The candyman can

As old-style sweet shops enjoy a rebirth, Claire Droney wonders why we’re suddenly so nostalgic for Dip Dabs, Milky Teeth and Fizzy Cola Bottles

IT’S THE early nineties. The Shake ‘n’ Vac ad is on television, the fridge is filled with cans of Cherry Coke and cheap strawberry mousses, Boyz 11 Men are crooning ‘End of the Road’ on the radio, and I’m coveting my 12-year-old best friends multi-coloured Oilily leggings with a matching waist-coat. We stand outside the local garage, wedging Milky Teeth under our upper lips and crunching the green, orange and red bits off a Traffic Light Lollipop.

Klipso bars were great value. Even with the green-and-white stripy paper wrapper and cheap chocolate. But for 10p, the hard toffee underneath lasted forever, moulding itself to the roof of the mouth long after the chocolate coating was scraped off with childish front teeth. Desperate Dan bars were stretched out in front of the body in long saliva-covered ribbons, and everyone loved the red fizzy cola lollipops that had secret numbers under the wrappers — a number 7 generated a return trip to the shop and a free lolly.

“Apple drops are huge now, we can’t keep raspberry bonbons on the shelves, and people are obsessed with Milky Teeth. I’ve had to order 300 cases for next week because we cannot keep them on the shelves,” says managing director of Aunty Nellie’s chain of traditional sweet shops, David Jordan.

Currently the fastest growing sector in retail in Ireland, old-fashioned sweet shops are enjoying a major revival. The main players so far are Irish-owned Aunty Nellie’s sweet shops of which there are now seven around the country, and UK-owned Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe, which have opened 10 franchises around Munster in the past year. There are countless other independent sweet shops, including Sweet Dreams in Galway, and The Slip Sweet Shop in Kilkenny.

CEO of LC Confectionery Ltd, and Urney Chocolates, Leo Cummins, 55, isn’t surprised. “Things go in cycles. In the 1980s there was a huge spate of Pic N Mix shops and every big supermarket had Pic N Mix counters. The majority of sales were in unwrapped sweets. When the AIDS scare happened, suddenly unwrapped products in supermarkets became a no-no, ridiculously. All the supermarkets got out of Pic ’n’ Mix and the shops disappeared,” says Cummins.

“Now there’s a return effectively to the Pic ’n’ Mix outlets of old, via the new sweet shops,” says Cummins, who re-launched Cork-based favourite, Hadji Bey Turkish Delight last year to great acclaim, (it is now stocked in Fortnum and Mason in London) and who plans to re-introduce the Two and Two bar next year.

“We’re creating this atmosphere where there’s no politics, no recession or no diets allowed,” says David Jordan. “I think for that split ten minutes in the sweet shop, with Willy Wonka music in the background, whether you’re worried about your mortgage re-payment or you’re in negative equity, or you’ve just lost your job, you come in and your children are spending €2 and they’re getting a load of sweets, but it’s actually not what they’re taking away — it’s the fact that they’re having fun and giggling and enjoying the experience.”

Manager of a franchise of Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe in Cork City, Pauline O’Mahony agrees. “It’s a small spend for a little bit of pleasure. The elderly are as excited as the young people. They’re coming in with names asking us to trace certain sweets, nostalgic for Fizzle Sticks and Clove Rocks.

“School children are our regular clientele every day,” continues O’Mahony, who is one of 10 employees in the Cork city shop.

“You get to know them, they have their bus fare and just a few cents left for their sweets. They love eating Mega Sours, especially Black Deaths, and people wonder what’s happening to them outside the shop when they’re eating them and going all red in the face!”

Donogh Raftery, 41, retired from banking this year and decided to open an Aunty Nellies sweet shop franchise in Mallow, Co Cork.

“People are sick of getting bottles of wine, this is new and innovative. The thirty-plus age group love hampers filled with nostalgic sweets like Big Time bars, Chomps, Popping candy, Wham bars, Refresher bars and Dip Dabs,” says Raftery, who had a ribbon made from sweets to cut on the crowded opening day.

And according to Jordan, every town has its favourite sweet. “Hadji Bey is one of our best sellers in Cork. Mallow was Apple Drop crazy and Carrigaline locals loved fudge. In Cobh we had people inundating us with requests for aniseed balls, and it was actually the nurses coming down from the Old Folks Home buying them for the patients.”

Jordan’s sister is a nurse who buys the sweets for Alzheimers patients, in the hope of bringing back some disappeared memories.

But do these sweets still taste the same — do they still sell nail-varnish-tasting Pear Drops that tear the roof of the mouth, or do we remember these sweets with rose-tinted taste-buds?

“All those sweets from your childhood would be slightly different now, because certain ingredients and additives have changed, and health and safety rules have changed,” says Jordan, who is currently campaigning for the return of Postman Pat sweets and a more authentic version of Fizzle Sticks.

“As rental rates are coming down, a lot of people are establishing sweet shops. There’s no point in just having boiled sweets because the novelty will wear off. The people who do it professionally will survive,” says Cummins of LC Confectionery, who plans to introduce a Recession chocolate bar soon, with the seven days of the week marked thriftily on each square of chocolate.

I wonder if the next generation will hanker after it, as much as I’m hankering after a Dip Dab right now?

Picture: Donogh Raftery, retired from banking this year and opened an Aunty Nellie’s sweet shop franchise in Mallow, Co Cork. Picture: Des Barry

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