A stop in downtown St. Paul isn't complete — not if you have a sweet tooth — without ducking into Candyland. Founded in 1932 and purchased by Brenda Lamb's family in 1981, the tiny shop at 435 N. Wabasha St. is an intoxicating blend of sweet scents and mouth-watering displays.
Eye On St. Paul stopped by recently and talked to Lamb about the past, present and future of Candyland. This interview was edited for length — and shortened to buy some treats (chocolate-covered peanuts, the Eye's favorite for 50 years).
Q: You say this store runs on tradition. Tell me about that.
A: You've had generations who have been coming here, and they brought their children and then their grandchildren. They might have an event with one of our products, and it always has to be there.
Q: How long have you owned it?
A: Almost 43 years.
Q: What is the most popular item that you sell?
A: Chicago Mix [cheese, caramel and regular seasoned popcorn].
Q: When did that start?
A: We started displaying it for sale in '88. And it took off so fast. People were coming in and going, "What is this?" [Before then] shops did not mix the popcorn.
Q: Whose idea was that?
A: To mix it? Mine. One Sunday it was 100 degrees, and our popcorn business does not do well at 100 degrees. People want ice cream. We'd just come back from Chicago, and I said, "I'm going to start mixing this." I put it on the counter. And every single bag sold.
At the time, our regular seasoned popcorn was one of our bestsellers. The businesspeople downtown, they would get it for lunches, meetings, breaks.
Q: Why is Chicago Mix so popular?
A: The salty-sweet combination. You have all the classics in one bag. It's so addicting. People have called it crack popcorn, because they can't put it down.
Q: What did that do to the candy business?
A: Nothing. It's totally two separate purchases. We sell just as much candy as we do popcorn. We sell massive amounts of candy.
Q: What's your bestselling candy?
A: There are so many. That's a hard one because you have so many different categories, a big variety of candy. I mean, when I first came here, there was no such thing as a gummy. We originally purchased from Germany, because that's where the gummies started. Chocolate-covered peanuts was a huge seller.
Q: So, you started in 1932?
A: Yeah. But we didn't start as Candyland. We started as Flavo Korn. All we sold was flavored popcorn. That was a very small store that was actually down the street. We moved to this location in 1979. In the late '40s is when [the previous owner] decided to start getting candy. And he had candy when there were only a few selections. He then changed it to Candyland.
Q: How many owners have there been?
A: Actually, three. From 1932 to 1938, there was a man called Mace. I don't know his first name. He started the store and then he sold it to Arnie [Kelsey] in '38. We always thought [Mace] started the store to launder [money] for the mob. Arnie said [Mace] always had a lot of people coming around looking for him. And he disappeared. Never saw him again.
Q: You've seen lots of changes to Wabasha Street over the years.
A: Some not so good.
Q: You're not in favor of the new bike path [in front of the store]?
A: It's been a huge negative impact on our business and the other small retailers.
Q: How so?
A: It took away parking. Our walk-ins have seen a great decline. Before, our business was 50 percent drive-up. That has dwindled incredibly, because they can't find a place to park. Another thing is the majority of downtown workers did not come back [after COVID-19]. There are some who came back. The big companies around here, they really support us with corporate orders. We really appreciate that.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: We're sustaining, and we do have a great following. But it's decreased so much. We do our internet business out of the store. We are dabbling in wholesale now — 2024 will probably explode. We're selling Chicago Mix. [Points to a stack of boxes] These are going to Kowalski's.
Q: Do you think there will ever be a time when there isn't a Candyland [in St. Paul]?
A: I hope not. I mean, I'm going to be really honest with you, if this store didn't have such history — and such roots and great customers — with the way that the city has treated us, we would have been gone.
Q: How do you own this store and not weigh 500 pounds?
A: [Laughs] Well, we do taste-testing every day. But we are on our feet running. This is a lot of labor, physical labor. We have people who come in here and look at this as a retirement job. We just look at them. I was 21 when I came here, and no, you cannot start this at retirement age.
Q: You're wearing an apron; you're wearing a hat. You're the boss and I've seen you mixing popcorn.
A: I'm also the janitor. I do everything. We're very hands-on.