Food & Drink

Sweet Spots

Local candy companies pull back the curtain and reveal how they're the real Willy Wonkas of Baltimore.

Around the Christmas and Valentine’s Day holidays, a curious thing happens outside a Wilkens Avenue row house near Saint Agnes Hospital. Before sunrise, people brave the frigid temperatures and line up in front of what appears to be a garage behind the house. Outfitted in winter garb, they’re in surprisingly good spirits despite being exposed to the elements. Baltimoreans have been making this pilgrimage for decades, because the row house—its blinds drawn and curtains pulled—doubles as a candy factory, and the garage houses the city’s legendary candy shop, Rheb’s.

Mary Donohue stands in line at 7:30 a.m., the week before Christmas. “This is the second time this month that I’ve been out here,” she says. “I’ve been coming for at least 25 years.”

Nearby, Sheila Mayer gives a knowing nod. “My mother was a nurse at Saint Agnes,” says Mayer, “and she always got all of our candy from Rheb’s.”

“I’ve been coming here a little over 40 years,” says Lee Homens, who’s been known to show up as early as five in the morning with his Dodge Caravan stocked with coffee and donuts for his fellow pilgrims. “And I don’t even eat candy. Is that loyalty or insanity? I gift it, because I know it’s the best.”

“I always come for dark chocolate, vanilla butter creams, and caramels,” notes Donohue. After a pause, she adds: “And also chocolate-covered walnuts and cashews. Once, I didn’t get in line and tried coming late, but that didn’t work—they were out of caramels. I hope they have caramels today.”

Mayer says she’s partial to butter creams and dark chocolate. Her mother came for the chocolate-covered cherries and caramels.

“You know, this place is a Maryland treasure,” says Mayer. “We have our crabs, and we have our Rheb’s.”

“Nothing compares to this,” adds Donohue. “It’s still made by hand—that’s the best part about it. It’s personalized, not like a factory.”

They look wistfully toward the house, where Rheb’s candymakers can be seen through the slatted windows of the basement, which is partially above ground. When asked if they’ve ever been inside, Donohue and Mayer’s eyes widen at the thought of such a golden-ticket opportunity. “Oh, no,” says Donohue, shaking her head. “Never. It’s like sacred ground in there, isn’t it?”

Indeed it is, and Rheb’s is a sort of mecca within Baltimore candy culture. It harkens back to an era when candymaking was a family business, often started by European immigrants who plied their trade in row-house basements and sold their products in small storefronts and city markets. The likes of Wockenfuss and Mary Sue started this way, too.

As a result, these Baltimore companies remain steeped in tradition, and their owners are surprisingly hands-on and fiercely proud of what they do. In fact, they can’t really imagine doing anything else.

When Rheb’s shop door opens at 8:30 a.m.—not a minute earlier, or later—you get an inkling why. By that time, the line stretches down the block, and customers file inside, take a number, and stand shoulder to shoulder as their orders are filled by a half-dozen clerks who carefully hand-pack and gift wrap each box. Some jostling might be expected in the tiny shop, but everyone seems lulled by the thick aroma of cocoa and the gleaming cases of chocolates. They’re like, well, kids in a candy store.

Twenty minutes later, Donohue emerges looking pleased. She got her caramels.

“It’s a fun business,” says Rheb’s president Wynn Harger. “Chocolate is one of those things that always makes you feel good.”

Dressed casually in a Ravens cap and jeans, Harger sits behind a desk in an upstairs office inside the Wilkens Avenue house. Born across the street at Saint Agnes, Harger is a third-generation candymaker. His grandparents, Louis and Esther Rheb, bought the home when they were newlyweds. “When they came over from Germany, this whole area was populated with German families,” says Harger. “[Louis] was a baker, and I’m not sure how he got into the candy business.”

What he does know is that Louis began making candy—mostly taffies, brittles, fudges, and jellies—in the basement in 1917. And that’s where Rheb’s candy has been made ever since. Louis concocted his own recipes and initially sold candy two or three days a week at city markets: he’d sell at Belair and Esther would sell at Hollins. They started at Lexington Market in the 1930s and maintained a stall there until 2008.

Eventually, Louis developed recipes for centers (such as butter creams and caramels) that Esther hand-dipped in chocolate, and these proved to be extremely popular, so they converted their garage into a candy shop in 1950. Louis groomed his son, Albert, to take over the retail operation and helped his son-in-law, Edwin Harger (Wynn’s father), establish a wholesale business. “My grandparents and uncle did retail, and my dad did wholesale,” says Harger, whose wife, daughter, and former son-in-law also work for the company.

Wynn went to work at Harger’s Chocolate, mopping floors and driving a delivery truck while still in high school. He learned the business and moved over to Rheb’s, in 1982, after his father passed away and the wholesale business folded. Wynn eventually took over for Albert, who had no children of his own. “Except for my mom,” notes Wynn, “there are no more Rhebs, though I’m half a Rheb.” Until recently, his mother, Esther Rheb Harger, who’s now 92, worked a few hours a week at the shop.

