It all started with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. With much of the city’s business center destroyed, the scorched landscape provided the perfect opportunity for businessmen who were ready to rebuild Chicago into a modern marvel. Among these entrepreneurs were confectioners: immigrants with the knowledge, skills and recipes for all things sweet.

The disastrous fire suddenly became a chance to start over and set the wheels in motion for burgeoning industries, including candy making.

Why was Chicago such an attractive location for candy makers? With its railroad tracks radiating in every direction, it was a bustling hub for the Midwest. Most cross-country rail traffic, carrying ingredients and other items for wholesalers and retailers, passed through Chicago. Candy makers found that corn for corn syrup and sugar was easy to access from the Red River Valley area of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

But Beth Kimmerle, author of four books on the history of the candy industry, says it’s too obvious to point to the railroads as the main reason Chicago was on track to become the country’s candy leader.

Kimmerle, a Chicago-area native, says the city was home to “huge pockets of immigrants - even today - who knew how to make candy.”

She points to the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, as a milestone in the city’s development as a candy capital. It was here that visitors saw a German company exhibit chocolate-making machinery. One attendee, former Chicagoan Milton S. Hershey, later installed the equipment in his caramel factory in Lancaster, Pa., and produced his first chocolate bars in 1900. And it was at the Expo that visitors had their first taste of Cracker Jack.

Chicago boasted a number of large retailers with enough floor space not only to sell, but make their own confections, places such as Marshall Field’s with its 13 acres of selling space, including a candy department. Mail-order giant Sears was a huge candy supplier, and fellow catalog house Montgomery Ward had its own candy division.

Chicago also was a natural choice for the National Confectioners Association (NCA), which was founded in 1884 by representatives from 69 confectionery manufacturing firms.

By the end of the century, Chicago was the largest producer of candy in the United States, a position it retained into the 21st century, according to “The Encyclopedia of Chicago.” Confectioners such as Brach’s and Curtiss Candy set up shop and found ingredient houses to help create product and retailers to help sell it.

“A hub of flavor companies are in Chicago, with chocolate makers like Blommer, who were starting to think of what’s required of suppliers to help with their candy, and they were right around the corner,” Kimmerle says.

Confectionery Roots

According to the NCA, there are confectionery manufacturers in more than 40 states, with a particular concentration in Illinois. And a number of Chicago confectioners have gone national, including the William Wrigley Co. in 1891, Brach’s in 1904 and Curtiss Candy in 1921.

Ferrara Pan Candy Co., which celebrated 100 years in 2008, started in Chicago’s old Italian neighborhood; its current factory is on the same site as the original Ferrara Bakery. Family continues to own and manage the company, best known for its Lemonheads, Fireballs and Jawbreakers brands.

Sal Ferrara, president and ceo of Ferrara Pan and grandson of one of the founders, says Chicago was chosen because the raw materials needed for candy were easy to get in the Midwest.

“Along with imported cocoa, we use sugar and milk in chocolates, and we can always have ample milk because we’re so close to Wisconsin and the dairy industry,” says Ferrara, who has spent 35 years working in the family business.

Even though the company has lost some of its local employee base to factories in Mexico and Canada, Ferrara says it will always remain in the Chicago area.

Mars Snackfood US may be based in Hackettstown, N.J., but its origins trace back to Chicago. Its Chicago plant opened in 1929 to meet increased demand for Milky Way candy bars. Later that year, Mars relocated its headquarters from Minneapolis to Chicago. The plant was the birthplace of Snickers in 1930 and 3 Musketeers in 1932. Today, these bars, Dove Chocolate and the Munch bar also are produced in Chicago, 80 years after the plant opened.

Mars was one of the leaders in manufacturing innovation, Kimmerle says: “When you talk about innovation among Chicago’s candy companies, you have to mention how the Mars factory set the new standard for new candy making facilities with its Chicago factory.

“A lot of candy factories were small and pieced together, and now Mars had the opportunity to build a modern factory,” she adds. “It was the blueprint for facilities for years.” Kimmerle notes that the Chicago plant was once referred to as “the showplace of the candy world.”

In 2008, Mars grew its empire even further with the acquisition of another Chicago confectioner: William Wrigley Jr. Co.

Area schoolchildren grew up selling World’s Finest milk chocolate with almond bar, door-to-door, from Chicago’s own World’s Finest Chocolate (WFC). Since 1949, more than 50 million youngsters have sold the branded product. This year, the iconic bar celebrates 50 years.

