Candy lovers mourn closing of Fannie May stores

Friday, January 16th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Lisa MacKay is in mint meltaway mourning.

The Fannie May stores _ a Chicago institution where candy lovers can get their fix of almond bark, pixies, trinidads, vanilla caramels and mint meltaways _ are closing, some as soon as next week.

And customers like MacKay who fear they will never find their sweet favorites again are clearing out the shelves and display cases.

``I bought mint meltaways the last two days,'' MacKay, a 36-year-old lawyer, said Thursday at a store in a commuter train station downtown. ``Yesterday, they said they were getting a new shipment. So hopefully today I'll get trinidads and pixies.''

Alas, it was not to be.

Just before 8 a.m., a young woman bought the last of the trinidads _ velvety chocolate centers covered by a toasted coconut shell _ prompting a groan from the 10 people in line behind her.

The future of Archibald Candy Co., the parent of Fannie May and sister brand Fanny Farmer, has been uncertain since the 84-year-old Chicago-based company emerged from bankruptcy in 2002 with creditors as its owners.

This month, Archibald announced it was selling the brands, shutting down the company's manufacturing plant in Chicago this weekend and closing all 228 stores around the country by mid-February. About 3,600 people are expected to lose their jobs, 625 at the plant.

On Wednesday, Archibald said it has signed a preliminary agreement to sell the Fannie May and Fanny Farmer brands to Utah-based Alpine Confections Inc. Alpine might eventually reopen some of the stores, according to the two companies, but plans to make the candy in its own factories.

``You don't know if the recipes will be the same. You don't know if the stores will reopen. It won't be a Chicago thing anymore,'' said Jane Shroba, clutching the store's last two boxes of pixies (pecans drenched in caramel and chocolate) and some assorted chocolates.

The closing of the Fannie May stores is another blow to Chicago's reputation as the king of candy. In 1999, Marshall Field's moved production of its Frango mints from the department store's 13th floor to a Pennsylvania factory, angering many Chicagoans.

Although Fannie May and Fanny Farmer candy is available in 17 states and the District of Columbia, the Fannie May stores were especially beloved in Chicago for their sheer ubiquity. Of the 228 stores, 120 are in the Chicago area. At least one has a drive-thru.

Customers always knew what to expect _ an L-shaped candy counter, flowered wallpaper, gray-haired clerks who often worked in the same stores for decades, and classic confections.

``My Easter basket was always full of Fannie May candy when I was a little girl. My Christmas stocking was always full of Fannie May candy,'' said Shroba, 47. ``It's sad, really sad.''

Jeanne Griffiths, 61, stopped by a Fannie May on a break from her work. The store was so busy it long ago ran out of the paper slips with numbers on them that were used to decide who was next to be served. Instead, patrons formed a line that stretched to the door.

Griffiths wanted to pick up several boxes of her favorite, carmarsh, a block of caramel covered by marshmallow. The clerks agreed to put it on hold for her so that she could return when the store was less busy.

``At Christmas I bought a five-pound box. That lasted about two weeks. Now I have three pounds in my freezer, and I'm picking up more boxes next week,'' she said. ``I'm a regular.''

MacKay treasures not just the candy, but the memories.

``We were raised with it,'' said MacKay, who remembers her parents treating her to almond bark when she was a child. ``The labels are always the same. You know what to expect. It's nostalgic.''