Half a Century of SweetnessJun 30, 2020 02:20PM ● By Karey Solomon
Once upon a time—and also now—a happy family owned a company making small batch artisanal candies off a maple-shaded byway in Gillett. The family members all like each other and work together harmoniously each day. Inside a large, bright white room sparkling with gleaming copper kettles and stainless steel tables, masked, gloved, and hair-netted people speak in soft voices, moving with the assurance and grace of dancers performing a well-rehearsed number. The air is scented with the heady aromas of cooking sugar, butter, and chocolate.
If it sounds like a fairy tale, it’s because this narrative skips the long hours of standing on one’s feet measuring and stirring and cooking and timing and checking and pouring and stretching and cutting and packaging and sorting and talking to customers and sending out sweet confections. It misses the fair-and-festival circuit that once was the bread and butter of the business, the risks every small family-owned business takes as a matter of course, and the particular challenges of this year—as well as the ones they’ve met for the previous forty-nine.
This year is Hall’s Candies’ fiftieth year in business, with the fourth generation of the Hall family now involved. And despite 2020’s difficulties, they’re going to celebrate the cheerfulness, dedication, and hard work that got them here.
Back in 1970, Burton, Leon, and Sally Hall purchased Sally’s Uncle Warter’s taffy business, then made taffy treats to take to county fairs and festivals, selling their wares to fair-goers who looked forward to meeting up with them each year. Later in 1970, they bought Doc’s Candies on Hoffman Street in Elmira, adding homemade fudge to their repertoire. But in 1974 they closed the retail business, built a 400-square-foot manufacturing facility in Gillett, and returned to a seasonal candy operation during summer fairs and holidays. Sadly, Sally Hall died a few months ago with the return of an aggressive cancer. She’s much missed by her family and the staff at Hall’s Candies.
In 2011, Gary and Jeanne Andrews (Gary was adopted by the Hall family) purchased the family business and two years later returned it to a year-round operation with wholesale and online selling. Their success meant increasing their production facility by adding on to the original workshop, involving every family member plus eight employees, and expanding their sweet menu. One sister, Beth, is a nurse who pitches in during the peak pre-holiday season but mostly works as a hospital hero.
As we talk, Gary measures ingredients on a venerable antique scale as almonds roast and butter gently melts in the copper kettle. Copper is the preferred material for candy production because it spreads heat evenly. He and his crew will make ten small batches of brittle this morning—first pecan, then almond, then peanut brittle. Nuts for each batch are roasted minutes before being added.
As he’s working on the next batch, son Greg is energetically spreading the foamy, just-cooked brittle on a stainless steel tabletop with a huge spatula. He cuts the rapidly cooling brittle and separates it into three slabs. One goes on the table behind him, where Arianna and Della stretch it to thin it and facilitate cooling. Della, before this retirement job, taught first grade, and Greg and Emilee are former students. Gary returns to work with Greg at spreading out the other two slabs and Sophia steps to the kettle to stir the new batch. Gary and Greg move everything to the second table and, working together, cut the brittle into even pieces with a rolling knife as Della and Arianna step back. Then Gary returns to the kettle, and the three women separate brittle along the knife-scored lines and pile it carefully into labeled bins. By the time they’re nearly done, Greg and Gary are carrying the next kettle to the first table where they tip it so this next batch can spread out. These are special tables, with water tubes running under the steel surface to heat or cool the tabletops to help with working the candy.
That’s just the morning’s work—in the afternoon they’ll package the cooled, fresh brittle.
In addition to the three brittles, they produce more than a dozen kinds of fudge. If you can’t decide between them, they offer an assortment, which is their most popular “flavor.” Oreos, pretzels, marshmallows, and peanut brittle are dipped in milk or dark chocolate—a process apparently as much fun to watch as it is to do—it’s a favorite attraction for school kids taking a factory tour, who often look wonderstruck at the amounts of chocolate around them. Near Easter, Hall’s makes chocolate bunnies.
Every family member and employee has a favorite job and a favorite flavor. Jeanne enjoys customer service, so she fields phone calls and packs upwards of forty orders every day. Their chocolate regularly travels to customers in all fifty states, and is sold at twenty-five Wegmans supermarkets, as well as online.
Gary and Greg do much of the cooking to produce the brittles and fudges. Emilee works at marketing and the social media platform while her older brother Ryan is “All things IT.” The candy favorites are fairly evenly divided—Emilee likes peanut butter, Sophia likes plain chocolate fudge, Della favors penuche (a caramel-ish fudge made with brown sugar), Greg likes the chocolate-dipped Oreos, and Jeanne would choose the milk chocolate-covered peanut brittle. “But there’s not a thing I don’t like!” she hastens to add. The employees joke they need the masks they’re wearing to keep them from snacking on the job.
Many sales happen online (hallscandies.com) where it’s also possible to sign up for the company’s newsletter—an important email to get if you’re wondering which seasonal flavor of creamy fudge is about to become your own new favorite. The newsletter is also the source of information on specials. There will be several, BTW, to celebrate this anniversary no fudge and brittle enthusiast would want to miss, and you will find them at 32740 PA-14, Gillett, or get information at (888) 376-3152.
And as the sweet taste of happily ever after melts through your mouth and makes your taste buds smile, it’s good to know the Andrews family is continuing to make more of it.