The origins of WFC can be traced to founder Ed Opler Sr., who joined his brother’s cocoa business in New York in 1918. The booming commodity business soon lured Opler to Chicago. After establishing a cocoa packaging company in 1922, Opler sold his business and opened Cook Chocolate Co. in the Windy City.

“It all started with the commodity exchange,” says Tyler Jeffrey, chief marketing officer for WFC. “Sugar and other commodities were traded here in Chicago. It became a natural to convert the commodities here and then ship from the center of the country.”

Chicago holds a distinct advantage over other urban areas, Jeffrey says: “Today, the advantage is freight. Chicago is the country’s hub for rail and truck freight. There is also a talented pool of employees with food and confection experience in Chicago.”

Jelly beans were created during the penny candy craze of the late 1800s, but Jelly Belly Candy Co. took it a step further with the original gourmet jelly bean in the 1970s in California. But before that, the company, known then as the Goelitz Confectionery Co., moved to Chicago from Cincinnati in 1903, opening a plant in North Chicago, Ill., in 1913.

Bill Kelley, vice chairman of Jelly Belly, is the great-great nephew of Adolph Goelitz, who started the company in Ohio. Kelley says Chicago presented many benefits for the candy industry.

“Raw materials are pretty plentiful here in Chicago,” Kelley says.

“Chicago’s advantage is it was located in the central part of the country, so companies could ship cheaply through its railroad hub to a vast area outside Chicago,” he further notes. “Candy is a dense product, and it’s expensive to ship.”

Chicago also was the birthplace of confectionery innovations, Kelley says. Goelitz was the financier behind the first simplex vacuum cooker for cooking hard candy in the 20th century and also helped finance the start-up of Confectioner magazine.

Goelitz Confectionery eventually became The Herman Goelitz Candy Co. and then Jelly Belly, based in California, after it teamed up with a Los Angeles distributor to create Jelly Belly brand jelly beans. Today, Jelly Belly’s headquarters may be in Fairfield, Calif., but its distribution center is in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., just north of Chicago.

Chicago Today

Over the years, many candy companies packed up and left Chicago or moved factories to other cities. Kimmerle says logistical constraints and efficiency demands make operating a candy factory difficult in an urban setting.

“Chicago used to be the candy capital of America, the candy center of the United States, but then we lost Brach’s, and a lot of other companies closed up and moved out,” Kelley adds.

But Chicago still holds an advantage. Long a test-marketer’s dream, the city is receptive to new innovations and new ideas, Kimmerle points out.

Case in point: Barry Callebaut opened its first U.S. chocolate academy in Chicago in 2008. Executives said they chose the “vibrant city” for its “excellent location.”

Chicago’s pastry and chocolate-making schools churn out people who are learning how to physically make candy, Kimmerle explains, adding that if she were to open a confectioneryness, it would be in Chicago.

“If you can make it in Chicago, you’re OK,” she says.

The NCA, now based in Washington, D.C., even chose Chicago as the site for the ALL CANDY EXPO, which began in 1997.

“We felt the need from our members that there was no place for confectioners to go to see what was new and innovative in the industry,” says Jenn Ellek, director of trade communications and marketing for the organization. “They needed a trade show.”

With a Midwestern location, Chicago is a logistical choice for confectioners, she asserts.

“It’s a big manufacturing center for candy, with companies like Ferrara Pan and Wrigley having their headquarters here,” Ellek says, adding that the trade show recently welcomed snack exhibitors for even more efficient buying. It’s also undergone a name change for 2010: SWEETS & SNACKS EXPO.

Jeffrey of WFC agrees: “The expo is a good opportunity to showcase our products to retail buyers. Having it be local allows us to participate at a greater level. More employees can come to the expo and see what’s happening in the industry. It gives them a greater connection to the industry as a whole.”

So is Chicago still considered the candy capital?

According to Kimmerle, “If Chicago doesn’t hold the title, then no one does.”

Chicago's Sweet History

American Licorice Co. The company was founded in Chicago in 1914, and Black Licorice Vines were born. Classic Raspberry Vines came six years later. Operations moved to California in 1925.

The Blommer Chocolate Co. Brothers Henry, Al and Bernard Blommer started the chocolate company in Chicago in 1939. It expanded west to California in 1948 and east to Pennsylvania in 1980, becoming one of the largest chocolate producers in North America.

