Customers crazy for Half Nuts
For 24 years, Mary and William Ziegler have owned and operated candy and nut shop, Half Nuts, 9617 W. Greenfield Ave., in West Allis. Over the decades, they have seen a lot of changes in the industry and, despite the name and the increased sugar intake, seem to have remained relatively sane. (Ba dum dum.)
"When we first opened, we sold a lot more nuts," says Mary. "These days, candy is king."
The little shop has increased its sales over the years primarily because chain candy shops have closed. Case in point: there were once 18 Quality Candy shops in metro Milwaukee and today there are only two.
But it's not only lack of competition that keeps customers returning to Half Nuts. The candy, chocolate and nut selection is the stuff that sweet-teethed dreams are made of and there are almost too many delectables to choose just a few.
Most of the candy, chocolate and nuts are sold by the pound, but many pieces are sold individually or by the bag.
The nostalgic candy is one of Half Nuts greatest offerings. Half Nuts is a Candy Museum of sorts, only all of the candy items are fresh, including candy buttons, candy lipstick, wax bottles, Slo Pokes, bottle caps and boxes of candy cigarettes, which are now called "candy sticks."
"They don't have red tips anymore like 'candy cigarettes' used to," says Mary.
And candy sticks don't have the paper filters filled with powder sugar that allowed kids to "pretend puff" anymore either, although Mary says people ask for them often. Also, interestingly, bubblegum cigars are still named the same.
Customers often stop in to buy candy that was popular in the '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s prior to a high school or college reunion.
"People are shocked at some of the candy still being made," says Mary. "People say, 'I can't believe they still make these!' People will be in here forever, remembering."
William's family owned the Ziegler Candy Company which was a Milwaukee-based candy and chocolate manufacturer from the late 1800s until 1976. Today, Half Nuts still sells the company's signature chocolate and nut bar, called the Ziegler Giant Bar, that's made from the original molds and recipe.
The Ziegler Candy Co. donated thousands of Giant Bars to local public and private schools, so many older folks who grew up in Milwaukee remember the candy bar fondly. The company was also the first company to manufacture the candy raisin, which has been regionally popular around Milwaukee for decades.
"If you go out of Wisconsin – even Up North – people don't even know what candy raisins are," says Mary.
Although there isn't a lot of candy made locally anymore, Half Nuts sells Seroogy's chocolate made in De Pere and Baraboo Candy's cow pies.
Some customers come just for the imported black licorice, another Half Nuts' specialty item. Licorice from Finland, Holland and England is made from real black licorice root and so it has a stronger flavor.
"Imported licorice has a real following," says Mary.
Half Nuts also sells containers for candies, including tins, decorative bags, boxes, baskets, trays and more. The business also fills a lot of orders for corporate gifts.
Easter is a very busy time of year for Half Nuts, but Christmas, not surprisingly, is the busiest time of year.
"It's a long candy season – the whole month of December," she says.
Even though Half Nuts sells primarily candy, the business still has a great selection of nuts including roasted, salted, unsalted, sweetened, spiced, hot and more.
"We have an exclusive on salty white pistachios. They used to be everywhere but they're pretty hard to come by now and they're hard to get so we sell tons of them," says Mary.
Like most industries, the fashion of candy constantly changes. Candy by the color is very popular to accommodate wedding, school or team colors. The popularity of candy buffets at weddings and parties has also contributed to the rise in demand for the availability of single-colored candy.
"A bride's colors might be pink and black and so she only wants those colors for her candy or a mom who's planning a graduation party might want only the child's high school colors or new college's colors or both," says Mary.
Because of the candy color craze, Sixlets, M&Ms, gummies, fruit sours, taffies and Jelly Bellies are available in dozens of different colors. Half Nuts stocks 23 different colors of M&Ms, including black and lavender, along with special lines of "shimmery" colored Jelly Bellies and Sixlets that are intended to look fancier than the regular shells.
Gummies have changed, too, and are now available in unique shapes like octopuses, butterflies, fried eggs and jet fighters.
"It's not just your gummy worms and bears anymore," says Mary.
Draft beer-flavored Jelly Bellies are also new to the candy market. According to Mary, the company took four years to perfect the recipe. Half Nuts sells the beans, aptly, in a beer mug.
"They really taste and smell like beer," says Mary. "We've seen a lot of Jelly Belly flavors come and go over the years – like garlic – and it will be interesting to see how the beer jelly bean does. My guess is it will do pretty well here in Milwaukee."
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