Walking through the downstairs factory, the 63-year-old Harger says that, besides his administrative duties, he’s also responsible for “making all the candy” and stops beside a stack of 50-pound bags of sugar. “I was so glad when they stopped making 100-pound bags of this stuff,” he says, smiling. “I can’t pick up that sugar like I used to. The chocolate we use comes in 50-pound cases containing 10-pound candy bars.”

Harger steps into a long room with a low ceiling and fluorescent lights. This is the room customers can see from the sidewalk through those slatted windows. Dark and milk chocolate run through the overhead pipes, and a bearded man in a baseball cap mixes up a batch of coconut cream, which is then rolled into long, thin strips, cut into small pieces, rolled into small balls, and lined up on wax-papered trays by six women at a stainless-steel table. “The boys make it, the girls roll it, and then it goes on the conveyor belt,” explains Harger.

Around the corner, another woman plucks the coconut-cream balls off the trays and places them in rows of five on a conveyor belt that pulls them through a shower of milk chocolate. After they pass through, a woman sitting on a stool uses a pointed stick (which looks like a thin skewer) to put a distinctive marking on the top of each piece. That way, says Harger, they can later identify what’s inside.

Harger notes that much of the machinery dates to the 1940s and says that most of his employees “have been with me forever and ever, 20 to 25 years.” When asked what has changed over the years, Harger looks baffled. “I wouldn’t want to change anything,” he says. “People expect our candy to be the same, and the recipes are the same ones we’ve always used. Of course, we add new things every once in a while,”—like the sea-salt caramels and pecan turtles, which Rheb’s now makes in addition to its cashew turtles—“but basically, people like our candy the way it is. So why mess with a good thing?”

Harger pauses by the back door, near rows of time cards, and ponders the inevitable Willy Wonka comparison. “It certainly fits,” he says.

Then, he flashes a quick smile and returns to his beloved chocolates.

A few blocks from Rheb’s, Baltimore’s version of Wonka’s chocolate factory is located on South Caton Avenue. It’s not gated or architecturally grand—just a brick-fronted, blue-sided building—but Mary Sue rivals Wonka for brand recognition in this region, largely due to its ubiquitous chocolate eggs at Easter. It might be tempting to compare owner Bill Buppert to Wonka, but he’s actually more like Charlie.

Remember in the original film when Wonka tells Charlie that he’s “won the grand and glorious jackpot,” and Charlie figures it’s a lifetime supply of chocolate? “That’s just the beginning,” Wonka tells him, before asking Charlie what he thinks of the chocolate factory. “I think it’s the most wonderful place in the world,” he says, and Wonka gives it to him.

Just like that, Charlie goes from wide-eyed outsider to realizing every kid’s dream of owning a candy factory. He can’t believe his luck, and neither can Buppert, who bought Mary Sue 10 years ago, when he was 23 years old. He also purchased Naron Chocolates and Glauber’s Fine Chocolates, a pair of smaller, local companies.

Like Charlie, he doesn’t come from a candymaking dynasty—he simply loves candy. The Ruxton native says he was in the right place at the right time. “The company came up for sale in 2001, and the opportunity piqued my interest,” says Buppert. “It also provided an opportunity to continue these brands that had been around for such a long time.”

Samuel Spector, a Russian immigrant, started Mary Sue in the basement of a Southwest Baltimore row house in 1948. The company was named after the daughters of his partner, Harry Gerwig, who passed away the following year. According to Buppert, Spector expanded into three adjoining houses, and after outgrowing them, built the Caton Avenue factory in the 1950s. He died in 1995, at the age of 86, and Buppert bought the company six years later.

Sitting in an office down the hall from the sprawling production floor, Buppert smiles when asked if he had any previous experience with food or manufacturing at the time. “No, I had a degree in finance,” he says, before quickly adding, “but I do like to eat a lot, and I grew up eating Mary Sue candy. Who’d have thought that when I was 10 years old eating that Mary Sue pecan-nougat egg that, one day, I’d be in charge of making them?”

There was something of a learning curve, but Buppert says he’s now involved in practically every facet of the business, from ordering ingredients to tinkering with the machinery. He certainly appears to be hands-on, wearing a hair net and a Mary Sue vest splattered with white splotches. “That’s fondant on my jacket,” he says. “We were making it this morning, and it’s a dirty job.”

This afternoon, he’ll continue working on a new recipe, using the Kitchen Aid Professional Mixer he keeps in his office. The mixer sits on a side table, along with a few small bottles of McCormick flavorings. “It’s an item I’m trying to develop for next Christmas,” says Buppert. “See, the fundamentals of candy making are all the same. All creams have the same base. You’re using a fondant—it’s what you do to it that makes it unique.”

Buppert avoids being too specific about what he’s working on, saying only that “it’s a butter-cream base, and the trick is getting the flavor right and making sure the consistency is correct so it doesn’t gunk up the machines.”

