How sweet it was: A history of Buffalo's confectioneries
Photos courtesy of Watsons
No one knows who Buffalo’s first confectioner was, but it’s fair to assume that as soon as people were living here, confectioners were doing business. In 1820, twelve years before the incorporation of the City of Buffalo, a grocer named J. Guiteau advertised in the Niagara Patriot that he was selling confections out of his store. In the city’s 1839 business directory, the JT Pierson & Co. Confectionery, advertising itself as an honest-to-goodness “Candy Store,” professed itself to be a manufacturer and seller of “a pure article ... at wholesale and retail.” Sugarplums, those unmistakably European, sugary-coated seeds, were the prized temptation of the era, and if you happened to be a confectioner with enough means to advertise, then you certainly advertised that you had sugarplums.
In the 1840s, the popularity of sugarplums was rivaled only by ice cream. In his oft-quoted Recollections of Buffalo, published in 1891, Samuel Welch says that one of the first confectioneries to offer ice cream was the shop of Arthur and John McArthur. According to Welch, the McArthurs served their ice cream “in long-stemmed wine glasses at six-pence each,” and that patrons enjoyed having the “ice cream heaped up on top of the glasses, which they took great care to trim off delicately so as not to lose a drop.” Like many confectioners of the early nineteenth century, the McArthurs catered primarily to affluent customers. Sugar wasn’t cheap at the time, and the city’s laborers would not have had disposable income to spend on confections. Welch hints at the exclusivity of the McArthurs’ enterprise, writing, “The firm’s business grew in magnitude until they became quite famous for their ice cream, and as caterers for our fashionable parties.”
Until the 1870s, the city’s business directories list “confectioners,” generally, lumping them into one category, regardless of how varied their products may have been. Besides sugarplums and ice cream, what else did the confectioners of the early nineteenth century produce? Generally speaking, they made candies or they made sweetmeats, and many made both. (And some sold newspapers and tobacco.) Candies included hard candies made of molasses and maple, candied fruits, sugar-coated nuts, marzipan, and toffee. Sweetmeats, a term that has been used since antiquity to describe all kinds of sweet foodstuffs, includes preserves, jams, jellies, syrups, cakes, cookies, and ice cream.
Modern readers who associate confectioneries with bins of multicolored penny candy or with the unceasing stroll of chocolate dainties along a conveyor may be surprised by the original meaning of the word “confectioner.” It derives from the Latin verb conficere, meaning “to put together,” and what confectioners originally put together were sugar-based medicinal preparations. Laura Mason, author of several books on old food preparations, offers a succinct explication of sugar’s perceived medical applications in her glossary entry for “Confectionery” on the Huffington Post’s food website, Kitchen Daily: “When sugar first became known in Europe, it was a rare and costly commodity, valued mainly for its supposed medicinal qualities and finding its place in the pharmacopoeia of the medieval apothecary.” Mason says sugar “was considered to be an excellent remedy for winter colds.” Even here in the States, many of the most popular candies of the early nineteenth century—licorice, marshmallows, peppermint sticks—were administered in the treatment of colds, coughs, indigestion, and nausea.
In this context, Buffalo provided an ideal marketplace for the earliest confectioners. Between 1840 and 1850, the city’s population exploded from 18,000 to 42,000 residents, and the rapid influx of people brought with it all kinds of problems, including a spike in crime, housing shortages, and political corruption. But the most fundamental quality-of-life concern due to overcrowding was a deficiency in sanitation, which, when coupled with humid summers and freezing winters, led to the rapid spread of consumption and various other lung afflictions. Many of Buffalo’s confectioners at the time certainly would have dabbled in the mixing of sugar-based medicinal remedies, taking advantage of Buffalo’s newfound access (via the Erie Canal) to all sorts of exotic goods, adding them to syrups and lozenges that they claimed were not only supposed to allay the symptoms of disease, but to provide the user with some measure of pleasure. Take, for instance, a Buffalo confectioner named Samuel J. Hinsdale who in 1842 advertised his “Compound Confection of Iceland Moss, or Cough Candy,” to be used “for coughs, cold, hooping [sic] cough, pain in the breast.” The advertisement distinguishes the candy from its competition, stating, “Unlike most of the cough remedies, it is pleasant to the taste.”
