Goody Goody Gumdrop candy stores have a history of luring people in — and I don’t just mean the customers.
Back in 1975, Pete Helland decided to open a candy store in front of his family’s amusement park in the Wisconsin Dells. He had been inspired by the candy stores at Walt Disney World and thought he might be able to bring some of the Magic Kingdom’s allure to central Wisconsin.
But when he opened up on the first day, he was overwhelmed by customers. So, he called his wife Bobette to ask a favor.
“He said, ‘Do you think you can come up here and help? Because they’re really, really busy,” Bobette recalls with ease. “And I never left.”
Flash forward to 2009, when Ana Danii first walked into Goody Goody Gumdrop. She was only planning to stay for the summer while she worked in the store as part of a foreign exchange program from Moldova. Now, six years later, she’s managing the store — and loving every second of it.
“I don’t see this as my job at all,” Danii says, adding that she loves coming to work every day because it doesn’t actually feel like work.
Goody Goody Gumdrop, which claims to have the largest candy store in Wisconsin, has three shops in the Wisconsin Dells — the area of central Wisconsin known for its cliff formations (dalles in French means high cliffs) and water parks. The Dells, which also includes the nearby town of Lake Delton, draws more than 4 million tourists annually, many of whom are also lured into a Goody Goody Gumdrop.
There’s the original location, in front of Timbavati Wildlife Park, that still draws in crowds with its original bubble gum pink siding and 1970’s decor. Then there’s the second-oldest location right in the heart of downtown on Broadway, which opened in 1991 and features a giant lollipop sign taller than the store itself. And finally, the newest location, which opened in 2009 and is right in the center of the action at the all-year-long Wilderness Hotel — America’s largest indoor-outdoor waterpark.
But these aren’t your average candy stores. While there are numerous candy shops in the Wisconsin Dells, most are only big enough for a single-file line of customers to peruse the confectionery counter. But Goody Goody Gumdrop stores are an entirely different experience.
For example, the one on Broadway has — besides a seating area — a gelato counter, an on-site kitchen and a running toy train that runs along a track mounted near the ceiling. And the staff is always happy to help customers navigate the more than 1,000 different kinds of candy while wearing T-shirts that say, “Give me chocolate, or give me death.”
“It’s a candy heaven, a Vegas for kids,” says Michael Helland, executive v.p. of Goody Goody Gumdrop, and Bobette’s son. “We pay attention to detail.”
Indeed, they have almost any treat you could think of, including: homemade fudge, hand-dipped chocolates, truffles, caramels, nut clusters, caramel apples, salt water taffy, sugar-free candies and chocolates,Jelly Belly jelly beans, ice cream, yogurt, soda, hard candies, gummies, rock candy, lollipops, popcorn, espresso, and gourmet coffees. And of course, a huge bulk section, priced so that shoppers can mix and match to their heart’s content.
They even carry more unusual stuff, like bacon lollipops and Hotlix’s Cricket Licket lollipops, which feature real crickets at the center.
“We try not to have what you can get in a grocery store,” Danii says. “And we never rush anyone.”
Most of the packaged items are scouted at confectionery shows like the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago. But they’ve also found inspiration at the IAAPA Amusement Park show, where Michael found a cotton candy vending machine that lets kids watch as their cotton candy is freshly made.
But it’s not just fun packaged treats that lure customers. There’s also the hundreds of items made daily in the on-site kitchens at the front of the downtown and the Timbavati Wildlife Park locations. The kitchens are set up so customers can watch as employees hand-dip caramel apples, create more than 25 flavors of truffles, and decorate cookies.
“People love to stand there and watch us,” says Bobette.
One of the most popular items at the shops is their huge variety of caramel apples. The more than 15 flavors range from plain caramel to apple pie, chocolate chips, English toffee, Oreo cookies, M&M’S, and sea salt caramel.
It’s not just the fun flavors that have customers’ mouths watering though. Each one is hand-dipped in homemade caramel that’s made right in the stores.
While Bobette runs the kitchen at the original Goody Goody Gumdrop in front of the Timbavati Wildlife Park, it’s Monica Williams who runs the show at the shop on Broadway. She’s been working there for 14 years and is mostly self-taught.
Williams says she loves coming up with new flavor combinations, and often finds herself sitting awake at night thinking of new treats to make.
As with most of the stores in the Wisconsin Dells, summer is the main selling season. But it’s actually the cold summer days that bring in the most traffic. Michael says they actually see a 60 percent increase in business when the temperature drops a bit.
“There are families with time and a little money. They have time and they’re on vacation,” he explains. “And there’s a lot of vitality in the stores.”
Once the shoppers get a taste of Goody Goody Gumdrop’s salted caramel or fudge, they often want seconds — even if they don’t live anywhere near the Wisconsin Dells. And that’s where goodygumdrop.com comes into play. The website sells the store’s candy online. Moreover, Bobette says that online sales been so successful that now about half their revenue comes from the stores and half comes from the Internet.
While Goody Goody Gumdrop clearly has the largest retail candy operation in the Dells, it’s not all that surprising that it’s been so successful. After all, Michael Helland’s family is so much a part of the Wisconsin Dells that they were literally involved in choosing the town’s name.
Back in 1931, his great-grandfather William Stanton participated in the effort to convince the town to change its name from Killborn City to the Wisconsin Dells, after those dalles in the Wisconsin River. The move was a marketing ploy that helped get free publicity and lure tourists during the Great Depression.
And, Michael’s father and Bobette’s husband Peter Helland, was among the first to offer what’s now one of the area’s most well-known attractions — boat tours. Founding the Riverview Boat Line, he also managed the Stanton and Helland Dells properties.
In fact, he was so well-known that when Peter passed away in 2005, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a resolution honoring him, saying he was, “accurately described by many newspapers at his death as a visionary, was a great conservationist, [and] involved in several landmark initiatives.”
These days, the family also owns the Wilderness Hotel, as well as other hotel properties around the country.
“I’ve been around tourism my whole life,” says Michael Helland, who actually worked at Goody Goody Gumdrop while in high school. “Tourism is in my blood.”
Like his mom and Danii, he too couldn’t help but be lured into Goody Goody Gumdrop. After college he worked in Washington, D.C., but eventually found himself back in the Dells pursuing the family business.
As for his mom Bobette, even after all these years, she’s never regretted her decision to help out on that very first day.
“I can’t wait to come to work,” she says. “What’s a happier place than a candy store?”
At-a-glance: Goody Goody Gumdrop
Selection:More than 1,000 varieties of candy
Locations: Timbavati Wildlife Park
2210 Wisconsin Dells Parkway, Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
Downtown Wisconsin Dells
401 Broadway,Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
Wild West Lobby at the Wilderness Hotel
511 East Adams St., Wisconsin Dells, Wis.