When asked how long he sees himself continuing at Mary Sue, the look on Buppert’s face indicates that the answer should be obvious. “I get to make candy every day,” he says. “How cool is that? I can’t imagine doing anything else, so I see myself being here for a long, long time.”

It brings to mind when Wonka asks Charlie, at the end of the film, if he knows what happened to the man who got everything he wanted. The answer: “He lived happily ever after.”

During that last scene, Charlie, looking concerned, asks Wonka if he can bring his family along. “Yes, I want you to bring them all,” says Wonka, and that spirit permeates day-to-day operations at Wockenfuss, where 15 family members currently work. Owner Paul Wockenfuss is a third-generation candymaker.

Walking through the company’s labyrinthine facility in Northeast Baltimore—which includes its flagship shop at Belair Road and Frankford Avenue—Wockenfuss says he’s planning to, one day, turn the company over to his three daughters: Chris, Janice, and Jennifer. They run Wockenfuss’s eight retail stores (including three Ocean City locations) and, according to their father, “have good business heads on them.”

But for the company to have a shot at remaining viable for future generations, it needs to expand. With that in mind, Wockenfuss is in the process of moving to a spacious facility just a few miles away on Harford Road. “By doing this now,” he explains, “my daughters should be set for the next 20 years.”

Wockenfuss speaks in a slow, deliberate manner, and it’s easy to imagine him contemplating every detail of such a move. His grandfather, Charles Herman Wockenfuss, came to Baltimore from Germany in 1884 and worked in candy manufacturing for 31 years before going into business for himself.

The Wockenfuss creation story took root in East Baltimore, with Charles first making candy in a building behind his house on Chase Street and later in the basement of a house on Southern Avenue.

When Charles retired, Paul’s father, Herman Lee, took over and, in 1945, moved the business to the house on Belair Road, where it’s been located ever since.

Over time, Herman expanded by digging out the front yard and putting in the store (1955), buying the building two doors up (1960), and constructing a three-story facility on an adjacent lot (1983).

“It worked for a long time, but now, we’re maxed out here,” says Paul, who grew up in the Belair Road house and started full-time with his dad in 1971. “There’s no way we can increase production at this location. You know, the biggest changes in the candy industry came after World War II, when people got exposed to other cultures and came back having experienced other foods. The soldiers had European chocolate—at that time, chocolate was much bigger in Europe than it was in the United States.

“Then, the economy picked up in the early 1950s, so people had more money to spend on things like candy, and you also had air conditioning. You can’t sell chocolate in 100-degree weather without air conditioning. For that reason, my grandfather and father made a lot of hard candy.”

Herman developed most of Wockenfuss’s signature candies, and the company pretty much sticks to those traditional recipes. And nowhere is that tradition more evident than in the kitchen of David Koch, Wockenfuss’s head candymaker. A cousin of Paul’s, Koch, 33, has worked at Wockenfuss for 19 years. His father, Richard, has worked there for 43 years and is currently plant manager. “I started out cleaning trays and emptying trash cans,” says David, who has a baby face and looks even younger than his age. “I worked my way up to Easter bunnies and eventually into the kitchen.”

He’s making a batch of Baltimore Caramel Fudge, which is a rarity in that it didn’t originate with Herman. According to company lore, it was a competitor’s product, and Herman liked it so much that he bought the recipe. Koch melts chocolate, at 230 degrees, in a large copper kettle over an open flame. He adds butter, sugar, corn syrup, and some salt, and then it sits for two hours and cools to about 110 degrees. About every 15 minutes, he stirs the mixture with what looks like a canoe paddle.

“See how it’s starting to set up?” he says. “It’s getting a little dull on top. It’s real shiny now, but the more I beat it, it’s going to get duller or light brown.”

He’s dexterous with that paddle, beating and whipping the mixture, and it jumps to the lip of the kettle but never spills. “You beat it and you start to set up those sugar crystals,” he says. “This is old-time fudge.”

Koch picks up the kettle and pours its contents into four shallow trays and sets the trays on racks to cool. “If I don’t get it off the [metal] table quick enough,” he explains, “it will turn the bottom white. It will cool too quickly, and the sugar will crystallize too fast. It’s like you’re shocking it. It has to cool slowly, overnight, at room temperature. There’s a lot of chemistry involved in this. It’s a dying art, a very unique trade.”

Koch greets a woman walking through the kitchen on her way to lunch. Marge Plott is something of a legend at Wockenfuss, having worked there for 24 years and a grand total of 60 years at local candy companies (most of them with Miss America Candy). She says the dark chocolate is her secret—it’s good for the heart.

Seeing her, Koch smiles and shakes his head. “I’d love to work here for 40 years,” he says.

When asked if he’d ever like to do anything else, Koch ponders the question for a few moments. “I would,” he says. “I think I’d like to make Gummi bears.”