There are lots of places that make sponge candy, but on the day before Valentine’s, it only seems right to tell the story of Ko-Ed Candies, a real mom-and-pop shop.
Sandy Whitt is the mom, and Gary Whitt is the pop, a second-generation candy maker. He grew up working for his father, Charles, in the same shop, at 285 Abbott Road.
Being a kid in the candy store wasn’t as dreamy as you might think. “You work too many hours, and it’s too much,” Whitt said. “I graduated South Park High School, got on a bus and left the next morning. I was gone for 14 years.”
He joined the Air Force, became a Russian linguist and analyst, met Sandy in Sacramento, and married her in Minden, Nev. They started searching for “a place where we could raise a family and afford to do it on one salary,” Gary said.
For his new wife and his future family, Whitt returned to Abbott Road, and bought the candy store from his dad. They raised their boys Garrison and Spencer there until moving into the house next door in 1996. “This was where the kids played, and this was our living room,” Whitt said, standing in office space behind the candy counter.
Around him is the bustle of a working candy store getting ready for one of the biggest days of the candy calendar. Sure, Ko-Ed will sell you lovely homemade marshmallows dipped in chocolate, coconut and chopped peanuts, called Charlie Chaplins, another regional delicacy. Or almond butter crunch, chocolate-coated nut toffee that’s so buttery you want to spread it on toast.
At Ko-Ed, though, Valentine’s Day – and Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day – means sponge candy.
“Sponge is big,” Gary Whitt said. Last year they sold about six tons of it, accounting for about 60 percent of all sales. “We’ve eliminated lots of products to make room for sponge,” he said.
Ko-Ed sells nothing else through spongecandy.com, its Internet store. Even around Valentine’s Day, chocolate hearts are a distant second.
The chocolate-swathed crunchy chunks called sponge candy are headliners in the world of Western New York confectionery. Usually offered in milk and dark chocolate varieties, it’s especially popular from Rochester to Erie, Pa. – the “Sponge Candy Crescent,” as Whitt calls it. As a major mail-order supplier, Whitt knows where the sponge cravers are.
Why is it so loved? You crunch into airy molasses foam that disappears too fast, then consoles with creamy chocolate. What makes the candy so enticing – the gossamer fragility of its center – is also its curse.
High humidity will make sponge candy start to get gooey in hours, if left uncovered. A good plastic bag, closed tight, will give you four to six weeks of crisp sponge candy – if you have any left by then, which is a problem some fans have never encountered.
That’s why the soft whirring of dehumidifiers is everywhere behind the candy counter. Whitt points to a humidity meter in the sponge candy kitchen. “This room is 34 percent – the desert, almost.” The rest of the building is monitored to stay at a target of 45 percent, he said.
Mix in the candy’s extreme sensitivity to heat, and you have a big part of the reason Ko-Ed closes every year. It’s only open from Oct. 1 till after Mother’s Day, when they sell out, clean up, and shut down for the summer. Sponge candy gets the summer off, and so do the Whitts and their 11 employees.
“We shut down spongecandy.com. It just gets too warm around the country to ship,” Whitt said. They’ve tried to extend the season, but it didn’t work, he said. “A couple years ago, we had a late Easter, and chocolate was melting in Illinois, where it was 85, on its way to Colorado.”
Sponge candy starts simply, with sugar, corn syrup and water loaded into an 11-gallon copper kettle, and cooked over a massive gas burner until it’s caramelized. Gelatin is added for texture, and baking soda makes the mixture foam, the tiny bubbles that are sponge candy’s charm. (The gelatin is a pork product, making Ko-Ed’s sponge candy unsuitable for halal, kosher or vegan diets. They tried beef gelatin and vegetable stabilizers like agars, Whitt said, but they but didn’t work as well.)
Once the sponge mixture is ready, the cook uses a hydraulic lift to tip the cauldron’s contents into a paper-lined cardboard box, where it cools. The block weighs 45 pounds. “You don’t want to get a finger caught between it and the counter,” Whitt said. Rapping it with your knuckles is like knocking on a tree trunk.
At a metal table behind Whitt, Tim Leahy is throwing away most of the sponge candy. He takes a handsaw to a bale-sized block, cutting off the harder outside layer and leaving the tender core. Then he cuts the block’s heart into domino-sized pieces, ready for their chocolate enrobing.
“We throw away two-thirds of it by weight, the hard crust,” said Whitt. “To the 15 pounds that’s left we add 60 pounds of chocolate in the enrobing, making 75 pounds of finished candy.” Or maybe a little more. Ko-Ed’s employees are encouraged to sample for quality control.
The bare dominoes are dipped in melted chocolate bottom first, then run through a total coat, then bottomed again. A tight chocolate coat helps keep the confection crispy, Whitt said. Ko-Ed uses Wilbur chocolate, a premium commercial product, he said. Its quality is crucial to the final savor of the confection, since chocolate outweighs sponge by a 4-1 ratio in every piece, and cheap, waxy chocolate mars the aftertaste.
As pieces of finished candy come down the conveyor belt, they’re scooped into plastic bags and twist-tied. Whitt insisted his sponge should be tasted right off the conveyor. I complied, for science. It turns out fresh sponge is so crunchy it squeaks when you bite down.
The door chime, announcing a new retail customer to the candy store out front, rang every couple minutes on this day a week before Valentine’s. The Whitts built every shelf themselves, even the glass display case.
Ko-Ed is retail only, its currency the one-on-one sale. With no parking besides a few streetside spots, the store packs in loyal customers, some of whom bought candy from the old man, too.
The Internet store has grown to about 20 percent of sponge candy sales, which helps, Whitt said. “The Internet is sending our kids to college.”
That’s right: They’ve been making candy together so long that the boys who once played in what’s now the employee break room are young men in college. But Sandy and Gary are still working full time together, usually seven days a week, practically joined at the hip.
During their summers off, “We live,” Gary said simply. “All that life we defer from the eight months sort of sucks up the four months. Plus, we remodel.” At least Sandy gets to work on her prizewinning garden in the front yard, behind the white picket fence.
“We both love our job,” said Sandy, whose cheeriness balances out Gary’s smoldering intensity. “We do.”
“It’s just that it’s exhausting. And all the hours around holidays, like Christmas. It’s just really hard to work seven days a week all your waking hours when it’s Christmas.”
At least you know what to get everyone, a visitor suggests.
“And I do,” she said, beaming. “Oh, I do.”