's a recipe for disaster in the candy business. They believed that if you cut here and there a little, the consumer wouldn't notice. And it's true that the consumer can't articulate that they notice. But collectively they do notice, and they stop buying."

Lenny Sisitzky, Schrafft's national sales manager for 12 years and a colleague of Strohecker's, recalls the final days as a nightmare. "I bought 526 airline tickets in two years, just trying to put out fires," says Sisitzky, now an independent candy broker. "We had shipping problems. Product problems. It was a mess."

A second factor was Schrafft's failure to adjust to the monumental shifts in the candy market. By the 1950s, boxed chocolates were being squeezed off the shelves by candy bars. (Scrambling to retain market share, boxed-chocolate companies were also conglomerating like mad. By the late '80s, there were only two major companies: Russell Stover and Whitman Chocolates, makers of the Whitman Sampler. In 1993, Stover bought Whitman.) Just as important, Strohecker says, were the changes in distribution. "Schrafft's didn't keep up with the times. The rest of the world was going direct to chain drugstores and discount stores, and we insisted on using distributors."

By the late 1970s, the company was hemorrhaging with debt. Three Schrafft's executives, including Walter Marshall (who would later wind up at Necco), made a last-ditch effort to purchase the company in 1984, but the owners decided it was worth more to sell off the assets.

Throughout his decade at Schrafft's, Strohecker had pushed the company to launch a division of fine chocolates. He recognized what Godiva would later affirm: that Americans are willing to pay big for fancy gift chocolates. "The people at Schrafft's laughed at me," Strohecker says. "So I went and did it myself, in my kitchen."

In planning a product line, Strohecker started with a very simple question: "I asked people, `If you could only eat one more piece of chocolate before you die, what would it be?' " The result was a homemade toasted-almond butter crunch dipped in bittersweet chocolate and white chocolate, rolled in crushed pecans, and shaped like a sailboat.

Today, the Sweet Sloop is the flagship confection of Harbor Sweets. Housed in a red brick building in Salem, Harbor is the antithesis of a corporate candy giant. It's like stepping into a giant home-ec kitchen where they just happen to be making gourmet chocolates. Workers in red vests dip silver funnels into a tempering kettle and drop melted chocolate into molds. On a nearby table, slabs of caramel lie cooling. The entire room resounds with the thwack of workers slamming molds onto various counters to pop hardened candies loose. Everything is done by hand. About the only mechanized process is the foiling, which is accomplished by means of a couple of ancient-looking machines salvaged from -- you guessed it -- Schrafft's.

The secret to Harbor's success has been its ability to conceive of candy as a lifestyle accessory. The company's nifty themed chocolates sell in golf and equestrian shops. A one-pound gift assortment costs $31.50; a 14-ounce package of Sweet Sloops costs $21. It may rank as a blip on the national candy radar, but Harbor employs 114 workers during the Christmas holiday crunch, and it has become profitable enough to attract a gaggle of corporate suitors.

Strohecker no longer runs the company. Last year, he sold the business to Phyllis LeBlanc, who began as a part-timer at Harbor Sweets 22 years ago, while studying at nearby Salem State College. "I've already been approached by a very big company. They told me they'd want us to remain independent and keep the same management, just what you'd expect them to say," LeBlanc says. "It's always a dilemma for me, because I went to business school. And there's always this voice in the back of my brain that says, `Aren't you supposed to want to get big and grow and sell out?' But my attitude is: if I'm happy with the company as it is, why should I?"

Harbor Sweets is proof that it's still possible to launch an independent candy company -- as long as you stick to upscale niche marketing. It's a lot harder to keep a small, mass-market candy company going. Just ask Bob Stengal, who dedicated 30 years of his life to Squirrel Brand and now finds himself out of a job.

"I'd like to stay in candy," Stengal says. "But the opportunities are just not there. It's a shame, really. We worked so hard to modernize the operation. We could have made it work, too. We'd done a bunch of research. And we had a well-known product."

If only that were enough. The truth is, in today's mass market, you need to be huge -- or hugely expensive -- to survive. The era of the local candy bar is virtually over, a victim of late-model capitalism. Necco remains an anomaly in the candy world. And despite its recent revival, few insiders expect the operation to remain in Cambridge forever.

"Cambridge is all high-tech stuff now," Stengal notes glumly. "There's no room for manufacturing."

Who, after all, would know better than Bob Stengal? He falls silent. "I still haven't recovered," he says finally. "You know, I was at Squirrel for 29 years. The company moved last July, but I stayed through till August, tying up loose ends. By the end, I didn't even have a desk. I was balancing things on my knee to take notes. They'd shut the utilities off, so it was dark.

"It was eerie. I remember I went up to the fourth floor of the factory and there was this echo. All the machines were gone. And I suddenly realized: this is just a shell now. Because, you know, every floor had its own sounds, from the machines and so forth. And when you were on the first floor, you could hear them all together, all those machines and people. It was like an orchestra."

Steve Almond teaches creative writing at Emerson and Boston Colleges. His fiction can be found in the new anthology The Ex-Files: New Tales of Old Flames (Context Books). This is his first article for the Phoenix.