September 7, 2018
DEFINITION: A small shaped piece of confectionery made with sugar.
As soon as you walk into the door at Chase Candy Co., the sweet smell of chocolate and cherries overwhelms your other senses. You meet a nice receptionist, see displays of merchandise and historical items, but you really just want to see where that amazing smell is coming from.
Behind a couple of doors is St. Joseph’s own chocolate factory, where sweet treats are made and then enjoyed locally and abroad.
For 100 years, the iconic Cherry Mash has been made in St. Joseph. The combination of peanuts, chocolate and cherry fondant is the third-oldest continuously made candy bar in the country.
“It seems like everyone has a story about Cherry Mash,” said Barry Yantis, company president. And how could they not, with 100 years of nostalgia wrapped up in that famous red and white packaging?
The Chase Candy Co. got its start when Dr. George Washington Chase came to St. Joseph in 1872 to be a doctor in the big city. St. Joseph was a flourishing hub at the time. Settlers going west for gold or to make their homes stopped in St. Joseph before continuing their travels, but many like Dr. Chase stayed. Dr. Chase gave up on medicine and switched to business, forming what turned into G.W. Chase & Son Mercantile Co. in 1876. However, Dr. Chase’s son Ernest was the candy connoisseur and saw a future in candy.
“He brought candy makers from New York to work for Chase in St. Joseph,” Yantis said.
Although Cherry Mash is what Chase is best known for today, the candy company has made many products over the years. Cherry Mash made its debut in 1918 and competed with the likes of Pecan Patties, the Crispy Cluster and many more. Later, Chase debuted other Cherry Mash flavors, with coconut, chocolate and vanilla centers. At one time Chase made 51 kinds of candy bars. Today, Chase still makes seasonal products like Peco Flakes, Peanut Clusters, Peanut Brittle and Bon Bons.
“We run seven days a week in the fall,” Yantis said. “We make it all to order and make it fresh. We make seven tons of clusters a day during the fall, but Cherry Mash keeps us busy the rest of the year.”
Chase Candy Co. today harkens back to days of old. In times where most candy makers only focus on what they can make in bulk, companies like Chase make candies that bring back fond memories.
“The industry has changed a lot over the years,” he said. “(Large producers) don’t want to spend time and money on seasonal candy. We’re a niche.”
That niche business began for the Yantis family in 1944, when F. Stuart Yantis (Barry’s uncle) bought the company from Charles Chase, the third generation of Chases, for more than $1 million, or about $14 million today. The elder Yantis was an owner of Pepsi-Cola bottling operations in the Midwest and needed sugar during wartime rationing.
“If you could get sugar, you could make a lot of money,” Yantis told Feast Magazine. “The soldiers and people who were building tanks, airplanes, bombs and ammunition – they enjoyed Pepsi and Coke. And where do you get sugar rations? Buy a candy company.”
The sugar content of the candy was trimmed during the war for soda, but after the war, Yantis sold his bottling operations and focused on making candy. The company has had many locations throughout St. Joseph and has had many loyal employees. There’s a promotional film from 1949 showing a lady named Julia Kirby working at the Fifth and Sylvanie location.
“When I started in 1974, she was still with us,” Yantis said. “So many nice people have worked here.”
In those days ladies hand-dipped the cherry centers into melted chocolate. Yantis started as a “chocolate boy” who would make sure the right number of peanuts got into the chocolate. Even though candy-making has changed with new technology, if you’re lucky enough to take a tour of the factory, you’ll see antique tables and mixers that are still used today.
After F. Stuart Yantis bought Chase, the company acquired other candy companies like the National Candy Co., of St. Louis, which was founded by the father of actor Vincent Price; and Bunte Bros. Candy of Chicago. Candy production actually was moved to St. Louis and Chicago in the 1950s, but returned to St. Joseph in the 1960s.
“It’s our home,” Yantis told Feast. “We’ve been here since 1876. “(Even when) production was in Chicago, we had a huge warehouse (here). All our candy in those days shipped from St. Joe. It’s the middle of our Cherry Mash territory; our biggest customers are in this part of the world.”
Transportation of ingredients and finished product is a main reason for the company’s return to St. Joseph.
“Peanuts are a day away, corn syrup is in our backyard, we’re in a perfect location,” Yantis said.
The company goes through 30,000 pounds of crushed cherries a year. The only ingredient that has to travel far to St. Joseph is coconut, which comes from the Philippines. Once it’s made, the candy is very popular regionally and is now offered nationwide through most Hobby Lobby stores. And Chase even offers shipping online with foam coolers and ice packs to ensure the chocolate gets to the customer unmelted.
“We send five or six orders a day now,” Yantis said on a hot summer day. “And at Christmas online orders jump way up.”
Chase has 17 full-time employees making these delectable delights, eight of which have been with the company more than 30 years. This number also includes two married couples. Employment increases going into the holiday season.
As Yantis looks back at Cherry Mash’s 100th anniversary, the history lover recalled other important facts about the year Chase Candy Co. was founded.
“In 1876, Bud tapped its first keg of beer, the telephone was invented and Custer met his end and G.W. Chase went into business,” he said. G.W. Chase’s headstone is in historic Mount Mora Cemetery.
The next time you need something sweet, or need a good gift to bring back memories, consider Chase Cherry Mash, Peanut Brittle or Bon Bons and think about St. Joseph’s interesting role in candy-making history.
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