By Steve Frangos
In 1898, Peter Vrinios arrived in Champaign, IL and quicker than it takes to tell the tale he rented a store near the local railroad station and opened a fully-appointed confectionery. Such was Vrinios’ success that very same year he also purchased the entire building. For the next 100 years the Vrinios family owned and worked out of that building.
As in all things truly Greek, the tale of Peter Vrinios and his family is complicated. Yet again as with all things Greeks it is an account of tradition in various forms that continues to this day. I offer this account in two forms first the material and then what I call the spirit.
In terms of material achievements by 1983, the Vriner building (an Americanization of the Vrinios name) complex was designated a historic building. Monuments to Greek-Americans can be found all across the United States.
Diverse in their expression, these monuments include statues, public buildings, pools, athletic fields, gardens, fountains, rooms, homes, plaques, straits, sports stadiums, war memorials, streets named after local Greeks (both in the forms of proper named thoroughfares and as honorable titled avenues), grave sites (inclusive of one cemetery named specifically for a local Greek), several sponge boats, islands (individual and group), public artwork, historic districts, at least one United States war ship, public parks, historical markers, and other commemorative sites specifically dedicated to the memories of Greek-Americans.
Over the years I have tried to not only identify these varying forms of monuments but to raise awareness that Greeks have been specifically so honored, literally all across the nation.
Among this vast collective is the Vriner Confectionery Building located at 55 Main Street in Champaign, Illinois. Today, this structure is on the National Registry of Historical Places. Once the history of Greek-American monuments is finally compiled a fully-illustrated chapter will have to be exclusively devoted to ice cream/candy/confectionery stores.
To its enduring shame, Greek-American Studies have yet to fully recognize let alone assess the bone-deep historical impact of such local Greek-owned businesses on the self-identity of Americans around the country. No more authoritative source into the American Imagination needs to be cited than Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 international recognized masterpiece of American fiction Main Street. As we learn in Lewis’ novel, among the stores found around every main square in any American rural town was the Greek immigrant-owned confectionery.
And what is perhaps even more infuriating for those who have a sure grasp of Greek-American history is that not all these businesses have disappeared. Just a handful of these ongoing family-owned businesses that you can walk into any day of the week would have to include (but is most certainly not limited to) Flesor's Candy Kitchen (101 West Sale St. Tuscola, IL 61953); Costa's Candies and Restaurant (112 North Cedar Ave. Owatonna, MN 55060); Temo's Candy Company (495 W. Exchange St. Akron OH 44302); Voula's Greek Sweets (439 Monroe Ave. Rochester NY 14607) and many, many others.
A Nomination Form for the National Register of Historic Places must be submitted to the Department of the Interior for every location. Within the nomination form are several pages devoted strictly to a concise account of the history and architectural significance of the structure. In this case Carol Bolton Betts researched and wrote the history and conditions of the building as she saw and learned of them in 1983.
“Vriner's Confectionery is a historic confectionery store located at 55 Main Street in Champaign. The building was constructed in 1890 as a clothing store; Vriner's opened in the building in 1898. One of five or six candy shops operating in Champaign at the turn of the century, Vriner's was the longest-lived. The shop was located next to a vaudeville theater and near Champaign's railroad station and it became popular with patrons of both. The store also led to an influx of Greek immigrants to Champaign, as Vriner's promised jobs to many of the new immigrants. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 9, 1983. The confectionery store closed in 1997; while the Vriner family still makes candy, they no longer have a permanent storefront. A bar now occupies the building.”
Longtime residents and untolled numbers of college students each have their favorite memory/ies of Vriner's Confectionery. Among the many framed tributes and autographed photographs of notables once found framed on the walls of the store was a 1983 column by the late film critic Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times. Ebert, an Urbana native, reminisces about going to Vriner’s regularly with fellow reporters when he worked at the News-Gazette in 1963.
Vriner's also has its enduring place in the annuals of American confection history. On the Crawford County Illinois Historical Society webpage we find a historical overview of the Heath Candy Company (rootsweb.ancestry.com).
Speaking of a traveling salesman, “The most popular recipe he shared was for "Trail-Toffee" carried from an enterprise operated by some Greek candy-makers in Champaign. The Heath brothers took this recipe and developed it further. After several months of trial and error, the brothers declared their formula for "English Toffee" to be "America's Finest." The year was 1928.” The Greek Champaign makers referred to here were the Vriner's.
As we here in the 2007 news account, “Vriner's Confectionary: Age Old Sweet Makers without a Home,” by Seth Fein we hear more of this shop's influence: “Legend is, during prohibition, Al Capone came to Vriner’s regularly to conduct business with his partners from St. Louis. It’s said that the chubby criminal would put away one, two, and sometimes three chocolate marshmallow sundaes while planning out heists and murders. It’s said that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt demanded a soda upon her arrival to Champaign in 1942. She proclaimed Vriner’s to be the finest she had ever had. Someone offered JFK a Vriner’s candy cane in 1960 during a campaign stop, lore has it; he scarfed it down faster than you could say ‘peppermint.’”
And another way to assess the strong local identification residents have with Vriner's was the decision in 1972, by the then-up-and-coming Champaign/Urbana rock band REO Speedwagon to have their group photograph taken sitting at Vriner's soda counter for their second album; entitled aptly enough, Two. As far as I can now determine this was the first appearance of a rock group with a Greek-American owned business. Phish's 1992 album, “A Picture of Nectar” was released in 1992 on Electra with a picture of the Greek American restaurant owner as part of this album's cover.
At some point Peter Vrinios and his immediate family moved to Florida. As far as I can tell, Vrinios has never stopped making candy – especially candy canes. Various online videos show Vrinios in Florida making and explaining the fine points of candy cooking at various temporary locations during the holiday season in “Vriner's Candy Canes Parts 1-3” and “SNN Only Man in the USA Making Candy Canes by Hand is on the Suncoast.”
As we hear from Vrinios himself, he still possesses many of the tools from the original store including a cane burner, a copper kettle, utensils to stir the candy, a hook to twist the candy as well as a 3 by 8 foot marble slab measuring more than half a foot deep (which weighs roughly one ton). As Vrinios speaks, we can hear not just the factual details of the science of candy cooking but this man's obvious love and determination to keep this sweet family tradition alive. No monument made of stone or steel could ever match such feelings, nor should it.