In terms of sheer street presence, the confectioners of early Buffalo were outdone by few industries. In 1857, Buffalo was home to ten confectioners, and the only industries that could claim more businesses were brewing (thirty-one), printing (seventeen), hats and caps (sixteen), coopers (fourteen), soaps and candles (fourteen), harnesses (thirteen), leather (eleven), and cabinetry (eleven). Over the next few decades, dozens of entrepreneurs decided to try their hand at confectionery, and, by 1888, when the city directory discriminated for the first time between retailers and wholesalers, the number of confectioners had skyrocketed to 126 retailers and thirteen wholesalers.
What accounts for the boom? Simply put, several technological and scientific developments of the latter 1800s made running a confectionery not only a more exciting enterprise, but a more profitable one, as well. The first development was the invention of new production technologies that allowed American candy makers to begin mass-producing and artfully packaging cheap sweets. Second, scientific discoveries had revealed the principles behind the process of sugar boiling, meaning that candy makers could now control and manipulate the process and, as a result, concoct new and unusual confections. A final development of the time was the refinement of chocolate. Chocolate was rarely used as a confection in the nineteenth century, and it appeared in Buffalo newspaper advertisements for the first time in 1870. When a Dutch scientist discovered how to remove much of cocoa’s naturally occurring fat, chocolate became another tool of the confection trade; confectioneries could now make chocolate bars or use it for coating purposes.
During this era of the confection trade’s democratization, several Buffalo companies acted as agents of change, if only for a brief while. The city was home to several sugar works factories, the most successful of which was the American Glucose Company. In September 1888, Buffalo hosted an event known as the International Industrial Fair, and in anticipation of the event, the Buffalo Morning Express published a souvenir edition profiling the giants of the city’s industries. The paper prominently features the American Glucose Company in a story titled “Glucose Making—One of the great and typical Buffalo enterprises.” The story boasts of the Buffalo company’s role in expanding “the domestic manufacture of confectionery,” which “caused its richest products to be sold at prices within reach of the millions.”
Cheap sources of sugar gave rise to Buffalo’s first major confectionery of the mass production age. In 1873, Sibley & Holmwood opened on Seneca Street, employing eighteen. Within a decade, Sibley & Holmwood was producing more kinds of confections than any other candy maker in the country, and the company typically ranked among the country’s largest manufacturers of saltwater taffy. Interestingly, if not for the ambition of its founders, the company would have been doomed by two catastrophes. On December 8, 1886, with over 100,000 pounds of candy on hand for Christmas, a fire engulfed the factory and burned it to the ground in sixty minutes. Owners Frank Sibley and James Holmwood were undeterred, though, and within two days of the fire, they bought up another confectionery, Barnes & Swift, and continued to fill their Christmas orders. In October 1887, Sibley & Holmwood moved into a new six-story, 35,000 square-foot building erected on the site of the old factory. Amazingly, in 1889, that building also succumbed to a catastrophic fire, and another factory rose up from the ashes. Despite the fires, the company soldiered on until 1902, when it consolidated with nineteen other regional candy makers to form the National Candy Company.
As the candy-producing conglomerates of the twentieth century consolidated their power in the Midwest, Buffalo’s national influence in the industry diminished, and the city’s confectionery history began to chart a new trajectory, that of the neighborhood chocolatier. In Buffalo’s evolution into a city of specialty chocolate makers, certain moments stand out more than others, and the watershed moment of the last century arguably is Joseph A. Fowler’s arrival at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.
Fowler, a British subject who emigrated from Canada, immediately established a faithful following at the Expo, selling a number of different confections, everything from popcorn to chocolate. Spurred on by his success, he and brother Claude opened a shop together on Genesee Street. In 1910, after Claude decided to pursue his own business of selling candy apples and toffee at carnivals and fairs, Joseph opened his first chocolate shop on Jefferson Avenue, where it remained until 1968.
