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What’s your favorite candy? The answer probably has a lot to do with where you grew up.
Though it’s become quite acceptable for adults to buy sweets for themselves (hello, entire grocery store aisle devoted to artisanal chocolate), the majority of candy consumption still happens when you’re a kid. That’s when people form lasting attachments with brands, according to NYC-based candy expert Beth Kimmerle.
The author of four books on candy, Kimmerle started out as a product developer for Fannie May Candies in Chicago and eventually transitioned to being a sweets historian and independent flavor consultant to confections companies around the world. After nearly two decades in the industry, she’s still surprised by how strong regional brand attachments can be.
“It’s really interesting to see that some of those favorites never really change,” she told Billy Penn, “even in this world of global commerce where anything is at your fingertips.”
For example, milk chocolate is preferred in the American South, she says, while there’s an area that stretches from Buffalo, NY down across the Eastern Seaboard where dark chocolate handily wins the taste battle.
Another candy authority who has noticed distinct regional preferences is Marc Summers.
Originally famous from his position as the slime-master-in-charge on Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare,” Summers is now a Food Network producer. It’s a job he earned after solidifying his culinary cred by hosting the channel’s longest-running TV show ever: “Unwrapped.” Over the course of 13 seasons, he had the opportunity to travel the country and sample candy from hundreds of different towns. What did he discover?
“When you talk about New England, it’s always something maple-y,” he said in a phone interview. “In Pennsylvania it’s chewy caramel situations. Then when you get out to the West Coast, it’s all about ‘how sour can you get.’”
What pleases candy hounds in one state can be anathema to sweets lovers in another. Summers remembers shooting an episode of Unwrapped in Texas where he was set to feature a chile-infused chocolate bar from a company called Cowgirl Chocolates.
“My producers told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t bite into this before the show — it’s made with the hottest pepper known to man,’” Summers recalled. “Well, don’t tell me not to do something, because then I’ll do it.”
He chomped down on the treat, and was fine for around 30 seconds. Then the pepper hit. “I couldn’t even talk for 45 minutes. I couldn’t taste anything for the entire next week.”
Summers personally has a soft spot for a candy bar he grew up with called Chunky — “it has raisins and nuts and is just remarkable” — and also Clark Bars, which he describes as having “that perfect combo of chocolate and peanut butter, but in a way that’s a bit different” from the ever-popular Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
His favorite candy bar of all-time, however, is a Hershey bar with almonds — but only when it’s purchased in Hershey, Pa., still warm from the factory floor. It’s a town he used to frequent for Unwrapped, and he still has such a good reputation with the people who run things there that he was recently able to get them to open their theme park just for him.
“We were shooting an episode of ‘Restaurant Impossible,’” he explained, “and we needed to do something on a roller coaster. Even though the park was shut down, I called them and they were kind enough to turn it on and let us ride it.”
One thing Summers does not enjoy is that ubiquitous Halloween scourge: Candy corn.
“That’s about the worst candy in the history of the world!” he said. “What’s the first thing kids do when they get home with their bags? Pick out all the candy corn and throw it away.” At one point he was on a talk show with “Who’s the Boss” star Tony Danza, and was appalled to find out Danza counted candy corn as his favorite. “I’d never met anyone who said that before,” Summers murmured disapprovingly.
Whether or not kids generally like candy corn, it does sell well every year, according to Stephen Traino, president of Valley Forge-based distributor Candy Nation. That well may be simply because its orange-yellow-white showcases the proper seasonal theme. Traino, who’s been in the candy biz on and off since 1997, says colors have always been a big sales driver.
“Purple gumballs, blue hearts, whatever color fits an event, that’s what people are ordering most when it’s not Halloween,” he said. His five-year-old internet-based business ships to both wholesale accounts and consumers across the country, so he does also notice regional favorites.
A taffy-peanut-butter bar called Abba-Zabba is a big seller in California, where it was invented back in 1922. (Hollywood may have helped boost Abba-Zabba’s popularity somewhat — it nabbed a mention in Half Baked.) Candy Nation also does brisk business with customers in Wisconsin, who are thrilled to find an outlet that still sells a gummy candy called Wisconsin Candy Raisins.
“Anything nostalgic has always been big,” he said. Year after year, one of his biggest sellers to customers in Pennsylvania is that old Philadelphia-made favorite: Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews.
“I spoke to one of the [Goldenberg] grandsons when they had sold out [to Just Born],” Traino remembered. “He was just glad the candy would live on.”