Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=166055
Story Retrieval Date: 9/1/2014 11:15:34 PM CST
After 25 years in business, a shift in ownership and a face-lift that includes a Candy Land-inspired façade, Illinois Nut & Candy LLC is providing innovative twists on classic sweet and salty favorites.
The chocolate manufacturer and retail store located at 3745 W. Dempster in Skokie provides customers with treats free of casein protein, food dye, gluten, nut, lactose, and sugar, as well as vegan and organic products.
“In addition to being the largest kosher candy store in the Midwest, we also cater to the niches,” said David Levine, owner of Illinois Nut & Candy. “We are able to help people get candy that they cannot ordinarily get.”
He says that even folks with diabetes or food allergies now may indulge in savory treats, which would have been nearly impossible previously. With more than 600 confections, Illinois Nut & Candy professes to have something to satisfy every sweet tooth.
“When I need presents, I always come here,” said Miriam Neuman, a 16-year customer, who favors Rainbow Raisins. “It’s a chocolate-covered raisin in different colors, but everything is good here.”
Illinois Nut & Candy offers to fill individual requests including particulars about color, flavor, theme and decoration.
In 2009, Illinois Nut & Candy had gross sales of more than $600,000. It has remained profitable during the recession, but sales have leveled off. On average, small candy businesses had sales in 2007 of about $212,000 according to figures compiled by Entrepreneur Media Inc., which would place Illinois Nut & Candy above average in an ever-growing, competitive market.
“We are working a lot harder and a lot smarter,” said Levine
“Everything in the store is kosher certified,” he went on. However, he explained, “It’s not that the rabbi is walking around blessing all of the candy in the store.” Kosher certified means that the candy and all of the chocolate goes through a process guaranteeing that everything that goes into the product is not contaminated in any way.
“This place is wonderful,” said Lamore Gatenio, a customer for 10 years. “It’s got everything you need. It's great quality, it's fresh always.”
Back in the early 2000s, Levine was a bored information technology worker looking for a creative outlet.
A self-described “refugee of the dot-com era,” Levine and his wife, Melissa, decided to buy the Illinois Nut Outlet six years ago, transforming it into Illinois Nut & Candy. The couple had had ties to the business for years. His wife actually worked at the Nut Outlet when she was in high school. She's the creative side of the business, Levine said.
“I had no idea I was gonna be a candy man when I got older,” said Levine, whose friends pushed him to pursue a career he was passionate about. “I am passionate about eating,” said Levine. “I joke I have the sweetest job in the world.”
In addition to the Levines, the business employs four individuals full time. During busier seasons, they have as many as nine.
All of the chocolate is made on site within two kitchens, producing sweets ranging from award-winning Peanut Butter Bark to dipped fruit and popular products such as English toffee and taffy apples.
“They can always help you," said Gatenio. You know if you say, ‘I need a $15 or a $40 gift,’ they always make sure to give you what you need.”
In order to make innovative confectionary creations, Levine orders all of his nuts from local roasters and purchases fruit from national and overseas growers.
“We are doing research and development on three new possible products, which is very exciting,” said Levine. Every product receives the “toughest” scrutiny. “If I won’t eat it, I won’t sell it,” Levine joked.
On top of the wide array of handmade offerings, Levine stocks his shelves with classic candies from around the country including Jelly Belly jelly beans--a favorite of President Ronald Reagan--Gummi Cherries, and Laffy Taffy.
According to Consumers’ Research magazine, candy sales are virtually recession-proof; they thrive even as the economy fluctuates.
As people tighten their wallets, they seem to loosen their belts using candy as an inexpensive pick-me-up. Since 2007, total sales of salty and sweet snacks have increased more than 15 percent. Confectionary sales alone have increased 5.7 percent in 2010 compared with a year ago, according to the National Confectioners Association.
The association says the average American consumer eats 23.8 pounds of sweets a year at a cost of $92.91, resulting in total industry sales of $46.7 billion.
However, Illinois Nut & Candy, after years of strong growth, is no longer growing. “Flat is the new up” Levine said, referring to the recession.
One drag on the business: corporate accounts have decreased.
Nevertheless, “we are not laying people off and are paying our bills, which is a testament to the quality of our products and our customer service,” said Levine.
Levine is an active member of six chambers of commerce and supports a number of non-profits including local schools, libraries, synagogues, LifeSource and Make-A-Wish Foundation.
In August, Levine experienced one of his proudest moments as an owner when he made an ill child’s dream come true. Five-year-old Carter Kettner of Huntley was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and Levine donated 8,000 gumballs to make Kettner’s dream of standing beneath a stream of gumballs come true.
“The best way to advertise is word of mouth and giving back to the community,” said Levine. “Giving back is one of the most important things we do.”