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Sweet retreats
Midwestern candy kitchens delight visitors with chocolate and plenty of charm
Published: Jan/Feb 2003
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

The Candy Factory in Columbia, Mo., is filled to the brim with chocolate and candy delights, and visitors can overlook the production area from an upstairs viewing room. /Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

At Schimpff’s Confectionary in Jeffersonville, Ind., visitors can watch some of the candy being made from the front window (below). /Schimpff’s Confectionary photo

As Valentine's Day approaches, thoughts turn to…chocolate. If you're looking for some sweet gifts for your sweetie or for a chocolate-flavored destination for a romantic outing, here's a calorie-laden collection of some of the Midwest's best.

Made in Missouri

At Crown Candy Kitchen (314-621-9650, 1401 St. Louis Ave.) in St. Louis, ice cream vies with chocolate as the main attraction. Opened in 1913 by Harry Karandzieff and Pete Jugaloff who brought their confectionery skills from Greece, the shop is now run by Harry's three grandsons, who maintain its historical ambiance and boast that it is the oldest soda fountain in St. Louis.

With its booths, jukeboxes and Coca-Cola memorabilia, the shop is a flashback to the 1950s. Ice cream (milk shakes, malts, sundaes) takes up two-thirds of the menu, while sandwiches fill the rest. But the candy counter is a shrine all its own. The original candy stove and copper kettles are still used to prepare the chocolates and ice cream sauces. Heavenly hash is the biggest year-round seller, but chocolate figurines steal the show at Valentine's Day, Easter and Christmas. Many of their German metal candy molds are close to 100 years old.

Crown Candy is a stronghold in the north side Montgomery-Hyde Park neighborhood that surrounds it; a visit to this delicious landmark is worth the trip.

Another St. Louis classic is Bissinger French Confections (1-800-325-8881; www.bissingers.com). The name Bissinger has been linked to fine confections for more than 400 years. The company's namesake, Karl Frederic Bissinger, left France in 1863, bringing the family candy-making secrets with him to Ohio. His son, also named Karl, opened the first Bissinger shop in St. Louis at 4742 McPherson Ave. in 1927. Although the company now has three other St. Louis locations, as well as shops in Minneapolis and Kansas City, the McPherson shop is the most popular, with its original fixtures, furniture and chandeliers.

Tradition and quality are the key ingredients in Bissinger’s fine chocolate confections. Most of the candies are still made from the 1899 Bissinger family cookbook. Don't miss the chocolate caramel lollipops, the molasses puffs or, in season, the chocolate-covered raspberries and blackberries.

Merb’s Candies (4000 S. Grand Blvd. and two other St. Louis locations, 314-832-7117; www.merbscandies.com) has been a St. Louis favorite since 1926, when it was started by Emma Merbs. Taste comes first at Merb’s, where this family operation's attention to quality produces first-class Old World treats. Best-sellers include heavenly hash, peanut brittle, molasses puffs, snappers, and, in season, chocolate-covered strawberries. My favorite is the Bionic Apple, a crisp apple covered with Merb’s creamy caramel and chopped pecans–it isn't autumn without one of these treats.

Across the state in the Kansas City area, be on the lookout for Reception Sticks®–crispy candy sticks dipped in bittersweet chocolate–and Mint Double Dips®–spun sugar sticks dipped twice in dark chocolate and wrapped in foil–produced by Bogdon’s Candy Company (1-888-264-3667; www.bogdoncandy.com). Bogdon’s is a family-owned business with more than three generations involved in making fine confections in 100-pound batches. There is no retail store at the plant and no tours, but Bogdon’s products are widely available in Kansas City shops or via their Web site.

Although the company started in Denver in 1923 as Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies, Kansas City has been home base since 1928 for Russell Stover Candies, today the largest producer of hand-dipped chocolates in the world. The company melds hand techniques with advanced candy making technology, while still relying on small-batch candy cooking using original recipes. The founders, Russell and Clara Stover, introduced the three principles – quality, service and value–that are still followed today. There are five outlets in the Kansas City area, and about 60 stores across the country. For locations, call 1-800-777-4028 or visit www.russellstover.com.

In the middle of the state, chocolate lovers find an oasis at the Candy Factory in Columbia (Seventh and Cherry streets, 573-443-8222). Sam and Donna Atkinson opened the shop in 1976 and expanded it in 1999 with the goal of making the Candy Factory every chocoholic’s dream come true. The upstairs viewing room overlooks the production area, where you can watch employees cooking caramel or toffee or molding chocolate Missouri maps. In the shop, choose from four glass cases full of made-on-the premises chocolate confections, such as caramel-pecan Katys and truffles in 12 flavors.

