There are lots of things we associate with graduations — caps and gowns, spring-like weather, bouquets of flowers.
When service members graduate from boot camp, the clothing changes, the spring-like weather isn’t always present and, in the case of sailors graduating from Great Lakes Naval Academy, instead of flowers, graduates might receive exclusive chocolates, only sold on base and specifically to celebrate graduates.
Great Lakes Naval Base is the only training base that the U.S. Navy has in the country. That means that every sailor who graduates from Great Lakes Naval Base does so at the post in North Chicago, Ill., and thanks to a partnership with Windy City Sweets, that experience can be marked with specialty sweets and chocolates exclusive to the Chicago candy shop.
Windy City Sweets partnered with the U.S. Navy when the Navy reached out to the company in late 2017.
“NEX Great Lakes wanted to provide our U.S. Navy sailors and their families with specialty sweets and chocolates,” Chris Ponchak, General Manager, NEX Great Lakes, IL, said in a written statement. “Therefore, Rick Wahl, our Services Operations manager, did some research and discovered a local candy store. He then reached out to them, and after the initial visit, they were happy to help provide our deserved customer with some sweet local treats.”
John Manchester, who co-owns Windy City Sweets with his wife, Jill, is thrilled to provide the signature candy bars and tins.
“The Navy contacted us over the late spring last year looking for something new and different,” John Manchester explained. “They were looking for something to expand their brand and something they can take from Great Lakes up here and expand to other people. It turned out to be a great idea, and other people within their organization thought it was a great idea as well."
The products have either the Windy City Sweets branded chocolate or the logo specific to the Navy boot camp.
“The Windy City Sweets logo features the Chicago Skyline in five or six colors with clouds behind it,” John Manchester said.” It features the Sears’ Tower, the Hancock (building), Water Tower, Picasso, the Bean and the diamond-shaped building.
“We are doing a custom chocolate bar that’s boxed up, that has the Navy logo on it and then we are also doing tins with chocolates and nuts that has their logo on it.”
In the summer of 2018, Windy City Sweets added a chocolate coin option, also branded with the boot camp logo. The boot camp logo is a boot with a cover or Navy hat.
Windy City Sweets is a long-time fixture in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. While John and Jill Manchester purchased it in 2011, the store has been in operation since 1983.
Windy City Sweets recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. Part of its staying power is in the attention to detail — the candy store custom makes its chocolate creations by hand onsite, including the branded bars made exclusively for Great Lakes Naval Academy.
Their disciplined approach is appreciated by the Navy personnel.
“Our customers love this product; not only are they a sweet treat, but it’s also a tasty representative for our local community here in Chicago, Ponchak said. “The most popular item among our customers is the Navy boot camp chocolate bar.”
Ponchak said that while the branded chocolate bar is the most popular, the specialized tins are also treasured.
“The chocolates are by far our most highly desired, however, sailors and their families treasure the gift tins as a sentimental keepsake,” Ponchak said. “A sailor will never forget when they graduated from boot camp, and memorializing that time with a gift tin is incredibly special.”
In addition to creating a keepsake for graduating sailors, the chocolate bars are also a built-in fundraiser for Navy personnel. First, Windy City Sweets discounts the chocolate and then the Navy Exchange Service Command gives proceeds back to their families and organizations.
“The Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM) gives back 100 percent of its earnings as dividends to our sailors and their families — 70 percent being given to Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs to support quality of life programs, and the remaining 30 percent is reinvested back in our Navy Exchange (NEX) facilities and equipment,” Ponchak said. “Since NEXCOM’s inception in 1946, $3.6 billion has been given to MWR.”