Paul Wockenfuss practically grew up in a chocolate factory.
Paul Wockenfuss practically grew up in a chocolate factory.
As sweet as that sounds, it also meant hard work in the family business. As a youngster, he earned spending money scrubbing hardened fudge from trays at Wockenfuss Candies, but that didn't deter him from staying with the Baltimore-based business his grandfather founded. The 68-year-old now heads a fifth-generation confectioner marking its 100th year.
"This is what I wanted to do my whole life," Wockenfuss said. "We have so many seasons, and what you do changes. ... It's not butter creams 12 months of the year."
While many associate Halloween with candy, it's a tiny holiday for the company compared with Christmas and Easter. For Easter, the candy maker creates 15 types of Easter eggs in four sizes and 40 varieties of shell-molded rabbits. Still, it does make milk chocolate pumpkin pops and pumpkin truffles to offer alongside candy corn in its stores.
"You keep doing what you've been doing, but everyone looks at you differently at 100 years," Wockenfuss said. "It's quite a milestone."
Part of a $35 billion confectionery industry that accounts for 55,000 jobs in more than 1,000 manufacturing plants across the country, according to the National Confectioners Association, Wockenfuss Candies sells more than 60 tons of chocolate each year, mostly from its own stores.
The confectioner makes its own creams, nuts, fruits and chewy candies, along with fudge, caramel-coated apples, bite-size truffles and nonpareils that have remained the top seller. Wockenfuss also sells jelly beans, gummi candy and hard candy it buys from other candy makers.
The retailer runs five Baltimore-area stores plus three in Ocean City, and it plans to open a ninth store in Towson Town Center by Thanksgiving. And it's expanding its wholesale business, with candy sold in the Baltimore area in Graul's, Weis Markets and Wegmans supermarkets.
"Our industry is comprised of hundreds of small, family-owned businesses that pass on candy-making expertise from generation to generation," said Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the confectioners association.
That has been the course of the Wockenfuss business, started by Herman Charles Wockenfuss, who immigrated to the United States in 1875 from West Prussia. After settling in Baltimore, he learned to make candy, then started the business in October 1915 in a warehouse behind his East Chase Street house. He sold mostly hard candies from stalls at Belair, Cross Street, Northeast and Hollins markets.
His son, Herman Lee Wockenfuss, and Herman's wife, Marian, bought the company in 1945 and moved it to a home on Belair Road in Gardenville, where they made candy in the basement. They opened a store in 1952 and expanded to three other nearby buildings. Herman Lee Wockenfuss died in 2014 at age 92, and Marian Wockenfuss still worked in the stores until a few years ago.
Paul Wockenfuss, their son, has owned the business since 1998. In 2010, the company moved its operations from Belair Road to a larger, single 25,000-square-foot plant on Harford Road, just inside the city line, where it employs 26 workers. Many are family, including Wockenfuss' wife, Lynn, three daughters, a sister and cousins — through the family's fifth generation.
In Herman Wockenfuss' day, there was no machinery and all the chocolates were hand-dipped. Wockenfuss remembers his father bringing in some of the current machinery in the 1950s, but he said little else in the candy-making process has changed.
On a recent weekday, machinery hummed and sweet scents wafted through the plant's large open layout. Workers wearing hair nets and white jackets dipped apples in caramel, then in chocolate, before rolling them in toppings such as nuts or crushed Oreos.
"We sell them year-round, but 10 times as many between now and Christmas," Wockenfuss said of the caramel apples.
Several women maintained a steady rhythm placing sugar-dusted cherries onto tiny circles of chocolate that glided by on a conveyor belt. The machine, an "enrober," enveloped the cherries in dark or milk chocolate, and at the and of the line, two more women packed the cherry cordials into boxes.
The factory is in the same building as one of Wockenfuss' eight stores. The shop displayed truffles of all varieties, dark banana, milk cappuccino and Key lime, caramel popcorn and "spooktacular" gummis, candy corn and peanut butter pumpkin candy.
The Baltimore area has long attracted candy makers, decades ago because of the city's port access, but more recently too.
The fifth-generation family-owned Goetze's Candy Co. has been making its cream-filled caramels since 1895. Rheb's Candy in Southwest Baltimore, which runs a factory in a rowhouse basement near the store, has been family-run for three generations. And newer businesses have popped up such as Mouth Party at Clipper Mill, a retailer and wholesaler of caramels started in 2006 by entrepreneur B.G. Purcell using a family recipe.
Wockenfuss' daughter Jennifer Waters said her family's business has attracted a loyal following. One regular customer, a grandmother from Timonium, has been shopping at the White Marsh store for 25 years and regularly calls in orders over the phone, shipping the Baltimore candy to friends and relatives as gifts.
Lacey Hesse, spokeswoman for the Retail Confectioners International trade group, which represents candy makers who sell at their own stores, said independent candy businesses have had to compete by putting a premium on quality and customer service.
The group's members "appreciate the art of candy-making, while continuing to adapt to consumers' demands," Hesse said. "Some of our members are still hand-dipping their chocolates, while others are using state-of-the-art machinery. Many member stores take a step back in time, while other stores take a step into the future. Regardless, their goal is the same: to give their customers something extra special."
Longtime family-owned businesses often succeed, too, because they work hard to maintain strong relationships with their employees, said Sean McEvoy, director of small business resources at the Maryland Department of Commerce.
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Carol Rosier has worked for Wockenfuss since 1985, when she went to work as a part-time sales clerk at the North Plaza Shopping Center store in Baltimore County. She worked her way up to manager at two stores before becoming a district and marketing manager.
When they come into the stores, she said, customers appreciate the selection and the ability to pick and choose.
"They love our candy," she said. "They come back year after year because it is so good."