On a Quest for Candy
The 40-minute drive from Omaha to Baker’s Candies in Greenwood, Nebraska was a lot like the confection company’s signature chocolate meltaways: special, smooth and sweet.
The dizzying rush of cars changing lanes on Interstate 80 slowed into winding roads near Ashland as I traveled along U.S. Highway 6. A gas station attached to a mechanic’s shop, train tracks and a cluster of grain elevators, otherwise known as the landmarks of rural Nebraska, proved I was headed in the right direction on my candy quest.
Growing up in Yutan, Nebraska, I’m familiar with the old buildings and open spaces that form the bones of rural towns sprouting from the root of a shared highway. The village of Greenwood has one special feature my hometown and countless others cannot claim: Baker’s Candies, a family owned and operated confection factory with an outlet storefront.
When I arrived at Baker’s Candies, I walked into the outlet store and was stupefied by the wide variety of sweets. It was like entering a confection-filled heaven only a child or true candy connoisseur can fully appreciate.
Buckets of chocolate covered potato chips, espresso beans, peanuts and pretzels form aisles down the center of the store. One-pound bags of colorful, foil-wrapped chocolate meltaways in single flavor and variety packs take up the back wall underneath signs proudly recognizing the store’s location.
In an attached room, old fashioned pop in glass bottles creates a focal point beneath a vintage Coca-Cola sign. Root beer, cream soda, blue cream soda. You name a pop flavor. I’m sure Baker’s Candies has it.
Other non-chocolate treats, such as salt water taffy and Nebraska-made salad dressings, line shelves and display racks within the store.
Patty Baker and her husband, Kevin, are the matriarch and patriarch of Baker’s Candies, founded in 1987. Patty said in a phone interview that the variety of candy found in the store helps provide customers with a true “candy experience.”
“We have made a real effort to have such a variety of everything,” Patty says.
That effort will continue with the addition of a 5,000 square foot retail space that’s currently under construction next to the factory and outlet store. The sweet success of expansion has nothing on the even sweeter back story of this candy paradise.
Unwrapping the History of Baker’s Candies
Kevin’s background in the aero-space industry and as a mechanical engineer played a large role in the creation of Baker’s Candies. In fact, after working for a different chocolate company, Kevin set out to create an automated system to make chocolates for a store of his own.
The machinery he built for the automated system enabled him to cut down on production costs because the store didn’t have to have as many employees. This meant that Baker’s Candies could sell high quality chocolate at a lower cost.
Today, Baker’s Candies continues to use Kevin’s automated system in its factory. Four different lines are used to make the goods while one person supervises the lines to make sure things run smoothly.
To many, a rural area like Greenwood would seem like an odd location to set up shop. After all, the village is wedged halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. To Patty and Kevin – who’re both from Cass County — it’s always been the perfect location.
“We actually met in high school, and we were on our way to his parents’ house one time when we drove by that property and my husband said ‘I think I’ll put a business there,’” Patty said. “So I was kind of like, ‘that’s interesting. I had no idea he was thinking that.’ Next thing you know, he bought the land.”
Being located in a small town hasn’t slowed sales. In fact, Baker’s Candies sells more than 500,00 pounds of chocolate a year, has 100,000 visitors annually at the outlet store and has shipped products to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and Europe.
Patty said Kevin was unsurprised by the success of their store because he always “felt he had a good product.” She says success is humbling and credits previous involvement in a Nebraska tourism program and the loyalty of Nebraskans for the store’s success.
“People in Nebraska are wonderful,” Patty said. “They’re very loyal to their hometown, to their home state. I think we really are appreciative of the loyalty of the people in Nebraska.”
Melting Away to a Sweet Ending
I grew up in a highway-based small town with a similar sense of loyalty to local businesses. The highway of my childhood was 92. It never led me to the storefront of Baker’s Candies. Yet, the sweet confections of the candy store and their shiny, color-coded foil wrappers speckle my memories.
I see shiny green in the crinkles around my godmother’s eyes. This color, representing Baker’s dark chocolate mint meltaways, reflects the wrapper I unrolled after opening my Christmas present from her one winter. She gave me the gift of imagination with a veterinarian kit I played with long after I was too old for toys.
When I see silver and red, I taste Baker’s milk chocolate raspberry meltaways, my all-time favorite flavor from a package of chocolate I won in a raffle basket at my mother’s family reunion in Wisconsin last summer. The taste reminds me of whitewater rafting: the fear of falling overboard, the rocks jutting through the river’s smooth surface, bugs buzzing in my ears.
I am not alone in associating Baker’s Candies and the flavors of the store’s confections with memories. Lincoln natives Jeannie Hadwick and Leigh Ward enjoy heading to Omaha to celebrate birthdays. The two try to stop by Baker’s along the way.
“We always have fun here,” Hadwick said while shopping. “We have good memories just picking up a few things and heading on home.”
Hadwick loves the milk chocolate candies and anything with nuts in it. She and I briefly bonded over the fact that I, a current University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) student, write for the student newspaper she used to read while working on her own degree at UNO 35 years ago.
After our brief conversation, I let her get back to perusing the aisles and headed up to the register to pay for my sweet selections: milk chocolate raspberry meltaways, a variety pack of meltaways and an old fashioned root beer. The cashier asked for my ID automatically before I even handed her my debit card. It’s a small town touch I appreciated.
Exiting the store and pausing for one last picture, I tuck my stash of sweets into the backseat next to the friends I convinced to take the mini road trip with me. We head home to Omaha, backtracking along the winding roads of Ashland and into the chaos of rush hour on Interstate 80, but the traffic doesn’t bother me.
I’m too focused on my candy, confident that when I eventually pluck the sweets from their shiny foil packages one by one, I’ll be unwrapping new memories connected to Baker’s Candies.