Thurmont’s Gateway Candyland Offers Year-Round Tasty Treats
Halloween marks the unofficial start of the fall-winter food season. It starts with a mountain of candy and rolls into pumpkin- and apple-laden pies, plates of homemade Christmas cookies and ends with a flute of champagne, with heart-shaped chocolates just around the corner.
But just below the Pennsylvania border on U.S. 15 in Thurmont, Gateway Candyland trades in sweet nostalgia all year long. Amber and Bradley Seiss took over the well-established mini-mall that includes the popular candy shop, ice cream parlor, liquor store and home decor section in January of this year.
Candyland was established in 1982 by Sterling and Linda Bollinger, in part to sell produce grown on their Kelbaugh Road orchard. Each of the Bollinger’s nine children took a turn working at the shop as it earned its place in the hearts of local customers and frequent visitors alike.
Amber Seiss, a former Montgomery County public school teacher, is a transplant to Thurmont, but her husband has fond memories of visiting the shop as a youngster. She says the opportunity to take over fell into their laps as friends of the previous owner. That’s fitting, since the Seiss family runs the woodworking shop next door, too. Seiss says that hearing customers happily exclaim, “I remember this,” upon seeing the spread of candy is one of her biggest joys.
And remember, they do.
SEAS OF CANDY
Turn right at the door and colorful bins are mounded with old-school and hard-to-find candies in a riot of colors. On an average day, Gateway Candyland carries approximately 400 varieties of sugary delicacies. That number swells during the holiday season, with Christmas and Easter topping the candy consumption list. There are Squirrel Nut Zippers, Chick-O-Sticks and Black Taffy (which is not entirely black) next to chewy BB Bats pops, creamy Goetze’s caramel bullseyes and milk chocolate Mallo Cups. Bulk candy is sold by the pound, so customers can judiciously pick one or two of their favorites or load up on a variety.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” says Seiss. “Everybody turns into a kid when they walked through the door. There is no age barrier.” She contemplates how certain, simple things can evoke powerful memories. “People will see those pink [Wintergreen-flavored Canada] Mints and it brings back memories of their grandfather.” Guests can still find candy cigarettes next to Turkish Taffy and crisp “flying saucer” puffs. Even the slightly more modern Razzles, Fun Dip packages and premium Jelly Bellies make an appearance. “A lot of it can’t be found at typical big chain stores.”
It’s a sweet trip down memory lane that spans decades, back to a time when granddaddy’s granddad probably begged his parents for a taste.
“It’s great that we can keep those traditions going for customers who came here as a child and now bring their own children,” says Seiss, whose own temptation is the strawberry-flavored hard candy bonbons, wrapped to look like berries. She’s also a fan of Bit-O-Honey bars. “It’s funny because I hated them as a kid. They were my dad’s favorite. Now, they’ve become one of mine.” That sweetie debuted in 1924. The almond-flecked rectangles of honeyed taffy were acquired by Pearson’s Candy Company of St. Paul, Minn., in 2013. They are makers of Nut Goodie bars, created in 1912, and the nougat-filled Salted Nut Rolls also found at Candyland.
Peach Blossoms, a glossy, peach colored pillow of pulled sugar filled with peanut butter, is one of the traditional bestsellers here, but its future is in question. The manufacturer, Necco, one of the oldest candy manufacturers in America (circa 1901), went through a bankruptcy auction earlier this year and subsequently changed hands several times, with its ultimate fate still up in the air. The news sent fans scrambling to buy up their favorites before stock ran out. The production halt affects other Necco candies, too, including the colorful wafers and sassy conversation hearts. Seiss has her fingers crossed that another company will pick up production. “We can’t get Peach Blossoms from any of our distributors anymore. … And lots of people use the wafers to shingle the top of their gingerbread houses.”
Gateway Candyland is also a destination for candy makers. Chocolate molds, candy melts, glittering sprinkles and other supplies are available near the wall of whimsical cookie cutters, a special draw for those who like to put a personal spin on holiday gift-giving. Sitting alone, without the benefit of city foot traffic or masses of mall shoppers, Amber says the store has its own devotees. “People will drive to get what they’re looking for and they come back year after year.” Shoppers routinely come from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Holiday traffic brings in far-flung out-of-towners.
FARM MARKET ROOTS
Gateway Candyland seems like sugar heaven, but there is more to it than that. It started as a farm family’s outlet for selling its own produce and continues that tradition, too. Customers can grab a dozen eggs and a jumbo roll of Amish-made butter while they’re there. There’s also a section of fruit and veggies stocked with a few standards and seasonal additions from nearby farms, including Catoctin Mountain Orchard just up U.S. 15 and Scenic View Orchards in Sabillasville. Shelves hold naturally sweet honey and bee pollen from Lord Byron’s Honey Apiary in Thurmont and Frederick’s own McCutcheon’s Apple Products. Browsing shoppers may find baskets of golden plums, ripe melons, juicy tomatoes or crisp cabbage. Local apples and bins of squash appear during the fall.
Some year-round items, like the huge carrots or sunny lemons, come from a bit farther away. And while larger grocery stores may consider “local” anything within one day’s travel, Seiss has a different definition. “When we advertise it as local, it’s likely within a 10- to 15-mile radius.”
As the Seiss family closes in on their first anniversary as owners of the shop, Amber reflects on the experience and the ebb and flow of sales. “Halloween is not one of our bigger holidays, which is funny because it is a candy holiday.” She sells more bulk orders for weddings and parties than for trick-or-treating. The difference is that her wares are as much a treat for soul as the tummy, a sweet indulgence that connects people to happy moments. It makes Seiss smile, too. “This is their happy place.” No costume necessary.