I admit it; it’s been a while since I had the opportunity to attend a Retail Confectioners International Regional Conference. As often is the case, I have plenty of excuses, beginning with budget restraints, scheduling conflicts and never-ending deadlines.
But after attending RCI’s Centennial Anniversary Conference in Chicagoland this summer, I realized it was time to get reacquainted with the group’s regional conference program. The fact that the confab was scheduled just prior to the annual Hot Air Balloon festival in Albuquerque certainly was an incentive.
The opportunity to visit Santa Fe, a magnet for the arts – as well as a farewell flamenco performance – certainly sweetened the pot. But as I came to realize, these were all mere decorative touches for the real reason to attend: the candy makers and the supplier community supporting them.
During the Supplier’s Tell-n-Sell event, which coincided with the welcome reception at the Hotel Albuquerque, I had a chance to listen to Paul Wockenfuss, president of Wockenfuss Candies in Baltimore, tell me about his experiences with Amazon. 
It’s a learning experience for him and his staff, but the potential it represents suggests this e-commerce experiment could provide a significant revenue stream. As he told me, they’re just beginning to come to grips with the process of how one order can encourage online surfers to click and do the same, building sales of an item. Go Paul.  
Then there was the visit from Debbie Ball, The Candy Lady of Old Town Albuquerque. You know, the one that stirred up a bit of commotion with her “Breaking Bad” Candy Meth. And yes, she’s still going strong, taking advantage of the show’s never-ending popularity and its recently launched prequel, “Better Call Saul.” 
Jeff and Jane Birnn of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont were also there, enjoying the pleasures of “retirement” while adjusting to splitting time between Florida and Vermont. Luckily, their home was spared any major damage from Irma.
A shout out also goes to Beckie and Robert Untiedt of Graham’s Chocolates, who have three shops in the Chicagoland. Robert, who’s a musician by training, has been composing with a different medium, chocolate, for the past 30 years and continues to deliver nothing but sweet notes.
Bernard Garbusjuk of Boehm’s Candies and I had some time to bond on the bus during the tours of Buffet’s Popcorn Cannery and Buffet’s Candies in Albuquerque. Both being immigrants, we could relate to a “boatload” of experiences. Moreover, his life story is just one fascinating chapter after another, and illustrates — for me, at least — what this country is all about.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning  Barry and Jean Bomboy of Bomboy’s Home Made Candy, Inc. in Harve de Grace, Md. We reminisced about my son, Gabriel, visiting them to do a story for Candy Industry many years ago.
Did I mention Gabriel, his wife Elizabeth, and my grandkids, Julian and Nicholas, now live in Albuquerque? But back to task. Gabriel was working for a community newspaper at the time in Washington, D.C., and after meeting Barry at an RCI event, I was keen on doing an article about his operation. 
Long story short, our favorite professional freelance photographer, Vito Palmisano, took some wonderful shots of the shop and even got Barry to pose by the famed Concord Point Lighthouse. Gabriel did a nice write-up, and we’ve had a special connection since then. Oh yeah, we’re also politically miles apart, but it makes for some great conversation.
Also spent some quality time with Charlie McCarthy of Hilliard’s Chocolates while sipping on wine during RCI President Steve Vande Walle’s Sweet Meet in his suite at the Hotel Chaco. Nice digs, Steve.
Charlie was sharing with me details about the construction adventures the company was encountering putting in a new septic tank on its grounds, revamping the parking lot and eventually building a new production facility. 
It was Charlie and his wife, Judy Hilliard McCarthy, who bought the business together from Judy’s father, Alan, in 1981. The two weren’t really sure they would survive back then, but they have been keeping the Hilliard’s confectionery legacy alive and well in the Boston area for 36 years now. Hope to visit once construction concludes.
And speaking of Hilliard’s, long-time Candy Industry Kettle Award Committee Member Jim Bourne of Hilliard’s Chocolate Systems was on hand to keep me on the straight and narrow. Bourne, of course, has been an active member of RCI since time immemorial and continues to serve the midsized chocolate makers with his line of equipment. Looking for a resource? Call Jim.
Our wonderful chocolate suppliers were in full force — Barry Callebaut, Blommer Chocolate Co. (nice presentation Jenna Derhammer, by the way); Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate (try Joe Sofia’s Irish Car Bomb recipe) and Guittard Chocolate. 
While I’m on recipes, Deirdre Lane, the pastry chef at Hotel Chaco, came up with some interesting truffle recipes using local ingredients, such as chevre, lavender, honey, red chile and mescal. I believe RCI should have them available if you’re interested. 
I have plenty more stories to share and people to mention, but I’m running long as it is and the clock’s ticking for us to meet our newsletter deadline. Suffice it to say that Angie Burlison, RCI’s executive director, and her colleagues, Lisa Boon and Lacey Hesse, did a great job putting together a fantastic program complimented by truly genuine candy makers and chocolatiers.
This regional reminded me of what this industry is all about: people who put their hearts, minds and bodies into making treats that make us smile, enjoy, remember and revitalize. It’s a sorely needed component in these challenging times.