Leading Ladies

Savoring the sweet

Three generations in, Marie's Candies thrives as a charming, small-town shop built of necessity and grown by love

By
From the Savoring the sweet issue of Capital Style

Burly farmer Winfred King stepped away from his plow, through the field, and to his wife, Marie. "I have a sore throat. I have a headache," he said. "I can't breathe." Polio had begun its attack on the man who sang bass in the local quartet.

Soon, the strong family provider was paralyzed from the neck down.

For months, and then years, neighbors rallied in the couple's West Liberty community, which is tucked between cornfields about an hour northwest of Columbus. They offered incredibly generous support; one even gave them a cow. When Marie, a talented cook, started making candy to thank them, they were delighted. Go into business, people encouraged her. Sell this.

The couple couldn't survive forever without an income. So they thought. And they prayed.

Winfred could be the brains, they figured. Marie could be the brawn.

Finally, after careful consideration, in 1956, they turned their kitchen into a candy shop, and a legacy was born.

More than 50 years later, a third generation is preparing to take over Marie's Candies: Marie passed the business to her son and daughter-in-law, and they will eventually pass it to their daughter and son. And despite all odds-most notably that it remains in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it rural town-Marie's is thriving. They sell a whopping 80,000 pounds of candy a year (most of it still handmade in a heavenly smelling kitchen). They offer an easy-to-navigate website. And they stay fresh with trendy treats like chocolate-covered potato chips and chocolate-covered bacon.

"Grandma and Grandpa gave it a wonderful start. But it really has changed, and I want that to continue," said Rebecca Craig, Marie's 34-year-old granddaughter, who now helps run the business and plans to eventually head it. "I love it. It makes people happy."

Jay King-one of Marie's three sons-and his wife, Kathy, were high school sweethearts. They went to school in New York and planned to become missionaries. But when Winfred died, and they traveled home for the funeral, Marie went to Kathy and cried. "I don't think I want to do this anymore," she said.

By then, Marie's was quite an operation-one building in town that served as their home and business, and employed a handful of people.

"We're staying," Jay said.

So Jay, the details guy, became a kitchen expert. And Kathy, the creative soul, went to merchandising school in Cleveland to learn how to amp up displays and packaging.

"It's like any business when you're working with your husband-we promised not to talk about it at home," Kathy said. "Then we would fall asleep talking about it."

For the couple's three kids, living in a candy shop had its perks: They were allowed one day a week to eat as much as they wanted. But it also came with expectations that the kids would work their fair share, even after the family moved into a home separate from the shop. "I remember thinking, 'Why can't I just come home from school and relax?' " Rebecca said.

While they're not wealthy, Jay and Kathy-who have worked six days a week for more than 30 years, and hardest during holidays-are proud to have put their three kids through college. They've enjoyed traveling to candy conventions around the world. And they've impressed their children with their business acumen.

Their son Shannon, who left a job with the State Highway Patrol to work for his parents, credits them for successfully keeping up with changing times. "I think that's pretty exemplary-or extraordinary," said Shannon, who plans to continue working with his sister when she takes the helm. "To be able to do it that long and stay in business, you have to know what you're doing."

As a youngster, Rebecca spent a lot of time with Marie, who doted on her only granddaughter. They enjoyed riding bikes and having picnics. "She was fun-loving," Rebecca said. "She enjoyed life." Rebecca couldn't have understood the stresses her grandmother long had faced, having spent a lifetime worrying about finances while waking three times a night to turn her husband in bed.

As a young adult, Rebecca didn't want to join the business. She earned her bachelor's degree in psychology and became a nanny, first for a professional baseball player in Kansas City and then for a Columbus couple.

Eventually, however, her love of family-and link to her grandmother-lured her back.

She started by building a website for Marie's. Now, she commutes to West Liberty almost daily from Dublin, where she lives with her husband and two children. She manages the sales staff, helps with ordering and merchandising, and runs the website. She has grand plans, too, hoping to someday open another shop or two.

"The energy now comes from the kids," Kathy said.

"Rebecca's going to take it to a different level-she and Shannon," Jay said. "It's really neat to see it continue, and continue in the right direction."

Marie passed away five years ago, at 90, but she is often on Rebecca's mind.

"I think about her a lot, because sometimes I get frustrated with being a wife and being a mom and running the store. It's hard to balance it all.

"And I think about my grandma, and she had a husband who was an invalid," Rebecca said, as tears welled in her eyes. "I know that it was her strong faith in God that got her through."

Marie, Jay said, was "overwhelmed" late in life at what her namesake shop had become. But she was undoubtedly delighted that the family kept it going.

"To see it go on, I'm sure, was just a real thrill," Jay said.

And to know a third generation is now doing the same?

"Becca was her joy in life," Jay said. "She'd be very, very pleased."

Taste Test

Buttercrunch

One of the shop's best sellers, the inside of this candy is stirred by hand for almost an hour before being poured, cut, cooled and covered in chocolate.

Tur' Kins

Another best seller, Tur' Kins are like turtles-a stack of pecans and caramel covered in chocolate. The name comes from "turtle" plus "King."

Peppermint Chews

When Marie opened the shop, she purchased equipment and the recipe for Peppermint Chews for $100. The chewy signature candies are mint-and-molasses covered in chocolate.

Chocolate-Covered Potato Chips

One of the newer treats offered, these sweet-and-salty delights are undeniably phenomenal (yes-we indulged!).

How do they thrive?

Marie's Candies sells specialty items, like chocolate business cards, to corporations and universities in bulk. But much of their business still comes from retail sales. Customers regularly drive in from Columbus, Dayton and smaller cities between.

Job perks

The Marie's Candies employees are allowed to eat as much candy as they want on the job. "We've definitely had new staff go home sick on their first day because they've overdone it," Rebecca said. Pam King, who has worked for Marie's for more than 20 years (and is not related to the family), said it's the best part of the job. "It's called quality control," she said, laughing. "It's our story, and we're sticking to it!"

By the numbers

80,000

pounds of candy sold each year

90+

different kinds of candy made

14

full-time employees

13

part-time employees

5

employees who have been with the company 25 years or more