Idaho Candy Co.: A Quest to Keep a Century-Old Dream Alive

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This Built America: Idaho Candy Company Keeps Tradition Alive

In downtown Boise, Idaho, people pass by a venerable brick building without giving it much thought.

But inside, Dave Wagers is making candy -- with names like Idaho Spud, Old Faithful and Chicken Bones -- much the same way they were crafted nearly 100 years ago when the factory was built.

Dark chocolate is still mixed in copper kettles used for so long they are burnished and battered. Chocolate and sugar are still delivered to the factory via a narrow back alley. The wooden floors on the second floor are infused with the butterfat used to make candy.

For Wagers -- whose father bought Idaho Candy Co. in 1984 -- it is a labor of tough love to make candy the old-fashioned way in an urban center where manufacturing has given way to offices and restaurants. But it's worth it.

"Operating an old factory downtown is not always easy, but I like old things," Wagers says.

Ryan CorkIdaho Candy Co. owner Dave Wagers works with one of his company's old candy cauldrons.
Chapter 1: Holding Onto Heritage

T.O. Smith, a candy maker from Salt Lake City, founded the Idaho Candy Co. in 1901 after moving to Idaho to work construction. He sold hand-dipped chocolates and candies door to door until 1909 when he and his partner Charles Adams built the factory.

By the 1920s, the company had invented some 50 different candy bars, including Smith's most famous concoction: the Idaho Spud, with its marshmallow center cloaked in dark chocolate and sprinkled with toasted coconut.

The Spud put the company on the map long before Idaho was even known for its "famous potatoes." Business quadrupled from 1918 to 1920. By the Great Depression, the company was distributing its products on refrigerated railcars alongside candy from the likes of Hershey, Wrigley and Mars. As those brands turned into huge international manufacturers, Smith and Adams continued to operate their company on Boise's 8th Street, and the Idaho Spud remained a regional favorite.

In the late 1960s, the Adams family (Smith died in 1954) sold the company to Don Wakeman, whose father Clarence started working at the company in 1912. Wakeman himself stocked shelves in the factory in the 1930s. He had gone off to work at razor manufacturer Gillette but returned 30 years later to buy the company with a partner.

By the time Wagers returned to Boise in 1991 to run the company his father bought, it was primarily a distributor of other companies' candy and thousands of other products, including tobacco. Wagers made the tough decision to return to the company to its roots -- making candy. Downsizing the company by 95 percent in sales turned out to be a good decision in the lead up to the mid-2000s recession.

"We took a big risk," he said. But what he refused to do was leave Boise for a stark industrial warehouse on the city's outskirts. Modern equipment like forklifts and air-conditioning would make it cheaper and easier to produce the two million Idaho Spuds the company creates and sells every year. But it wouldn't have paid homage to T.O. Smith's heritage.

Chapter 2: Out With the Suit and Tie

On his first day back to work at the factory, Wagers showed up in the suit and tie he had worn while working at EDS, a national data management company founded by former presidential candidate and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. The old-timers, some of whom worked at the factory with Smith and Adams, shook their heads wondering if he could hack it as a candy maker.

The next day, he lost the suit and tie and put on "candy whites." Then he started learning every tool and machine inside the factory.

"You see that picture of T.O. He's probably about 30 and he's got 'guns,' " Wagers says, hefting a massive 60-pound metal rolling pin to show off his own candy-making muscles.

The heavy rolling pins are now relics, but Wagers embraces the history wholeheartedly. The spirit of his candy-making forefathers and mothers is alive and well,
especially as demand continues for heirloom candies the company still makes like Chicken Bones, Boston Baked Beans and even Horehound Lumps, an herbal lozenge that is a little bitter to sooth a sore throat.

The long list of candy names on historical price lists hint at the T.O. Smith's creativity, as do tools like the red waffle straw cutter from 1921 and the even older taffy puller that is still in use.

"I've worked on all the machines," Wagers said, including a power sifter that was installed to prepare cornstarch for candy molds. "We had to reinforce the floor so it wouldn't shake the building apart."

Wagers also has looked for used candy-making equipment to help make the work easier while maintaining more traditional methods that have been passed down as candy making became more industrialized.

He bought a 40-foot long former Jujube machine in New Jersey, dismantled it with the help of his father-in-law, and trucked it to Idaho. They then had to lower the pieces through a skylight on the top floor of the factory. Buying and retrofitting a used machine saved the company about $750,000, Wagers says, plus he can still find parts for it instead of having to buy expensive machines often only found abroad.

It was a lot of work, but the repurposed Jujube maker can make more of the Idaho Spud marshmallow centers than the old hand-made method. The machine clatters and bangs as it makes cornstarch molds that are filled with a cooked mixture of cocoa and imported Moroccan and Japanese agar, a substance derived from seaweed that is piped in from a steam-jacketed hopper.

The Spud centers are then sent to a 65-foot long conveyor in the basement where they are covered with dark chocolate and passed through a waterfall of coconut sprinkles. Then they shake and quiver down a belt to get rid of any extra coconut.

"In the old days they hand-wrapped them all," Wagers said. Now a new machine can wrap a 30,000 candy bars a day. Still the Idaho Spud is wrapped in a package bearing the art that hasn't changed since the bar was invented in 1918. Idaho Spuds, once marketed as the "healthful candy" used to tell for just 5 cents. Today they sell for 99 cents.

