By Wonka, for Wonka, Against Wonka: The Eugene J. Candy Co.
Fickelgrubers, Prodnoses, and Slugworths: modern candy "freak" Eugene J. reflects on the science behind the literary legend, Willy Wonka.
I’m not very certain on the fate of Dweebs -- whether it was a complete flop or just the intention of the manufacturer to focus on one better-selling brand. At the time, the Wonka mark was not owned by Nestle, but by Breaker Confections/Sunmark Corporation.
There also currently exists another product on the market that fits this category: Leaf Brand’s Farts candy, and its variation Sour Farts. They're similar to Nerds both in shape and size, but with a softer shell to bite through.
I think fans of Nerds will like Freaks also because they are similar in flavor, tartness and crunch. But the original inspiration for the product came via the Fickelgruber narrative. I haven’t quite approached it in terms of making it a breakthrough success or taking market share away from Nerds/Nestle -- those two are secondary in importance in my mind, if at all. What I did want to achieve with the Freaks, however, was a great tasting product, made on premises, constantly evolving, and inspired by Wonka. It’s proven to be a hit at the store, where it has become the best seller and customers have come back for more. I’m content with that.
How do you decide on what flavors to pair up? Sometimes you put two flavors together, sometimes three. Sometimes these pairing mirror Nerds pairings, like grape with strawberry. Other times there’s a departure, such as pairing peach with cherry instead of wildberry. Do you focus on individual flavors and then see what fits together nicely, or to you seek new flavors with their pairings already in mind?
The pairings are based on a number of things. Strawberry/Grape is a classic Nerds combination that I personally enjoy and decided to keep for familiarity. Cherry/Peach was based on the excellent performance of these two flavors at the store. They’re both popular sour variations of chewy candies I have in bulk, and I love how the colors pair.
As for the other one-offs and limited edition flavors, a lot of them are seasonal or based on flavors I’m curious about at the time. For Valentine’s I did a strawberry/fruit punch/acai berry release in pink/white/light purple. I repeated the acai flavor (light purple) and added green apple (light green) and blueberry (light blue) for pastel-like colors over Easter.
I’m currently working on a fresh, summer mix with watermelon and berries. Halloween will likely consist of an orange/white/purple color scheme and Christmas a red/green color scheme. There are Nerds variations for these holidays also, but the term Freaks works especially well because it seems to express a level of enthusiasm or fanaticism for it: Halloween Freaks, Valentine Freaks, Easter Freaks, Merry Freaks… It’s great.
I also recently tried a matcha green tea and coconut version, both completely different eating experiences from the sour fruit varieties. Both of these flavors are quite polar -- people crave and look out for them or avoid them at all costs -- so they were both packaged as solo flavors. The response has been what I expected. Some people loved them; others, not so much.
For the future, I’m currently thinking about variations with botanical flavors; absinthe, pesto, churro, cucumber, basil, and fruit plus vinegar. Additionally, I’d like to play with combinations of flavors like Double-Dipped Nerds. I’ve made a watermelon (green) covering a strawberry (red) over the same sugar core. But that sugar core can be flavored as well, so putting a grape shell over a strawberry flavored sugar core, as an example is a future experiment. At that point, perhaps it can be elevated to be a “gourmet” Nerds, akin to a Jelly Belly jelly bean with its flavored centers.
Mega Freaks or Super Freaks, I haven’t decided on the name, but a larger version of Freaks candy that starts with a larger sugar core is also in the works. Freaks with multiple layers of flavors and colors, as with a jawbreaker, is a possibility. All the potential variations are truly quite endless.
Grape flavoring almost never tastes anything like actual grapes. Same for banana. Why is that? Why can’t we get more authentic grape and banana flavoring?
I actually have a recent experience with this. I ordered a sample of grape flavoring from a new supplier and what they sent me actually tasted too much like real grapes! They were of concord-type, had a soft, subtle, fruity smell, and a genuine taste of grapes; but it just didn’t work in my batch of Freaks. It might be that we’ve come to expect certain interpretations of candy flavors, even to the extent that flavors are now classified as “candy-type” and “jam-type”, even. I thought the natural-tasting grape flavor I initially received would have worked well for a drink or dessert product, but there’s a certain acuteness, or harshness in concentration, that we come to expect from candies.
With bananas, this last point might be the case as well, but in reverse. Many foods have such a complexity of flavors and when we try to extract and reduce these intricate aromatics down to just a handful, we sometimes miss the intended flavor profile entirely.
Do you think of what you do as a culinary art, or is it chemistry, where the science happens to produce edible results?
I definitely view it more as chemistry and a science. It closely relates to baking in its precise measurements and pastry work in its techniques. With culinary arts there’s a lot more freedom and improvisation, e.g., one may taste and season on the go. But for the candies I’m trying to produce, I’m trying to offer a consistent product which relies heavily on following recipes and procedures.
