Irish potato candy advertised at Shane's Confectionery in Old City. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

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Gaby Rubery, a lifelong Philadelphian, associates coconut with St. Patrick’s Day.

Why? Irish potato candy.

“I’ve never known anything different,” said Rubery, manager of McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Center City. At this time of year in Philadelphia, she noted, “Irish potatoes are everywhere.”

Candy shops, bakeries, and grocery stores across the region all stock the beloved local confection that pops up late winter and disappears by early spring. A mix of coconut, sugar, and a dairy base is lumped into imperfectly shaped nuggets and rolled in cinnamon, leaving them looking just like little mini spuds.

To Rubery, eating them around St. Patrick’s Day is like having “watermelon on the Fourth of July, candy corn on Halloween, candy canes on Christmas, chocolates on Valentine’s Day.” It’s just how things are.

The coconutty treat has likely been around for over a century, and is so ingrained in Philly culture that it’s inspired a number of spinoffs at local eateries, from milkshakes to cannoli.

At McGillin’s, the indulgent Irish potato martini is the bar’s best-selling seasonal drink, per Rubery. Coconut shavings tossed in cinnamon sugar are sprinkled over a combination of coconut milk, Stateside vodka, and Rumchata, creating a favorite that’s been on the March menu for at least two decades.

There’s not really a consensus on how the St. Paddy’s Day candy came to be, or who exactly invented it.

What’s generally agreed upon, though, is that Irish potato candies are a Philadelphia thing — a fact people who grew up here are often surprised to discover. Read on to learn more.

Irish potato candy from Reading Terminal Market. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Potato is not in any way an ingredient

Irish potato candies do not contain any potatoes. They do not taste anything like potatoes. There’s an argument to be made that the texture sort of resembles a baked potato, but this reporter doesn’t buy it.

The candies customarily include some butter or cream cheese, coconut shreds, icing sugar, and maybe a few other ingredients. Once molded into shape, they’re rolled in a cinnamon coating. Some shops mix in cocoa powder.

At Shane Confectionery in Old City, some are topped with pine nuts to mimic potato sprouts. Everyone does them a little differently, and different recipes make different flavors pop, or change the appearance. The candies are soft to bite into, though the texture can vary.

How they came to be (maybe)

The Irish potato’s Philadelphia story has been explored at length in the press, from local publications like the Inquirer and Chestnut Hill Local to national food outlets. There’s no definitive account, but there’s certainly lots of speculation.

Sparknotes: They were probably invented in the 19th or early 20th century, when Philly became home to an increasingly large Irish immigrant population in the wake of the Great Potato Famine. Food experts don’t think they actually started in Ireland, per Eater, and they’ve never been common outside of the Philly metro area.

There are a handful of theories about how they got started:

  • Irish immigrants might have invented them, possibly trying to jump on the opportunity Pennsylvania presented as a candy-making hub
  • They could’ve been an accident — a coconut cream Easter egg dropped in cinnamon, perhaps
  • They might have been intended to fill the candy sales gap between Valentine’s Day and Easter

Whatever the sweet’s origin, it’s claimed its place as a popular treat over the past century. 

A division of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians social club has sold literally tons of them as a part of annual fundraisers over several decades, per an Inquirer article from 2005. One local hobbyist even gained a reputation as the “candyman” for making them year-round back in the 90s, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. 

Today, local shops and manufactures sell thousands of pounds of the candies per year, and other culinary creations inspired by the flavor profile abound on the Philly food scene.

A sign outside Lore’s Chocolates on Washington Square advertises “Irish potatoes.” (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

You won’t find them on the other side of the ocean — or the state

For some, Irish potato candy = springtime.

Rubery, of McGillin’s, said the confections pop up often at the bar around St. Patrick’s Day, just because lots of staff members tend to bring them in to share.

Alexandra Langendorfer, a Billy Penn reader, said the candies always signaled the start of spring, when Langendorfer’s mother — a coconut-lover without a “drop of Irish in her Polish lineage” — would have them around.

BP reader Madeleine McHugh Pierucci, who grew up in Norris Square during the World War II era, said the “cinnamon-y gem” was a popular excuse to break Lent on St. Patrick’s Day in her heavily Catholic neighborhood.

For Philly expats, tracking them down outside the region can be a struggle.

BP reader Michele Holben, who grew up in Philadelphia, only realized they were local to this area after an unsuccessful search for the “cinnamon and coconut deliciousness in a heavenly mouth sized round shape” in Erie during college.

“As I described what I was trying to find, people looked at me with facial expressions that appeared to be my [questioning] my sanity,” Holben told Billy Penn. “I received a lot of blank stares and questions about how much university was stressing me out.”

Now living in Cologne, Germany, Holben makes a homemade vegan version every year for St. Patrick’s Day and shares them with friends, relishing the “chance to talk about how awesome Philly is and how Philly created the greatest St. Patty’s day treat, the Irish Potato.”

Where to find them in Philly

Lots of places sell Irish potatoes in and around Philly, so be forewarned this is not an exhaustive list.

The Delco-based Oh Ryan’s brand is often sold at grocery stores like ACME. For custom creations, you can check Shane Confectionery in Old City, Lore’s Chocolates near Jeweler’s Row, or Isgro’s or Anthony’s in the Italian Market area.

There are also lots of vendors at Reading Terminal Market who sell Irish potatoes: Sweet As Fudge, The Head Nut, Termini Bros, Pennsylvania General Store, and Mueller Chocolate Co.

Some outside-of-Philly suggestions from BP readers include Aunt Charlotte’s Candy Store in Merchantville and Daryl’s Pastries in Glenside.

Irish potato martini is a best-seller at McGillin’s Olde Ale House. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

As for spinoffs: There are plenty of milkshake options — at Franklin Fountain in Old City, and at Frankford Hall and Joe’s Steaks in Fishtown. The recently opened Holy Cannoli Cafe in West Passyunk has a cannoli flavor inspired by the candy on the menu this month, and Urban Farmer in Logan Square will offer a $19 Irish potato-inspired French toast during brunch this weekend. In years’ past, Federal Donuts has offered an Irish potato donut. Like McGillin’s, McKenna’s Pub in Pennsport sells a martini version of the treat.

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Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...