Lower East Side candy king holds firm against changing neighborhood

Walking into Economy Candy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it’s hard to know where to look first. To the foil-clad chocolate rabbits standing sentinel atop sacks of chocolate eggs? The stacks of kosher-for-Passover jelly rings and chocolate pops across the narrow aisle? The facing bins spilling over with peanut butter chews and saltwater taffy?

Make your way to the back of this Willy Wonka-esque store, past more of the 2,000 varieties of candy it sells, and the walls are lined with dispensers ready to release a rainbow of gumballs and jellybeans.

At a time when venerable Lower East Side companies like Streit’s Matzos are selling their increasingly valuable land to developers and departing, the decidedly old-school Economy Candy is holding firm.

Mitchell Cohen, who took over Economy Candy from his father two years ago after leaving his job at a leading investment bank, spent every Sunday he wasn’t in Hebrew school, and each school vacation, helping his parents at the store. Now he gets a regular stream of calls from people wanting to buy the building.

“We’re part of the neighborhood,” said Cohen, 29. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Cohen’s grandfather, Morris “Moishe” Cohen, started the business in 1937 as Economy Shoe, a repair shop with a pushcart in front selling candy and dried fruits. When Moishe, whose family had emigrated from Greece, returned to the Lower East Side after serving in the Army, he and his brother-in-law took over the place and renamed it Economy Candy.

Moishe Cohen’s family lived for a time on the third floor of the building that houses Economy Candy, back when it was a tenement. He died in his sleep last month at 97.

Today, Economy Candy inhabits all three stories, with the upper levels used for storage and packing web orders. The retail space on the first floor is full of candies of every imaginable variation and is a thriving, if slightly bedraggled, remnant of the old Jewish neighborhood amid the hipster hotels and pricey boutiques that share Rivington Street with bodegas and bars.

Back in Moishe’s day, Lower East Side streets bustled with hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants. There were six or seven other candy stores in the immediate vicinity, says Mitchell Cohen.

“Now we’re one of the only family-owned Jewish businesses left,” he said.

With the departure of Streit’s, which baked its last Passover matzah on Rivington Street on March 1, the only other one left is Russ and Daughters, the legendary lox-and-bagels shop run by its founder’s great-grandchildren.

A few other Jewish food purveyors remain — Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel knishes, Kossar’s bialys and The Pickle Guys (who took over the famed Guss’ pickles) — but none are run by their founding families. The dairy restaurant Ratner’s shut down in 2002 and the property is now being marketed as a development site.

“The Lower East Side has gone through so many transformations since my great-grandparents — and everybody else’s — lived there a century ago that our ancestors would plotz if they saw it,” said Julie Cohen (no relation to Mitchell), director and producer of “The Sturgeon Queens,” a documentary about Russ and Daughters. “But when I’m down there I can still feel the spirit of what it used to be.”

Today there are some 14,000 Jewish households in the neighborhood, says Laurie Tobias Cohen, the executive director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, which runs tours of the area. The preponderance of residents are Chinese, Puerto Rican or African-American — and those who can afford the million-dollar apartments going up.

Still, Tobias Cohen says, between synagogues, shtiebels, and new Jewish-owned boutiques and galleries, “There’s still a lot of Jewish life kicking on the Lower East Side.”

On a recent wintry afternoon, a constant stream of shoppers flowed through Economy Candy’s aisles. Manny Rodriguez, who describes himself as a regular at the store, had just purchased a fistful of Clark bars.

“I come more than I should,” he said.

Hand-dipped chocolate-covered graham crackers and chocolate-coated jelly rings are perennially popular, Cohen says, with orders coming in from all over the country. Earlier that day, someone had ordered 300 pounds of orange jelly fruit slices.

Green tea-flavored Kit Kats, which a number of customers had come in requesting after trying them in Japan, were Cohen’s biggest challenge: None of his usual distributors knew how to get them. He called Asian grocery distributors to no avail. Eventually he found one in Queens who could procure them and he placed an order for 300 bags. They were gone in two weeks.

The current candy crush is for English Cadbury chocolates, which are newly unavailable in the United States. The main ingredient in the American version is sugar. But the ones made in England list milk as the first ingredient, and devotees are fanatically loyal to their Flakes and Maltesers.

Hershey, which owns the American rights to Cadbury, has brought trademark infringement claims against a major distributor of the British product, which stopped importing them. Cohen stocked up as soon as he heard. And while he still has some on his shelves, he knows they won’t last long.

Unlike some of his Jewish customers, Cohen isn’t overly nostalgic for the bygone Lower East Side.His grandparents had left the neighborhood when his father was still young, and he was raised on Long Island. But Cohen is getting married in May, and he hopes to have children who will one day take over Economy Candy, as he always knew he would. Rivington Street will likely be different when they do.

“A lot of the stores — whether they’re old or new, candy shops or jewelry designers — are quirky one-offs where you can find the owners working behind the counter. And there are still a few places that drag their shmattes out onto the street to sell at a bargain price,” Julie Cohen said. “So even though most of the residents and retailers aren’t actually Jewish anymore, I guess I’d say the whole place is still actually pretty Jewy.”

Sweet spot: The sugar rush of Dylan’s Candy Bar

Retro lollipops and salt-water taffy have always had a thing for crazy swirls of color, just like Los Angeles. Now one big business is about to serve the City of Angels a whopping rainbow of 7,500 treats from around the world. New York-based Dylan’s Candy Bar, the namesake brainchild of Jewish billionaire fashion mogul Ralph Lauren’s daughter, Dylan, plans to unveil its first local branch in late August.

“We opened our first store 10 years ago in New York City, fulfilling a childhood dream of mine to create the largest, most magical candy store,” said Dylan Lauren, founder and CEO. “Today, our stores have attracted so many fans of all ages and nationalities — it has truly been beyond my sweetest dreams. Now I’m thrilled to bring my love of color, design and the joy of candy from coast to coast.” 

Spanning 1,200 square feet in the former Bath & Body Works space at the Farmers Market at Third and Fairfax is where you’ll soon find this branch of the world’s largest candy emporium. Candy is a $30 billion-plus industry, and it has long been on the mind of this heir to the Lauren fashion throne. As a girl, she owned a pair of bunnies that she named Chocolate and Vanilla. 

An art history graduate of Duke University, Lauren founded the company at age 26 in 2001 with an undisclosed amount of her own funds and “a lot” of financial support from her family. Her partner at the time was Jeff Rubin, a veteran of F.A.O. Schwarz, who left the company in 2004. Dylan’s is already a mega-success. The original location, 15,000-square-feet positioned across from Bloomingdale’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is a tourist destination in its own right, complete with its own cafe and bar and an extensive Web site.

In her 2010 book, “Dylan’s Candy Bar: Unwrap Your Sweet Life” (Clarkson Potter), Lauren further outlines her love of fashion, art and pop (candy) culture. In addition to the New York flagship, a mini store operates in East Hampton, and a store and cafe are up and running in Houston’s Galleria Mall. Miami is planned for winter 2012. Although Lauren has not yet announced its official start of business, the first satellite shop on the West Coast is meanwhile hiring for a variety of positions and is accepting resumes.

You can practically hear the cash register singing. The L.A. store plans to offer a personal shopper for customized shopping experiences, one-of-a-kind gift baskets and an expert “Celebrations Team” to sweeten events by bringing the whimsical store experience to private homes and other venues.

Although doors were still closed as this story went to press, the local shop is clearly destined to reinforce the mothership’s strong branding. And that means Los Angeles is in for a Willy Wonka-sized treat. Dylan’s Candy Bar is known for offering nearly every kind of candy from childhood and beyond. Like a version of the “Candy Land” board game brought to life, there are snack bar nostalgic brands like Leaf’s Astro Pops and bulk candies, whose low price points are practically recession proof. There are novelty items, including massive tins of edible candy trash. Fresh, warm snacks are available at the chocolate fondue fountain for a small cost per dipped marshmallow, pretzel stick or graham cracker. And as no surprise to true candy aficionados, much of the stuff is kosher certified: Lemonheads, Twizzlers, Jelly Belly jellybeans, signature Dylan chocolate bars and much more. 