Chapter 3: The Candy Maker

Like its machines, the employees of Idaho Candy Co. have also worked there for decades. The company's most famous employee -- the late Violet Brewer -- worked for 82 years as a candy maker. Tomiko Wood, who learned her craft from Brewer and worked full time at the factory for more than 20 years, comes out of retirement each year to make chocolate Easter eggs.

For 30 years, Craig Austin has been the company's head candy maker, a job he originally didn't want. But a conversation with Wagers' father combined with the respect Austin had for Wagers made him rethink a career in electronics.

"He told me 80 percent of people who go to college don't end up in their field," Austin recalled. In the end, he decided that happiness trumped a defined career path. "You spend three quarters of your day at your job, he said. If you're not happy, do the math, that's three quarters of your life."

Austin soon discovered that managing the process of candy manufacturing wasn't so different from designing electrical systems or doing construction, another one of his talents that comes in handy whenever a section of the factory's wood floors needs replacing. The company eventually sent Austin back to school in Madison, Wis., where he earned a degree in food technology.

Furthermore, he loves working with antique recipes, like the one for Owyhee Butter Toffee, which Idaho Candy has made for 90 years. He checks cooking mixtures to ensure a chemical reaction called Maillard is happening to brown the sugars and amino acids. Although thermometers are essential, Austin depends on smell and wisdom passed down from former candy makers to know when things are ready.

He also depended on that knowledge to create Huckleberry Gems, the company's first new candy bar in 50 years. Austin took the marshmallow filling from the Spud, mixed it with huckleberries -- a wild berry that looks like a blackberry -- and then coated it with dark chocolate. But it also draws on Austin's creativity, something not necessarily associated with making candies, many of whose recipes are close to 100 years old.

"Working at the candy company lets me do it all," he says. "I've had a lot of freedom. It's a special part of history and I'm lucky to be an ambassador."


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37 Comments

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Rusty

Huckleberries look like smaller blueberries around here; not like blackberries.

August 14 2014 at 10:12 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
moody2night

Its to send big corps a packing

April 10 2014 at 5:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to moody2night's comment
posthuf

big government has done more to kill the American dream than "big corps."

"big corps" DON'T tax businesses
"big corps" DON'T make laws and rules detrimental to production and employment.
"big corps" DON'T enact epa rules that shutter doors and leave people without jobs.
"big corps" DON'T take from earners and give to non-earners.

"big corps" DO want to make profit, and realize they have to compete in an open market - the more competition the better for "big corps" and shoppers.
"big corps" DO employ actual workers, people who produce! Unlike big government that hires bench warmers and paper shufflers.
"big corps" DO expect to see production if you want to keep your job, unlike big government, which will find another slot for you where you can do less damage rather than set you free from "job lock" (a phrase coined by a politician who has held the same government job for nearly 40 years!)

Can't help but wonder who moody expects to take care of him/her when big government has shut down all big biz, and only mom and pops shops are left, and THEY expect 12 hours work for 8 hours pay because that's all they can afford after taxes, fines, and meeting all government demands.

Do you know in takes an average of six years to get a "yes or no" response from the epa?

Do you know epa wants to copy the irs and impose fines without court order, law, or warrant when they make new rules that make people violators?

Do you know epa wants to garnish wages to collect those fines?
What are YOU going to do when your neighbor reports you for your backyard fountain and epa comes to garnish your pension and social security because last week they made up a new rule banning backyard fountains in only select neighborhoods????

Pop your head out, moody, and accept the truth about big government. There's a reason African nations told jimmy carter to pack sand when he offered them billions in aid that they didn't want.

July 18 2014 at 1:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
BoB

Idaho Spud can be bought at
http://www.idahospud.com/bar-idahospud.html

April 10 2014 at 1:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Howard Hudnell

THEY DID NOT DO LIKE GM DID THEY

April 10 2014 at 12:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fgoodstat

My most favorite and memorable candy bar; the Idaho Spud! It was a real special and delicious treat growing up. Love to have one right now! My next visit to Idaho, I will have to pick up a few boxes. Keep up the great work, Candy Co.

April 09 2014 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pruettee

I had never heard of this company, but that is okay. Keep the old ways.

April 09 2014 at 9:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wildlifeartistkc

Would love to try one.... doubt I will find one here in Georgia... glad there are still home grown companies... one that dissappointed me yrs back was Levi Strauss taking theirs to Mexico,,, never bought another pair from them!

April 09 2014 at 9:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Debbie

Never have herd of them and they look delicous...hope to try them one day and great having an American stay in U.S.A. and do their business

April 09 2014 at 9:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Frank S. Pedigo

Maybe d
someone should tell the makers of Brachs candies ? They moved thier manufacturing to Mexico a country with the health standards of a pig stye ( sorry about that pigs ) . We need to support more of these American manufacturers who create jobs here like this company .But then Americans are stupid and do everything to destroy themselves . Please read the lables and buy American .

April 09 2014 at 7:56 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Gordon Goede

Sounds like he needs a visit from The Profit's Marcus Lemonis!

April 09 2014 at 7:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply