The charming sign outside Schmidt’s Candy speaks eloquently, especially when we look closer. The words “home” and “made” frame a tall glass candy jar; we notice the slight irregularity of the brushstrokes, and we see that the candy jar is a bit lopsided, as are the colorful candies inside it. Obviously the sign was painted by hand, and lovingly so.
We hear a refrain of that theme when we open the door to the candy shop, where, in the words of third-generation owner Margie Schmidt, everything is made with “these ten digits.” Like her father, Frank, and his father, also Frank, who founded Schmidt’s in 1925, Ms. Schmidt disdains mechanical candy making: She dips her chocolates by hand.
Dozens and dozens of varieties – milk and dark, filled with nuts or caramel, jellies or cherries, marzipan, pretzel or almost anything that might be dipped – huddle on chocolate-smudged platforms inside glass-and-wood cabinets. (So do some sugar-free chocolates; these, and a handful of brand-name commercial items, are not made in-house.)
Ms. Schmidt’s display cases are hand-me-downs from nearby businesses – including Meyer Luncheonette and Wilkens Ice Cream – that gave up the ghost decades ago. Many tools of her trade, notably the finely detailed metal molds from which she casts Santas and Easter Bunnies, one by one, date from the early 20th century.
The family doesn’t know for sure, says Ms. Schmidt, whether her grandfather was born in this country or emigrated from Germany at a young age, nor do they know whether he took over an earlier business at this location or built his candy store from scratch. But she remembers that Woodhaven, Queens – home to the shop and to multiple generations of Schmidts – was “still a largely German neighborhood” as recently as the 1960s, when Ms. Schmidt first began working in the family business at the age of eight.
“Everything is made with these ten digits.”
There was “an ice-cream parlor on every block,” Ms. Schmidt recalls, including a soda fountain inside Schmidt’s itself, serving ice cream made by her father. His two brothers each operated a nearby soda fountain, too. At Schmidt’s the flavors included maple walnut, butter crunch and nesselrode, rich with chestnuts and, often, candied fruit. (Just try to find nesselrode ice cream anywhere today.) But by the early 1980s, soda fountains had gone out of fashion. Schmidt’s was the last shop in the neighborhood that still made and sold its own ice cream when a fire damaged the facade and destroyed the original tin ceiling. Ms. Schmidt’s father, who made the ice cream in the basement, and who clambered up and down the steps many times each day, was considering retirement; it seemed wiser to remove the soda fountain than to restore it. Today, scars in the tiled floor still mark the former spots of twirling stools.
Ms. Schmidt took over the family business not long after the fire, and she’s been at the helm ever since. “All my kids have worked here,” she adds. But by and large, with the exception of a single assistant who serves customers on Saturdays, the shop is a one-woman operation. Ms. Schmidt buys many of her own supplies, tends to the displays and carries mail orders to the post office herself.
During a typical week she works Tuesday through Saturday, 14 hours a day, but certain holiday seasons define the shop’s schedule, and thus her schedule: “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter, sleep, repeat.” Fortunately, she’s always had a short commute. Her parents lived across the avenue and down a nearby side street, not a dozen houses away, and Ms. Schmidt later moved into the house next door to theirs.
Strictly by the numbers, of course, 14 hours can’t compete with 24. Nowadays in New York, many round-the-clock drugstores, bodegas and similar businesses sell mass-manufactured candy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But in most other regards, Ms. Schmidt has the edge. Her candy is fresh, free of preservatives and needs no factory wrapping. Because her candies sit out in plain sight, it’s clear to see that they’re not assembly-line products; every one is one of a kind.
And she gives samples. (We like samples.) Ms. Schmidt is a keen appraiser of customers and their likely favorites; when she asked us if we like mint, we gathered that she’d already guessed the answer.
Indeed, our favorite candy at Schmidt’s is the peppermint pattie. Inevitably it’s lumpy and out of round, a far cry from machine-made, foil-wrapped, puck-like symmetry. But the mint flavor is pure, free of the metallic notes that taint some brand-name patties, and well balanced by a thick robe of dark chocolate. Finally, it’s our turn to give this candy the hands-on treatment.