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

This Built America: Idaho Candy Company Keeps Tradition Alive
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.

<b class="credit">Ryan Cork</b>Idaho Candy Co. owner Dave Wagers works with one of his company's old candy cauldrons.
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, %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%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."

Originally published