The New York store is as much a treat for the eyes as the mouth. At every turn, there is more to feast on: Giant pop art-style installations of oversized candy adorn the walls, and furniture molded to look like massive colorful strips of dots form tables serving up bountiful gifts, including a brilliantly colored gowned Dylan Barbie doll and Dylan’s own book. A massive wall display features autographed Lucite boxes signed by Madonna and other celebrities revealing their favorite candies. Massive pillows with candy logos, such as Bubble Yum and other brands, perch over a life-size bathtub of bright bubble gum balls, gifts of all kinds, apparel and a bevy of logo merchandise. Lauren has apparently thought of almost everything. Even the portrait of the queen of this fantastic realm is rendered in Jelly Belly jellybeans.

For a mug that reads Candy Girl, your own custom blend of Jelly Bellys or M&Ms, or satisfying cravings for a chocolate smoke (sans nicotine), this is the place. 

For more information, visit dylanscandybar.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe.” Her new book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts in October. Klug is online at cooljewbook.com.

Kosher Organic Sweet Treats Are Also Eco-Friendly

Sergio Bicas’ a real-life Willy Wonka, minus the oompa loompas, and it likely doesn’t take much coaxing to get his three kids to come keep Daddy company at his office in Sherman Oaks. Snacking on pomegranate pucker suckers and a freshly opened 5-pound bag of gummy bears, the co-founder of YummyEarth gladly shared his excitement and some of his company’s kosher organic candy.

Bicas’ “headquarters,” in a building near Ventura Boulevard, is stacked with boxes of lollipops, vitamin C gummies, gummy worms and bears, and fruit juice candy drops, with almost enough room for a second chair. His partner, Rob Wunder, sits in an equally tiny office in Ridgewood, N.J., where he lives with his family, though he calls Bicas four times during our hour-long interview. All of the goodies are produced in Tecate, Mexico.

YummyEarth was conceived in 2005 over rice pudding.

When Bicas offered to give Wunder’s 8-month-old son, Jonah, a bit of pudding one day, Wunder wanted to know the ingredients. Both dads were committed to feeding their children only healthy, hormone-free organic foods, and each struggled to find snacks and desserts that qualified without tasting like cardboard.

Originally from Mexico City, Bicas was living in Los Angeles with his wife, Tamar, and 6-month-old daughter, Rosie, working as a chemical engineer with a specialty food company. Wunder and his wife, Larisa, were raising Jonah in New Jersey after selling two start-up telecom companies. The wives had been roommates in college.

To get started,  Wunder and Bicas donned aprons and took to Bicas’ home kitchen, experimenting with fruit flavors and healthy sweetness to satisfy Wunder’s lollipop addiction. In 2006, they traveled to ExpoWest, a natural food products show in Anaheim, with 100 pounds of lollipops made in a borrowed industrial factory. There were five flavors: Cheeky Lemon, Googly Grape, Very Very Cherry, Strawberry Smash and Orange Squeeze,  all kosher parve, certified organic, without artificial dyes or flavors.  They are sweetened with organic cane juice and/or rice syrup rather than high-fructose corn syrup, and are peanut-, soy-, gluten- and egg-free. 

Selling the lollipops for $2.50 for 15, today the company produces more than 20 flavors of lollipops, drops, gummy bears and worms, and vitamin C chewies, all made in the Tecate candy factory.

YummyEarth remains a family thing, with Tamar Dolgen in charge of promotion and Larisa Wunder doing the graphic design. YummyEarth products are now sold across the United States as well as in parts of Europe and Asia. All of the hard candies are glatt kosher, but not yet the gummies. Bicas is still working on how to keep the soft chewiness without using gelatin, which is necessary for the product to be certified kosher.

“YummyEarth is a kid- and planet-friendly company, [and we are] just as proud of what we don’t put into our ingredients as what we do: no artifical dyes, MSG or high-fructose corn syrup,” Bicas said. “What we feed our families is a choice we make for their health and the health of our Earth.”

