Sweet success in Lockport
By Ginger Brashinger Correspondent May 25, 2012 7:28PM
Margaret Carlson (left), owner of Hollingworth Candies, and Wendy Carver, Hollingworth Candies’ president, stand behind the counter of their Lockport store. | photos by Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2012 8:54AM
Margaret Carlson, owner of Hollingworth Candies, said one simple business philosophy got the ball rolling for her company in 1982.
“No sample, no sale.”
“The first time we tried to sell our toffee was Orland Days,” Carlson said. “We hadn’t learned to give out samples, and we couldn’t sell a box.”
Now, the “sweet” is not only in the product, but in the success.
This month, the Lockport-based company celebrated its 30th year in business by going one better than the ever-present samples — 12-ounce boxes of their signature chocolate-and-pecan-covered toffee was available for one day at the 1982 price of $5 a box.
Not surprising, the family-owned business has followed a tried-and-true formula for success for 30 years — never sacrifice quality for profit.
Carlson and her then-partner and neighbor, Arlene Schmidt, began with the successful “home version” recipe of a retiring Chicago candymaker that Carlson found in the newspaper.
Ardyce Millhuff, of Oak Forest, Carlson’s friend of 50 years and sometime helper, said that may be one of the reasons for the candy’s appeal.
“It’s just so good. I think it’s the top-quality chocolate and ingredients,” Millhuff said. “Once someone suggested substituting (one ingredient for a less expensive one) and Margaret said, ‘No, I don’t want to change the recipe. I’ll stick to the recipe I’ve got. It’s proven successful.’ ”
In the early years, Carlson and Schmidt worked from their homes to produce enough candy for numerous craft and holiday shows, transporting four double batches of toffee “in a red wagon” from Schmidt’s home to Carlson’s home where, with Carlson’s four double batches, the toffee would be coated with chocolate and chopped pecans, boxed and wrapped for sale.
“I remember being home from college when Mom got up to four pots on the stove, four burners and helping her to stir,” Wendy Carver, Carlson’s daughter and president of Hollingworth Candies, said.
That all changed to comply with board of health rules, but a solid work ethic had been established. In addition to corporate clients, Hollingworth Candies showed up at craft shows all over the Midwest, “sometimes seven in a weekend,” Carlson said, employing family and friends to pack, deliver and sell.
When Carlson and Schmidt dissolved their partnership 10 years later, Carver, who often had helped with the everyday operations of the business, left her own corporate career and brought the family business “into the 21st century.”
Carver said she computerized the financials and suggested getting the product into a retail store.
For the last 13 years, Hollingworth Candies has settled into their spot at 922 South State St. in the historic district of Lockport, the perfect setting for an old-fashioned candy store that not only “plies its wares” on the premises, but cooks them up, too. The business name comes from the last name of Carlson’s great-grandfather.
Hollingworth Candies employs 20 people from September through December, producing about 1,100 pounds of toffee per week, and 10 people the rest of the year.
That keeps Carlson, 85, busy, and she loves it.
“I love everything about it, the freedom and working with family,” she said. “It gets you up and gets you going.”
She has some advice for anyone who may be thinking about starting a business, even if it’s later in life as she has done.
“I think you have to get a good product and find out how marketable it is,” Carlson said. “And then you have to have patience. Patience is the big thing.”