Indulging in Indiana

Designated a “Hidden Treasure” by Indiana, Schimpff’s Confectionery in Jeffersonville (347 Spring St., 812-283-8367) has been stirring up sweet memories since 1891. For the shop's 110th anniversary, the current owners, Jill and Warren Schimpff, moved the candy operation to the front window of the building next door and developed a candy demonstration room where visitors can watch candy being made with turn-of-the-century equipment. They also opened a museum room with thousands of pieces of American candy memorabilia. The shop also houses a fully operational 1950s soda fountain.

“We make many flavors of hard candy lozenges on drop rollers that are approximately 100 years old,” says Jill Schimpff. “Fudge, peanut brittle and toffee are poured out on an 1891 steel table from big antique copper kettles.”

For four generations, the family-owned shop's specialties have included cinnamon red-hot squares, hard candy fish, horehound drops and Modjeskas, a caramel-covered marshmallow treat.

Meanwhile, over in Muncie, Vicki Good joins other workers hand-dipping chocolates at Lowery’s Candies (6255 W. Kilgore Ave., 765-288-7300 or 1-800-541-3340). Vicki is the daughter of Don and Thelma Brown, who bought the quaint shop in 1964 from Don's cousins, Dee and Garrett Lowery, who founded it in 1941. The shop makes and ships chocolates from Labor Day to Father's Day. Call for a catalog.

Thelma Brown says one of their patented specialties is the Dark Secret, an oblong piece of candy dipped in dark chocolate. Other favorites include peanut butter creams, toffee and cherry cordials. For many people, it isn't Easter without a chocolate egg from Lowery’s. The hollow eggs come in four sizes, the largest of which is almost as big as a football, and are filled with your choice of candies.

Kansas candy

Remember Valomilks, those chocolate-covered runny marshmallow cups from your childhood? For more than 50 years, the Sifers family of Kansas produced “The Original Flowing Center Candy Cup.” The business was sold to a California company in 1970 with the goal of national expansion; instead, production ended in 1981.

Not content with this situation, Russell Sifers, great-grandson of the company's founder, acquired the original copper kettles and equipment and went back into business, with Valomilks returning to Kansas City stores in 1987. Today, the sixth generation of the Sifers family is working at the Russell Sifers Candy Company factory in Merriam, where the candy is still made by hand, one batch at a time. If you can't find Valomilks in your hometown, check the Web site, www.valomilk.com.

“Candy Pete” Cero, a Greek sailor, came to Wichita in 1883 to work on the railroad. Pete became ill, and the railroad crew moved on, so Pete turned to candy-making, opening Cero’s Candies in 1885 (1108 E. Douglas, 316-264-5002; www.ceroscandy.com). Three generations of the Cero family carried on the tradition, until 1999, when Ed Cero, the last of the family confectioners, was ready to retire and had no family member to take his place. The Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas stepped in and it proved to be a match made in chocolate heaven. Cero’s candy-making traditions continue in a program that provides job training and a nurturing environment for adults with special needs. Among the best-sellers are chocolate creams, peanut brittle and nut clusters.

Illinois ingenuity

Death by chocolate? What a way to go, especially if it is at a Death By Chocolate party, held the first Thursday of each month at the Tibbetts House Bed-and-Breakfast in Highland (801 Ninth St., 618-654-9340). The culinary highlight of the party is the Triple Chocolate Mess Cake, baked in a slow cooker. A Chocolate Queen is crowned at each event. The bed-and-breakfast is upstairs from The Chocolate Affair, a candy store and gift shop. Joyce Greiner and her daughters–Beth Ross and Debbie Donze–operate the inn, parties and shop. The Death by Chocolate parties and Chocolate Lover's Delight slumber parties for women are quite popular, but the bed-and-breakfast, which has three bedrooms with private baths, also offers romantic getaways for couples.

Pease’s Candy opened in Springfield in 1930 and is still going strong, with four stores and a mail-order business (217-523-3721 or 1-888-373-2737, www.peasescandy.com). Fine chocolates, creamy caramels and roasted salty-sweet nuts are the backbone of the five-generation business.

Need more chocolate fixes? You can follow the scent of chocolate from one chocolate vendor to another along the Blackhawk Chocolate Trail, which meanders through a four-county area of northwestern Illinois that is home to the scenic Blackhawk Waterways. Contact 1-800-678-2108 or www.chocolatetrail.com, for a brochure on the self-guided tour of inns, candy stores, tea rooms, bakeries, soda fountains and other chocolate meccas.

If you can't make it to one of these chocolateries for Valentine's Day, don't worry. Chocolate is an all-seasons flavor–you can savor these Midwestern specialties anytime of year.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.


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