The Lasting Contributions of Greeks on the World of Confections in America

With all the current advertising fervor centering on “Greek yogurt,” I believe we must step back and look at the overall impact of Greeks on American food habits over the last 130 years. The first area of American food in which Greeks had a direct and enduring impact was in confections, e.g. ice creams, candies and fountain drinks. We know this not simply from historical accounts but also by the continuing presence of various Greek innovations and creations.
Nonetheless there is a curious selective memory at work in the Greek American community. While the evidence I am about to cite is in one way or another very well known to many within the Greek-American community at the same time it still somehow does not alter the common impression among these very same individuals that Greeks have never really contributed anything lasting to American society.
The 1920 classic of American small town life, Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis includes among the main street businesses found across the nation the “Greek Confectionery Parlor” where one could find “In the Greek candy-store was the whine of a peanut-roaster, and the oily smell of nuts.” It should come as no surprise then that the presence of Greeks in local candy stores and ice cream palaces is easily found within the American and Greek-American press.
Make no mistake about it, Greek immigrants were primarily interested in the monetary success of their confectionaries. Innovation was one path to such success. Under the title “Prize is awarded” we read in a small Iowan newspaper: “The $5 prize to be given by the Olympia Candy Kitchen for the best name of a new candy this firm is making has been awarded by the judges selected for the purpose. Some seventy different names were suggested, the one winning the prize being, “Webster City Kisses.” This name was suggested by two different parties, Miss Eva Mills and Geo. Calkins, and the cash prize of $5 will therefore be divided between the two. The prize was offered during the candy opening held by the Olympia a week ago last Saturday. The judges were Jas. Bossert, Rube McFerren and Geo. Nelson (Webster City Freeman November 9, 1912).
Greek immigrants recognized and were rightly proud of their commanding presence in the confectionary trade. Here is a Greek Star article from the April 01, 1904 edition under the title: “The Greek Confectioners Chicago the Mecca of the Candy Business” Practically every busy corner in Chicago is occupied by a Greek candy store. Their perfect cleanliness and their elaborate method of making pure and delicious candies have made the Greeks the predominant factor in that line of business.
An impartial investigation reveals the indisputable fact that the Greeks are the fathers of the present candy industry.
What kind of candy store did we have here before the Greeks began to monopolize the trade? Where was candy sold, and what kind of candy? Old-timers know and remember where it was sold, and what kind of candy it was before the Greeks developed and expanded the manufacture and sale of confectionery.
The Greek confectioners are Chicago’s pride, and Chicago is the pride of two thirds of the country. Chicago, not New York, has the credit of being the city of candy-makers. Seventy per cent of the Greek candy-merchants in America were originally citizens of Chicago. After they had learned the trade of fellow-Greeks for whom they worked and by saving had accumulated enough capital, they bade Chicago farewell and scattered to the four corners of this great country.
Each and every one of them, with Chicago money and Chicago training in the art of candy-making, found the city which suited him, and a new and up-to-date store in the Chicago style sprang up at the busy corner of that city. Now the rest of the story is easy. More Greeks came along and learned the trade, and the whole country is sweetened by the exquisite art of the Greek confectioner.
Inevitably Chicago became the center of supply for all these new stores all over the western and southern states. New industries sprang up here to supply the candy-makers’ demands as they accelerated the development 3of the confectioner’s business. Chicago firms have hundreds of traveling salesmen to supply these Greek confectioneries with the needs of the trade. This kind of business and such an activity did not exist before the Greeks tempted and sweetened the tooth of the country.
One of the wholesale dealers in Chicago, Mr. Christ Vlachandreas, of North Dearborn Street, who deals in extracts, travels far and wide, and because of his Greek shrewdness and by impersonating a Frenchman in talk, action, etc., he has discovered the real feelings of people in general toward the Greeks. In every state where he travels he cunningly directs his conversation toward the Greek confectioners and the Greeks in general. His ears are tickled with eulogies of the Greeks; he learns that they are clean, industrious, peaceable, law-abiding, honest people. The above qualities are all correctly and rightfully attributed to the Greeks. A big merchant in a western state told Mr. Vlachandreas that the Greeks in his town are the best specimens of human beings with some exceptions; that is, “they love wine, women, and cards.” Of course we as Greeks know the wise saying of our ancestors, “nothing to excess,” and accordingly we should govern and moderate our desires and our predilections.
Here are just four Chicago and Illinois based confections now available on a national and even international basis.
In 1921, Andrew Kanelos opened a small candy store in Chicago, Illinois, Andy’s Candies (later spelled ‘Andes Candies’). Mr. Kanelos created Andes Chocolate Mints, also known as Andes Candies, are small rectangular candies consisting of one mint-green layer sandwiched in between two chocolate-brown layers. The candies are usually wrapped in green foil imprinted with the company’s logo, the word Andes written amidst a drawing of snow-capped peaks. In 1980, Andes Candies was purchased by the Swiss candy company then in 2000 Tootsie Roll Industries purchased all rights to this confection.
George DeMets opened his candy store in 1916 and sold his business and recipes in 1950. DeMets claim to fame was his turtles, which were caramel nut clusters covered in chocolate. Today, DeMets is wholly owned by Yıldız Holding, a food and beverage group located in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Heath Bar company states on its website that, “In 1913, L.S. Heath, a school teacher, bought an existing confectionery shop in Robinson, Illinois as a likely business opportunity for his oldest sons, Bayard Heath and Everett Heath. The brothers opened a combination candy store, ice cream parlor, and manufacturing operation there in 1914.
With the success of the business, the elder Heath became interested in ice cream, and opened a small dairy factory in 1915. His sons worked on expanding their confectionery business. At some point they reportedly acquired a toffee recipe, via a traveling salesman, from a Greek confectioner in another part of the state. In 1928, they began marketing it locally as ‘Heath English Toffee,’ proclaiming it America’s Finest.
Among the Greeks in Chicago it is widely asserted that Peter Vriner was that “Greek confectioner in another part of the state.” In 1898, Peter Vriner’s Confectionery opened at 55 Main Street in Champaign, Illinois. Vriner’s confectionary was located next to a vaudeville theater and near Champaign’s railroad station and it became popular with patrons of both.
Dove Bar is an American ice cream bar, created by Leo Stefanos at Dove Candies & Ice Cream in Chicago in 1956, and introduced nationally in 1985. The brand was bought by Mars Inc. in 1985, and the Dove Bar today is made by M&M/Mars. The Dove chocolate brand was named for the ice cream.
Greek-owned confectionaries are not a thing of the past. A venerable Chicago institution, Margie’s Candies has served homemade sundaes, shakes and hand-dipped candies for more than 90 years. In 1921, Peter George Poulos opened an ice cream parlor on the North Side the shop became known as ‘Margie’s Candies’ in 1933, when Poulos’ son George Peter Poulos married, Margie Michaels. Patrons have included Al Capone, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many other notables (
I have only included Chicago/Illinois-based confections in this account. All this says nothing about persons such as say Eleftherios Pilalas, Christ Tsakonas, Leonidas Kestekides, Tom Carvel and all the other Greek culinary geniuses of ice cream and candy. Greek yogurt is now a catch phrase and so is currently found in any number of other products such as candies that have what is said to be a Greek yogurt coating. Other food habits of Americans have been altered by Greek-Americans. Not allowing for this enduring influence on American confections (and these other foods) is just another example of how Greek American history and experience lacks true authenticity and so credibly.