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Memory lane for taste buds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Colleen Chapin calls herself a food detective.

You didn't know there's a problem with missing food? There is.

Somewhere in the Midwest, a housewife misses Bre'r Rabbit Molasses. A father in California dreams of eating Frankenberry cereal one more time. And a baby boomer in New England wistfully recalls the long-lost Sky Bar.

These reunions are now possible with the click of a mouse. Chapin has tracked down these products and more. Her Web site, www.hometownfavorites.com, features more than 400 food products you remember fondly, but might not find at the supermarket.

Take Fizzies. Back in the '50s, kids would drop the effervescent tablets in a glass of water and, presto, they had a flavored soft drink. Government regulations limiting the use of cyclamates doomed Fizzies, but at hometownfavorites.com, you can order a package of the reformulated foil-wrapped tablets for $1.20 plus shipping.

Chapin discovered that a company in California was making a reformulated Fizzie. She has them stocked in her garage mailing room, along with other regional specialties and obscure food products.

Surprisingly, Fizzies and some of the other sought-after products are remembered by many of Chapin's customers as tasting, well, less than good. "People will call and ask 'Are they as bad as they used to be? Give me 12,'" she says.

But with a product like Fizzies, says customer Kathleen Condon, "It's not the taste, it's the fun."

"I only wanted a cottage business," Chapin explains.

Living in West Palm Beach with five children at home, she needed a business she could operate from her house. She used her background in mail order to create Hometown Favorites in 1996.

"It started when I was looking for Candy Raisins," she says. These gummy candies (which taste nothing like raisins) had been part of her Wisconsin childhood. They were impossible to find in Florida. "I was having relatives send them down at great expense."

Then her husband mentioned that he craved a can of Cincinnati-style Dixie Chili. An idea dawned.

"In Florida," says Chapin, "everyone's from somewhere else." Foods these transplants grew up with were often unavailable. She started phoning her friends to ask about their lost food loves. Certain items were mentioned over and over: My-T-Fine pudding mix, Bre'r Rabbit Molasses, Clark bars.

Chapin's sleuthing located many of these "missing" foods. Some were produced by small manufacturers with limited distribution; others were strictly regional. She started to match customer profiles with the items they sought.

"I can tell how old you are and where you live," she says. If you're in search of Booberry, Quisp or Frankenberry cereal, you're probably a 30-something male. Want a Sky Bar? You probably grew up in the mid-Atlantic region. Junket dessert? You're likely a woman between ages 50 and 60.

Chapin added her finds to her inventory. But the most requested item of all turned out to be dead and gone.

"Bonomo's Turkish Taffy," says Chapin. "I could have retired if I had found Bonomo's Turkish Taffy." Baby boomers vividly recalled freezing the taffy bars and then smashing them against a hard surface to break them into bite-sized pieces.

Bonomo's vanished treat is posted on the "Boy They Were Good, But ..." page of Chapin's Internet site, where she lists foods that are not available. For customers still searching for Grape Tang or Marathon bars, she says, "at least I can tell them why they can't get it." The page gets as many hits as anything else on the Web site.

For a niche business such as Hometown Favorites, the Internet is the perfect marketing medium. "I couldn't do this business without the Internet," Chapin says. She had orders the day after going on the Internet and, in the two years since then, her orders have increased every month.

Her online sales have been so strong that the "cottage" business she envisioned has outgrown her substantially-larger-than-cottage-size house.

She now needs warehouse space. And she hires part-time help to pack the boxes. In five years, she expects Hometown Favorites to be a million-dollar business. "If I could keep up with this" - she points to the stacks of orders waiting to be filled - "this would be a million-dollar business right now."

Word of Hometown Favorites has spread to some unlikely corners. Take the request for Beeman's gum, for example.

Before leaving on his history-making Earth orbit in 1962, astronaut John Glenn tried to reassure his wife by telling her to imagine him merely stepping out to buy a pack of gum. Again, as he prepared for his space shuttle trip 36 years later, he told his wife to remember that he was only going out for that pack of gum.

Glenn's brand was Beeman's, and on his return to Earth, his hometown in Ohio planned to surprise him with a pack of the gum he always seemed to forget.

But by 1998, Beeman's gum had vanished from the corner store (which had vanished, too). Hometown Favorites came to the rescue, and Glenn was finally able to tell his wife he had the gum he went out for.

Providing candy for 40th- and 50th-birthday parties makes up a large segment of Chapin's business. She says baby-boomer parents "call and say, 'I want to show my children what I grew up with.'" One item they grew up with has fallen into extreme disrepute - candy cigarettes. These are one of Chapin's biggest sellers. One chocolate variety comes in a realistically printed box, wrapped in cellophane and foil. The bubble gum variety produces a puff of simulated smoke (powdered sugar) when you blow into it.

Chapin does not believe that candy cigarettes promote tobacco smoking in children. Her orders come from adults, she points out. In addition, "I have had people give candy cigarettes to people who are trying to quit smoking. They use them as a placebo."

Customers have also used her products to bridge the generation gap.

Condon's mother, in a nursing home, expressed a yen for what she called Danish pudding. Condon remembered the pudding, but none of the stores she checked carried it. She turned to the Internet and found Junket Danish Dessert on Chapin's Web site.

Condon made the pudding and took it to her mother, who was "real pleased." Condon now ships boxes of the Junket Dessert to her mother's friends back in Chicago who don't use computers.

Other purchases from Hometown Favorites, such as Kluski Noodles, have helped initiate conversations with her mother, who sometimes remembers the past better than the present.

"I'm glad they're out there," says Condon. "They've been a godsend for me with my mother. It's like a trip down memory lane."

Chapin's detective work continues. She is tracking a baby-boomer passion called Flavor Straws, paper drinking straws that flavored the milk sucked through them. "Right now they're in limbo," she says. Not until she is positive that Flavor Straws are no longer produced will they join the graveyard on the "Boy They Were Good, But ..." page.

The payoff for her detective work comes when Chapin hears from her customers. "That's the whole fun of the business," she says, "to see how excited people are to get my things."

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