How Sweet it Was: Vanishing Candy Classics

Another one bites the dust. Clark Bar America, Inc. has gone belly up. The Pittsburgh-based candy company, maker of the Clark Bar and Zagnut, which is a Clark Bar with fur, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after years of financial turmoil.Company officials are discussing bringing in new investors or selling the company outright. Sadly, there is no quick fix. The candy manufacturer fell victim to the superficial palate and gnat-like attention span of today's jaded youth. It's serious bad news for any adult that still joneses for a chocolate-coated blast from the past. Store aisles are littered with the carcasses of old favorites -- soon to be joined by the Clark Bar -- now gone or mostly forgotten, squeezed out by current fads.Sure, there are plenty of upscale, designer sweets aimed at grown-ups; dainty chocolate indulgences swaddled in gold foil, pricey and delicious. Godivas and whatnot. But it's not the same. Candy is like sex: the less you pay for it, the better you feel. Plus, you never get over your first love.For me it was the bitch goddess, Tootsie Roll.There are candies that are flashier, that have a bit more zing per bite. But none combines taste, durability and economy like T-Rolls.The flavor is deceptively simple and distinct, a single woody note of low budget fudge. No distracting nuts, hidden layers or crispy center. Just a savory chocolate blend -- richer than milk, less snooty than dark -- whipped somehow to a hard gooeyness.That mysterious texture is what makes these logs of the gods a marathon chew-fest. Hard as a police baton, if you can manage to chomp off an end you're in for an afternoon of uninterrupted ecstasy. Once that chocolate meat softens and yields, coating your taste buds with thick sugar gravy, life is good again. You are freed from stress, liberated from angst. Quite a bargain, considering every coin in your pocket will buy at least one version of Tootsie Roll. Midgees can still be had for a lowly penny. Other junior sizes cost a nickel or dime. Even the full-length, unabridged, all-day gnaws will only set you back two or three bits.But that carries no weight with today's youngster. Kids aren't satisfied just to catch the kind of raging sugar buzz that makes your teeth itch and revs up your senses to the point where you can actually hear the repeated squishy blink of your eyes. They want to be entertained, too."I remember we had to twirl our hands when we wanted a lollipop, but now kids are pushing a button and it twirls on its own," says Jeff Rubin, vice president of FAO Schweetz, the candy component of FAO Schwartz. "It's a whole new world out there."While candy consumption is at record levels, over $23 billion in sales in 1997 according to the U.S. Commerce Department, tastes have veered. Consumption of chocolate grew a meager 1.1 percent compared to the non-chocolate category which increased by 4.5 percent. Of this category, the sub-sect that sizzles, that's gobbling precious shelf space and making headlines, is interactive candy.A mutant of a creation, gaudy and grabbable; half-toy, half-candy, with a monstrous high end mark-up potential, the interactives are crowding out all but the most recognizable brand names of stodgy old sweets. Suddenly, candy shelves are spilling over with a jumbled mix of gizmos, gadgets and plastic-coated microchips. Cell phones filled with candy that play messages, motorized candy wheels that kids clip on to their belt, giant insects that spit candy, a sucker with a candy head and plastic body that screams and lights up as you eat it, and hand-held toy video cameras that dispense candy with a conveyor belt designed to resemble scrolling film.Freakiest of all, a sucker that generates voices and music in a kid's head. Sound Bites are lollipop holders containing a computer chip to process sounds. When a kid bites into the candy, cartoon voices, music, propaganda, cult recruitment, whatever is programmed into the chip, travels through the user's teeth and jaw into the inner ear. No one else can hear the sounds, just the sucker eater. We are spawning a generation of acute paranoiacs."Interactive candy, where the package is a value-added feature to the candy itself, appeals very much to younger consumers," says Jim Cochran, director of trade relations for the National Confectioners Association in McLean, Va. "The packaging adds a toy value, or a novelty value, so the younger consumers think they're getting more for their money. It brings the average retail price up, so instead of selling a lollipop for 10 cents or 25 cents, you could be selling a spin pop for 99 cents or $1.50. With creative merchandising you can sell more."Indeed, Sound Bites retail for $10-15, for a holder, batteries and two suckers. Three, if you count the purchaser.No one is denying today's youngster the right to experiment, to gallop off after the new and the quirky, the exotic and weird. Every generation of candy connoisseur has been down that path. Fizzies, Fire Stix, Boston Baked Beans, Chick-O-Stick, Razzles, those wax bottles with the colored juice inside, Pop Rocks, Boogers, Pixie Stix, those dots of hard colored sugar attached to a length of adding machine tape, Mr. T gold necklace chewing gum, etc.But at least we revered the tradition of candy, gave props to the classics. Probably we were more respectful because we had to work so hard for the geetus to buy candy. Chopping wood and slaughtering hogs before school, plowing the lower forty on weekends, all for a lousy nickel. Then came the 12 mile trudge to the candy store, uphill, both ways, yada, yada. All for a Nestle's Crunch, with some Atomic Fireballs and candy cigarettes on the side. Also, we kept our toys and candy separate, the way God intended.And just ignore the collection of Pez dispensers on the shelf above my desk. That's a completely different thing.

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