For a product like Freaks, there are a lot of variables that can affect the final product: the temperature of the room and relative humidity, the concentration of the prepared sugar syrups, the temperature of the syrups, the speed of the rotating pan, the type and amount of flavors/colors used, the size/grade of the sugar cores, et cetera. Some of these are easily controlled, but others like raw material quality need to be inspected. I have hygrometers placed around the store to monitor humidity, use IR thermometers, and weigh ingredients on scales. Perhaps at the next level, in a larger factory setting, I will have more tools to inspect syrup concentrations, quality control the raw materials, and sort out sugar cores to specific grades.
Your press materials make references to alchemy. Your Bushwick storefront is all black paint. You cite Nikola Tesla and Tim Burton as influences. There’s a heavy Halloween vibe. Is there a little something inherently gothic or mysterious about operating a candy store? Your signature logo is a smiling, blue pumpkin. What’s the significance there?
I wanted to create a bit of a Nikola Tesla-mad scientist and Tim Burton-dark fantasy feel in the store, and generate a bit of this mysterious clout. The jack-o-lantern as emblem for the store is meant to associate readily with Halloween, the greatest candy holiday of them all, and with it, I'm hoping for something iconic to “scream” new candies and sweets.
Despite being a candy store, I didn’t feel it necessary to adorn it with fluffy, pink, bubble gum aesthetics. In a way, it sets it as a sort of fringe candy store and the black exterior emphasizes the mystery and fantasy I wanted to convey. By keeping the exterior muted, I thought it further enhanced the interior of the store where it is already plentiful with colors and lets the candy shine.
The pumpkin being blue with orange highlights is based on the overall color scheme I had in mind for the store: blue and gold. Those colors pay homage to the Brooklyn flag where the store is located, and references New York sports teams like the New York Mets (in my hometown). I wanted the colors to be meaningful in such a way, but it also puts the store in nice contrast to Wonka’s purple and gold.
The blue pumpkin is one of several dozen enamel pins sold in your store. There are also a honey bear, ice cream, lollipops, and many other sweets, plus a heart, paper airplane, glue gun, and a journal that says “keep out” on the cover. Do you design all the pins yourself? Where do you draw inspiration for the ones that aren’t obviously about sugar? How are the pins made?
Aside from the pumpkin pin, all the rest are actually sourced. I choose them pretty much the same way I choose all the other products in the store, by how they resonate with me and relate to the shop.
Of the non-candy type pins, I thought the paper airplane and pinwheel were whimsical, the “keep out” diary a bit mysterious, and the glue gun… well, that was included because so much has been crafted in the store with the real version of that item. The Hamburglar, Grimace, and Mayor McCheese pins, of course, merely reveal my adoration for product characters.
Aside from your own products, you stock other small-batch, independently-made candies. Is this a burgeoning industry? Is artisanal candy the next big thing? What other brands like yours should we try?
Perhaps there will be a craft candy movement as with the craft beer scene, especially as people seek out local varieties and small-batch producers. Quin in Portland, Oregon, makes boutique lollipops and chews using ingredients local to them. Salty Road, here in Brooklyn, makes salt water taffy in small batches using natural ingredients in contemporary flavors like Bergamot and Sea Salt Caramel. Kate Weiser in Dallas, has a product called Carl that I love. He’s a chocolate snowman filled with hot cocoa mix and marshmallows. You melt him in a pot of hot milk to make hot chocolate.
You also stock many older, obscure candies that are becomming hard to find. Is there any item that has proven to be a unicorn, where you’re desperate to have it but it’s impossible to track down?
The older candies are actually fairly easy to stock because many of these manufacturers sell directly through distributors, and a handful of these supply them all. It’s been really difficult, however, to source the Kinder Surprise Egg. They’re illegal in the US because of an olden law that states that you cannot have anything non-functional encased inside something that is eaten. So a lollipop stick is okay, because it serves a purpose (but more so than being a possible choking hazard -- which is what everyone thinks), but the toy capsule of a Kinder Egg isn’t allowed.
I haven’t come across a major supplier that imports these or stocks them. Yet, many stores in New York sell them (you can find them in supermarkets and bodegas even). I was fortunate that one nice shopkeeper at a store I frequent gave me a lead. It took months of convincing before I was able to bring in the Kinder Joy variety of eggs. But even that gets delivered in an unmarked white van from a man I only know by his first name -- it’s totally the candy black market.
What your personal favorite candy? In your opinion, what’s the most innovative candy in the world today?
I love gummies of all sorts and especially soft, succulent types. In terms of products, my favorite is easily Peanut M&M’s. It just has the best texture/flavor combination and is so satisfying. I love biting into that candy shell, through the chocolate, and getting that additional crunch of the peanut.
Most innovative candy product is the Japanese candy making kit, Kracie Popin’ Cookin’ sushi kit. It has you making tiny “caviar” balls by using an eye dropper to dispense one solution into a pool of another and magically take shape as an edible sphere. It’s molecular gastronomy!
The shop is over a year old and doing well. What’s next for you?
I kind of view the store as this quest for creating new candies and inventive sweets, and it’ll be an ongoing saga. I’m not sure what the future holds, but at the moment I’m definitely thinking foaming pixy stix, fizzy cotton candy, and a la Fickelgruber, that all-elusive never-melting ice cream, too!