Sweet expectations are mixing with a bitter reality for longtime fans of Rheb's Candy in Lexington Market: After 70 years, the family-owned sweet shop is shutting down its stall Saturday.
"They're closing? Why? I'm shocked, I'm shocked," said a frowning Barbara Dean as she prepared to spend $85 on butter creams, almond paste and boxes of dark chocolate as Christmas gifts.
"I'm sad," she said. "It's just a tradition to come to Lexington Market. It's the end of an era."
Rheb's President Wynn Harger said he had decided to close the stall and focus on his flagship Wilkens Avenue shop and growing Internet sales primarily because of his company's issues with the management of the market.
And, Harger said, not enough people have been buying his treats despite heralded steps to add new life to downtown's west side.
"They keep saying things are getting better," he said of the vast 226-year-old market on Eutaw Street, "but they're really not."
His complaints range from inadequate air conditioning - he couldn't sell Easter candy some years because the goods would have melted - to panhandlers.
Casper Genco, Lexington Market's executive director, said he thinks Rheb's is a "victim of the economy" with consumers cutting back on "luxuries" such as fine chocolate. He defended the market itself.
"The market has gone through a major renovation over the last few years," he said, noting upgrades to the air conditioning, housekeeping and security. While it's not problem-free, "the market is a pleasant place to visit," he said.
Rheb's long ago became an institution that says "Lexington Market" in much the same way that Faidley's, Konstant's and a few others do. Rheb's sits near two other well-known stalls, Pollock Johnny's sausage and Berger's Bakery, home of the distinctive fudge-slathered sugar wafer.
"I'm sentimental about it," said Harger, a member of the Rheb family who has spent a lifetime in the candy trade. "I've been running around that market for 60 years."
The confectioner's roots go back to 1918, when Louis Rheb began making brittle, fudge and jellies in his Wilkens Avenue basement. He and his wife, Esther, sold the sweets twice a week at the Hollins and Belair markets, according to the Rheb's Web site.
In the mid-1930s they set up shop at Lexington Market, soon adding a second stall at the sprawling food mecca. The original stall closed 15 years ago. Recently a sign appeared on the counter of the remaining spot thanking patrons for "70 wonderful years at Lexington Market."
As a clutch of customers queued up Monday morning at glass counters filled with rows of chocolates and candies, several offered impromptu eulogies laced with personal remembrance.
One of them was Dean, 43, who works at The Catholic Review. "My whole life I've always had Rheb's," she said. "I used to come to the market with my grandmother because she lived in the city."
"It wasn't Christmas in our home," said Sam Moxley, 49, "until you got the box of Rheb's candy open."
"I used to come here in the '50s with my father," recalled 61-year-old Sharon Watts. "One again, another kind of change is taking place at Lexington Market."
Alice Ann Finnerty has been buying Rheb's candy for more than 40 years. Why? "Because of the taste. There's nothing to duplicate it."
She expects she'll drive out to Wilkens Avenue, where Rheb's has 25 to 50 employees depending on the season. "But it's not going to be the same, just a candy store," she said.
For her the market has "atmosphere" - not to mention the Utz potato chip stall, Mary Mervis Deli sandwiches, Berger's cookies and a place where she likes to buy fresh grated coconut.
Now it was Finnerty's turn to order some sweets. "I need 10 pounds of a dark chocolate mix," she told one of the four women working the counter.
"Is that all, hon?" asked clerk Fran Woynovitz.
"No, I need two, two-pound boxes of the dark chocolate, also." Those would be gifts for Finnerty's employees at the Turnover Shop, her consignment store on Roland Avenue. And two of Finnerty's granddaughters - 12-year-old Caitlin and Shelby, who's 8 - placed their own order for a pound of jimmy truffles, blueberry creams and caramels.
Just then a pony-tailed clerk named Donna Thurlow spotted Finnerty. "How're you, sweetie?"
Finnerty told Thurlow she had visited the stall a few weeks ago, but the clerk had been off. "You OK?"
"I have good days and bad days," said Thurlow, who is retiring at year's end. "Today's OK."
OK is not how Ann Schenning felt. The federal housing employee bought 11 boxes of chocolate as gifts and was unaware that this would probably be her final purchase at the market stall.
"I'm devastated, devastated," she protested to one of the clerks. "It's awful."
Behind her in line stood 45-year-old Julie Evans, who says she has always loved the New System Bakery in Hampden and Rheb's Candies. She works down the road at the University of Maryland, where she renews her desk's chocolate stash every couple of months.
Monday, she was buying dark chocolate (no nuts) for her mother. But once she heard the news, she bumped up her order. She requested a pound of sweets just for herself.