E.J. Brach & Sons. In 1904, Emil J. Brach opened his “Palace of Sweets” in Chicago. The output of this candy factory grew quickly, producing more than 25 tons a week by 1911 and 1,000 tons a week by 1918. In 1922, the company built a new plant on the city’s West Side; this facility, the largest candy factory in the United States, soon employed hundreds.

Barry Callebaut. Belgian chocolate producer Callebaut and French chocolate company Cacao Barry joined forces in 1996. It opened its new headquarters in Chicago, moving into the building of former cataloger Montgomery Ward, which had its own candy division in the early 1900s. Barry Callebaut also opened its first U.S. chocolate academy in Chicago in 2008.

Curtiss Candy Co. Founded in Chicago in 1916 by Otto Schnering, Curtiss Candy did just under $100,000 in sales its first year. The company grew quickly. In 1919, it opened a three-story factory that employed 400 people. Annual sales passed $1 million by 1921, when it was turning out huge quantities of Baby Ruth candy bars. Other popular products included Butterfinger and Polar Bar.

Ferrara Pan Candy Co. Italian pastry maker Salvatore Ferrara came to America in 1900. After four years, Ferrara was fluent enough in English to be an interpreter for railroad crews. His work brought him to Chicago. It was there that he founded Ferrara Pan Co., a retail pastry and confection shop specializing in sugar-coated candy almonds, a tradition at Italian weddings. The factory, two towns west of Chicago, is on the same site as the original Ferrara Bakery. Family continues to own and manage the 100-year-old company.

Jelly Belly. Adolph Goelitz moved Goelitz Confectionery Co. from Cincinnati to Chicago in 1903. The company built a plant in North Chicago, Ill., in 1913. Candy corn was its best-seller. Later known as the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. in California, it partnered with a Los Angeles distributor to create Jelly Belly jelly beans. Its headquarters now are in Fairfield, Calif., but Jelly Belly still maintains its ties with a factory in North Chicago and a distribution plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

M.J. Holloway. Milton J. Holloway took over F. Hoffman & Co. of Chicago, the original manufacturer of Milk Duds chocolate-covered caramels, in 1928. Holloway sold the business to Beatrice Foods in 1960, and it was bought in 1986 by Leaf, which moved production to Robinson, Ill. Hershey Foods Corp. acquired Leaf in 1996.

Nestlé. Nestlé entered Chicago when it bought a candy plant in the western suburbs from Nabisco, Inc. in 1989. The Franklin Park plant was built in 1966.

Primrose Candy Co. The family-owned company was founded by Frank and Mae Puch in 1928, and today is run by the third generation. Primarily a hard candy manufacturer for its first 40 years, Primrose expanded in the late 1960s to include caramel and salt water taffy. Later, it added popcorn confections.

Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. The first Tootsie Roll candies were made in New York City during the early 1890s by Austrian immigrant Leo Hirschfeld. When William Rubin bought the Sweets Co. of America in 1935, it operated a large candy factory in New Jersey. In 1966, Tootsie Roll opened a large factory in Chicago. Soon, all the company’s operations were centralized in Chicago, where it employed about 900 people by the mid-1970s. Rubin’s daughter-in-law, Ellen Gordon, is company president and coo; her husband, Melvin Gordon, is chairman and ceo.

William Wrigley Jr. Co. After working as a soap salesman for his father in Philadelphia, 29-year-old William Wrigley Jr. moved to Chicago in 1891, where he sold baking powder and, eventually, chewing gum. Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint were the first introductions. By 1897, annual gum sales passed $1 million. Wrigley’s company merged with another local manufacturer in 1910, creating the William Wrigley Jr. Co.

World’s Finest Chocolate. Ed Opler Sr. joined his brother’s cocoa business in New York in 1918. After establishing a cocoa packaging company in 1922, he sold his business and started Cook Chocolate Co. in Chicago. World’s Finest milk chocolate with almond bar was the first fundraising chocolate bar in 1949.

Fannie May Candies. H. Teller Archibald opened the first Fannie May Candies store in 1920 on LaSalle Street in Chicago. By 1935, the retailer boasted a dozen stores in Illinois and neighboring states. Although Fannie May candy production no longer is in Chicago, it still has retail locations in the city it once called home.

Peerless Confectionery Co. The manufacturer of quality hard candles began in Chicago in 1924, closing its door in 2007.

Sources: “Encyclopedia of Chicago” and company Web sites.