You're warned, "you're going to smell sweet when you leave here, that's the smell of candy." Our group was met by Mr. Dave Williams and his brother Joe and their employee Erica. They allowed us to watch as they made a batch of Peach buds.
Brothers Dave and Joe are third-generation candymakers along with their sister, and the president of the company since the passing of their mother. The original candy men, Harold Eugene Williams, and his brother Shafter, Junior, passed the factory to Ann and Dave and Joe's father and uncle, creator of the blow pop, and then their mother, before the "children" inherited the business. "They never put heat in the building, so the only place that's warm in winter is back by the cauldrons," Dave explains. "and we can't form the candy once the humidity gets past 80 percent, so I'm glad you got here early."
One cauldron is steaming in the back of the factory, filled with boiling sugar and heated corn syrup. They purchase the corn syrup a tank at a time. With supply chain issues, the cost has increased from $12,000 to $20,000. When asked how many pieces of candy this makes, Dave invites you to count the pieces at the end, because "I don't know."
Dave checks the color and texture of the sugar syrup mixture in the copper pot and finally deems it ready to form. With a mechanically assisted pulley, they pour this hot lava like material on a stainless-steel table cooled with water from below. As the sweet-smelling substance pours to fill every available inch, Dave shows us the stainless-steel bar they use to level it. "You know what this is called?" he gestured towards his brother Joe, "he calls this the candy bar." Appreciative laughter fills the space.
Joe adds orange color on the far side of the table, Dave adds dark red on our side and yellow in the middle, and then the flavoring. As the mix solidifies into glass appearing substance, Dave and Joe work it from the bottom, flipping with the "candy bar" as it forms and solidifies.
It's many minutes of folding, slicing, and even cutting the candy with scissors as these three sections separate. Joe takes the third section over to the pulling machine, similarly used by taffy, and patented, Dave tells us, back in 1908 even before this company began. It's very soothing watching the candy pulled and pushed and stretched.
Then it's time to take them over to the conveyor belt. This 100-pound pile of candy is about to get a 50-pound addition of coconut. They place each individual color along the conveyor belt and then Joe brings the coconut over. When it gets too cool, Dave must light the edge to keep it warm enough to make it through the candy conveyor belt. They roll it together and it looks like a snake as Dave has it perfectly positioned to go through the cogwheel that shapes and appears to twist the candy before it slides down a chute that allows it to create a serpentine movement before it goes to the conveyor belt to cool. As the candy comes out the other side, Erica breaks up the pieces in preparation for them being sorted and bagged.
Pro Tip: They're meant to be sucked not chewed, so be mindful of any dental work you may have and savor the experience.
They have difficulty getting things bagged with staffing issues occasionally, and we're happy to volunteer but we're on a bit of a time crunch. I could see them getting volunteers to do it just for the joy of being in the building.
I feel as though I'm on a sugar high, even before I taste the warm candy from the conveyor belt. It's the best tasting coconut I've ever had in this Peach Bud.
The family remains "old school" in some ways, automating what they can, but recognizing that it takes an experienced eye and touch to know when the candy is ready to be laid out on the first stainless steel table. They don't have a website, just a Facebook page, and accept only cash or check. Yet they sell out all the time.
When you're in the area, make the effort to visit. Not only will you get the candy at a ridiculously good price, but you'll also experience the joy of making candy the old-fashioned way.
As Dave puts it, "If I've made you laugh, I've done my job."
He does his job very well indeed.
H.E. Williams Candy Factory, Chesapeake, Virginia, USA