Fowler was not the city’s first chocolatier of the modern era. In fact, chocolate was a major attraction at the Expo, with two buildings devoted entirely to the display and sale of the product. Not to mention that at the time of the Expo, the city’s sweet-seeking customers were able to support almost 200 candy shops, ice cream parlors, and chocolate retailers. What Fowler’s arrival signaled, though, was the start of Buffalo’s century-long devotion to a number of family-run, immigrant chocolatiers, mostly Greek families who established their reputations by running restaurants or soda fountains. Many of Buffalo’s long-running chocolate institutions, including Antoinette’s, Alethea’s, Watson’s, and even Niagara Candy, all have a Hellenic ancestry.
Local chocolate expert Sam Mancuso, who began working for wholesaler Merckens Chocolates seventy years ago and now serves as a consultant to the company, says there’s a simple reason to explain the Greek influence: “They couldn’t get a job anywhere, so they went into business for themselves. And being that they knew how to bake, they decided the next best thing would be making candy.” According to Mancuso, the ideal mid-century shop made pastries, ice cream, and chocolates, but making pastries was tedious, labor intensive, and less lucrative than making chocolates, and so the second generation of confectioners dropped pastries altogether.
Within the Greek community, the shared struggle to make ends meet fostered a tradition of mentoring. Louis Liakeas, proprietor of the original and beloved Garden of Sweets on William Street, taught the business to his son-in-law, Nick Condrell, who had married Liakeas’s daughter Mary. Condrell, considered by many to be the godfather of Buffalo’s modern-day chocolatiers, opened up a second Garden of Sweets on Bailey Avenue and would come out of retirement in the 1960s to open Condrell’s Candies and Ice Cream Parlor on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore.
In addition to Condrell, Liakeas also mentored two brothers from Ohio: Lou and John Watson. The story of how Watson’s grew out of the Greek tradition to become one of Buffalo’s most famous chocolate shops helps to explain how the Buffalo confectionery scene has transformed over the past sixty years from family-run, corner store operations (numbering in the hundreds) to multiretail, globallyminded companies (numbering dozens).
In 1946, Lou and John Watson bought the Alcobar (now the Plaka Restaurant) on Delaware from Paul Condrell (brother to Nick). Watson’s Alcobar, as it was initially called, was a popular postwar hangout for teenagers and motorcyclists. The brothers started serving light lunches, sodas, and ice cream, but having inherited some basic knowledge of chocolate making from their ancestors, they started molding chocolate bunnies to sell out of the restaurant at Easter. To get their new venture off the ground, the brothers borrowed chocolate molds from anyone who was willing to help. Because the Greek chocolatiers in those days made chocolate from morning until night, the Watsons had no choice but to pick up the molds at the end of the business day, make chocolate all throughout the wee hours of the morning, and then return the cleaned molds to the other business owners before sun-up.
It was during these early years that the Watsons learned the art of chocolatiering from Louis Liakeas. In 1971, Lou’s son, Jim, entered the family business, and, through his urging, Watson’s expanded the holiday chocolate business, established new retail shops, and eventually pulled away from restaurants altogether. Today, the company has grown to include eight retail stores (four of which are franchises), several retail spaces at area casinos, a staff of sixty, and a headquarters and central production factory located on 15,000 square feet of space in Tonawanda. Yet the chocolate recipes have remained the same since those early years. Under the new leadership of Jim’s daughter, Whitney Watson Beecher, who in 2010 became Watson’s majority owner, the company has expanded its mail order catalog business as well as its online retailing. Jim Watson says “the Internet makes us all global companies instead of just local candy makers.”
Maybe ending this brief and incomplete history of Buffalo’s confectioneries with an image of the family, shop-gone-global is a tad misleading. After all, history does not run in a straight line from point A to point B, from the first sugarplums to be sold on lower Main Street in the 1830s to the habanero mango bonbons sold these days by the hip, environmentally conscious Chow Chocolat. Confectionery traditions reach across different heritages, get inflected by scientific and technological advancements, and are always changing. Still, I can’t help but find something soothing in knowing that a Buffalo ex-pat now living in Singapore can order a box of sponge candy online, receive it in days, take a bite, and have the exact same experience as a kid who ran around the streets of Buffalo’s East Side more than seventy years ago.
James Walkowiak is a regular Spree contributor. He apologizes to anyone who was hoping to read about Crystal Beach and its suckers, Kelly’s Country Store, or any of Buffalo’s summer ice cream stands. Follow him on twitter at @jtwalkowiak.