Israeli candy firm makes sweet deal with Wal-Mart

An Israeli candy company has signed a contract with Wal-Mart to provide chocolate coins for Christmas.

Carmit Candy Industries Ltd. has received an order for Christmas 2010 for $500,000, the Israeli business daily Globes reported.

Carmit had sales of $8 million in the United States in 2009.

The Candy Man Can

If you’ve ever tried to split a Big Hunk candy bar — the kind made out of brittle white nougat and peanuts — then you understand a typical breakup. It’s usually not
neat, like a Kit Kat, two for you, two for me, let’s go our separate ways and we’ll run into each other in three years at the Whole Foods with a good-natured hug in front of a platter of cubed cheese.

No, it’s usually more of a messy and twisted divide, with a few peanuts falling on the floor and someone always getting less than his or her fair share.
While everyone knows the “clean break” is the way to go, it’s rarely possible. Two people who were once in love are just not a Twix.

In fact, I will postulate that if you have ever succeeded in a truly clean break on the first try, you are most likely a sociopath. Not to be judgmental, but you’re not capable of real love.

To be honest, I would assume the “clean break” was an urban myth, if I hadn’t experienced one, against my will, at the cruel hand of an episodic television writer who had a lingerie model on the back burner.

He had no interest in my desperate plea to “just be friends while we figure things out.” In fact, he never wanted to speak to me again, and he never did. In fact, he once ducked out of a coffee shop after noticing me inside — with a theatrical sprint toward his BMW, years after we broke up. I would like to say I admire his sanitary approach to people-leaving, but I would like even more to point out that his mode is out of reach for all but the most disciplined or emotionally crippled among us.

Instead, the majority of us face a few agonizing days alone before launching into a despair-fueled effort to shove the pieces back together again. In my experience, there is usually the mini-reconciliation, the second break up, the third mini-reconciliation and the final coup de grace when one or both of you inevitably remembers why you broke it off in the first place.

Alternatively, if you are gifted at conning yourself, you may set up a series of spectacularly delusional relationship “experiments” to be played out before the final curtain comes down.

These experiments may include any of the following: Let’s try seeing other people, but only sleeping with each other. Let’s go back to “dating” and recapture the “honeymoon phase.” Let’s only see each other once a week. Let’s move into separate rooms of the house. Let’s take some “time off.” Let’s avoid ever mentioning: that girl from the office you cheated with, your mother who insulted me at your nephew’s bar mitzvah, the job you quit because it was “boring,” or any other topic that always leads to a blow-up. Let’s up the couples counseling to twice a day. Let’s only communicate via e-mail or sonic vibration and echolocation. Let’s come up with a cute code word for every time you do that thing that drives me nuts, maybe “Octopus.”

You know how it goes. For a couple of weeks, you’re both on your best behavior. You say “Octopus” and giggle at the relationship’s former infirmity. Those few tear — or bourbon — soaked nights of being apart are still so fresh in your memory, you will give any farkakta plan a try just to avoid being alone and truly accepting that a thing which was once viable is now on the slag heap.

I am now six weeks past a second faux break-up and mini-reconciliation and into the real Break Up. The talking, texting and doomed plans are all behind me.
It’s over, and I knew it would be, but I loved the guy, and after almost three years we were intertwined (think Nestle 100 Grand Bar), so I did the human thing and sunk my teeth into a few squares of denial and pain postponement. I don’t have a new boyfriend or any new addictions, I’m just feeling sad now like I’m supposed to, and that’s the best idea, as far as I know.

My friend Cammy says if you don’t feel ripped up after a break up, if you don’t try some idiotic plan to make it work again, you didn’t do the relationship right. If you don’t hurt, your heart wasn’t in it and that’s why you can walk away neatly with your half of the Almond Joy, leaving nary a crumb on the floor.
All these candy bar metaphors, while hopefully evocative, have made me hungry. And break ups make me hungry. So while I couldn’t manage it in “real life,” I can now pay a buck for two great tastes that taste great together. And a confection that’s easy to split.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She can be heard weekday mornings on the syndicated Adam Carolla morning radio show and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.