Friday, January 28, 2022

Chicago’s candy crown slips with Mars exit

     Jelly beans grow like pearls, around a grain of sugar instead of sand, while tumbling in drums that look like cement mixers.
     I know this from seeing it happen at the Ferrara candy factory in Forest Park, a rare glimpse inside one of Chicago’s secretive, dwindling world of candy companies. When I heard we’re losing another, that Mars Wrigley — the two merged in 2016 — is closing its West Side plant, dubbed the most beautiful factory in America when it opened in 1928, with its Spanish-style architecture and red-tiled roof, I must admit my first thought was not that Chicago is losing its grip on the “capital of the candy universe” brag, nor the 280 jobs lost. But a pouty, “Now I’ll never get to see the place.”
     I was badgering Mars just last summer, for all the good it did. Put it this way: Every time I interact with candy companies, I suspect anew that in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Willy Wonka character, rather than being Roald Dahl’s flight of fancy, is closer to straight reportage.
     Like children growing up in a family of oddballs, Chicagoans don’t quite grasp how unusual all this candy is. We are, remember, a city with a chocolate factory at its very heart: Blommers, seven blocks north of Union Station, one that, when the wind is right, bathes downtown in the most delicious aroma of warm cocoa.
     Have you ever walked up Michigan Avenue, and noticed the allegheny nickel skybridge that William Wrigley Junior threw between the 14th floors of his new pair of Wrigley buildings? (You do know there are two, don’t you? Right next to each other, built at different times, with two separate addresses: 400 and 410 N. Michigan Avenue.) A flourish of architectural whimsy more at home in Venice than in our pork-fed Midwestern city, famous for its Miesian brutalism.

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  1. Not hard to see why a plant built in 1928 has become an inefficient site for modern manufacturing operations. I understand the building will be donated to the community. A boon or perhaps a burdensome white elephant.

    For some reason, the subject brought to mind another indication of how the world has changed. A famous line from an Ogden Nash poem, "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker" would certainly be condemned as unseemly today.


  2. I've always told people I've been to Mars.
    When they say that's impossible, I just show them the Metra schedule for the Milwaukee West Line & there it is: Mars.
    Granted only a few trains stop there, but you to can go to Mars;)

    But the actual reason for the loss of so many candy companies & the jobs at them, is this country's insane sugar policies.
    We are being held hostage by two or three multi-billionaire Cuban Emigre families that control the cane fields of Florida & less than 40 multi-millionaire families that farm sugar beets in North Dakota.
    The people in the US pay the world's highest sugar prices, around 25-30 cents a pound, while the rest of the world pays between 6-10 cents a pound, much of it from Cuba.
    The most idiotic part of the ban on Cuban sugar is that we import a lot of candy from Mexico, Canada, Australia & Argentina [go to Dollar Tree & see where their candy & pastries with the unknown brand names come from] & they use Cuban sugar to make that candy, so in fact, the ban on Cuban sugar is just a fiction.

    1. You're absolutely correct. When I set out to write the column, I planned to highlight that. Even found a Commerce Department study saying that for every job preserved in the sugar industry by high tariffs three candy company jobs were lost. But it somehow got squeezed out and just as well, since those tariffs are never going away, for reasons you outline.

  3. Is it the plant at 2019 Oak Park Avenue? I toured that plant with my parents and kid sister, in the late summer of '58. As we passed a huge tub, where they mixed the glop for the Three Musketeers bars, or the Snickers bars, or whatever it became, seven-year-old Sis piped up: "Can I lick the beaters?"

    Everybody laughed, and thought she was sooooo cute. And they gave her a free bag of candy bars. Nobody paid any attention to her eleven-year old brother (me) who was whining and moaning in pain, because he'd gotten something in his eye the day before, and couldn't see out of it at all. We had to stop at our family doctor's office at Madison and Hamlin, overlooking Garfield Park, so he could employ some eyewash.

    I also went through the original Schwinn plant that summer, on Kostner Ave. Saw the bicycles being made. They hung from a moving overhead conveyer belt, on an assembly line. They gave each kid (the Leaning Tower YMCA day camp bused us there) a gold pin--a tiny little Schwinn bike. I had mine for years. I even toured the Cracker Jack plant, near Midway Airport. No candy, just little bags, full of prizes.

    My sister and her friends toured the Tootsietoy factory. I was up in Wisconsin, at summer camp, and missed out on that one. I was bummed. But plant tours and souvenirs were not all that big a deal back then. Manufacturers were proud to show off the way they made things. It was a kinder and gentler era. And I felt privileged to be living in Chicago, which used to be the place that made everything under the sun. That's not so true anymore...

  4. I have often thought that the Blommer Chocolate Company building must have been inspired by some of Roald Dahl's darker ideas, not so much the perpetual chocolate aroma (not unpleasant) throughout the River North area, or the odd way the lettering of "THE BLOMMER CHOCOLATE COMPANY" on the building creeps slightly upward at the end (easiest to see that from the Metra train passing by), but mainly for its colorful and occasionally violent history of fires and explosions throughout the years. I think some of the sheeting around the upper portions of the factory has been replaced more than once. Life gets too quiet in that neighborhood without the occasional boom to keep us on our toes. Who knew candy could be so... energetic?


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