Roth’s Candyland

Text by Jon Roth • Photographs courtesy of the Roth Family / June 2015

It’s the day after Easter and I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my aunt, Patty Volpe, while she and my father talk about Roth’s Candyland. For almost a century, the family business produced the best candy in town, then petered out in the 1980s, just before I was born. It’s always been a mythical place to me (and a good excuse for my hereditary sweet tooth), but today I’m looking to learn more.

“Hard candy was my grandfather’s specialty,” Patty says.

“And the old folks loved the horehound drops, for medicinal purposes,” my dad says. “The people in the Towers used to eat that up.”

“Remember the buttercreams? They were to die for,” Patty’s husband, Joe Volpe adds.

I ask, “What’s a buttercream?” and there’s a collective groan of disappointment.

My dad shakes his head, and my aunt throws down a basket of cream-filled eggs. They’ll never be as good as my grandfather’s, she warns. I bite through the dark chocolate shell, chew the vanilla-sweet filling, and try to imagine something better. True to form, everyone else takes a piece (sugar is in our blood, after all) and they start telling stories.

We know Frank Roth emigrated from another resort town, Baden-Baden, Germany in 1856, and his son Joseph started making candy at the age of 12. He ended up in Florida, honing his trade at Henry Flagler’s Hotel Ponce De Leon—at the time a brand-new, Spanish Revival showpiece, and one of the first buildings wired for electric light. By 1903, he was head candymaker at the St. Louis Exhibition.

Joseph Fralinger, the rumored inventor of saltwater taffy, was at that same fair. Impressed by Roth’s confectionary skills, he brought him up to New Jersey and installed him at his shop on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Already a studied hand at chocolate and hard candy, Joseph learned to work taffy, all the while saving money with an eye toward having a shop of his own.

In 1913, my great-grandfather left Fralinger’s to open Roth’s Candyland at Beach Avenue and Decatur, on the remains of Victor Denizot’s Iron Pier. The receipt for that first season’s rent reads ‘$150, paid in full’ (about $3500 in today’s money). The oldest and best photo of Candyland was taken around that time: it shows Joseph and his wife Abigail standing proudly before their new business, offering saltwater taffy, sodas and cream candies. That same year, Abigail gave birth to George Roth, their only son, who would carry the business into the next generation.

As a working couple, Abigail and Joseph didn’t have the funds or the time to find childcare for George. “He was a wild kid,” Patty tells me. “When he was little, his parents tied him to the pier. As the tide came in, they’d just pull in the rope along with it.” Roths start work young, and most of us guess George got into the candy game as soon as he could untie himself.

As father and son began working together, the business grew. In 1945 they left the boardwalk and opened shop at 513 Washington Street, next to Our Lady Star of the Sea. Bob Roth, George’s second-oldest son, still remembers the move. “I was about three years old when they went in on that store. I remember them pouring the concrete floor all the way through it. The basement was all dirt—that amazed me at the time.” Eventually, the layout included a luncheonette, soda fountain and candy counter in the front, and in the back, a small factory and cold room for production and storage.

The Roths rented the retail space from the Doughertys. Barney Dougherty, who was born in the building and lived upstairs, still remembers Joseph well. “I liked him very much,” he says. “Sometimes he’d make mints, and that smell would penetrate our apartment something… unbelievable. At this stage in my life, though, those things are comical.”

Like a lot of people, Barney also remembers Joseph was pretty blind in his old age. “He had glasses like the bottoms of Coke bottles,” he says. Tom Roth remembers that, and more: “Sometimes when people would go in to buy candy, he’d give the impression he couldn’t see and put in some extra sweets. People would say ‘He was so blind, he didn’t know how much candy he was giving!’” Tom says. “But he knew. He just liked you.”

When Joseph passed away in 1961, George took over the store in full, with help from his wife Margaret and his ten children (George, Bob, Joe, Don, Marge, Patty, Jerry, Carl, Tom, and Jon, if you’re counting). Each one worked as soon as they were able, usually starting out on the 60-foot conveyor belt. “The worst was sitting at the end of that belt, at the dryer,” Jon Roth says. “It was like that scene from I Love Lucy.”

Sisters Marge and Patty (my grandmother called them “the roses between the thorns”), usually worked the front of the store at the soda counter and luncheonette, starting around 1964. “We learned to multitask when we were 13 years old,” Patty says. Marge adds, “We could take a lunch order, run to the kitchen and put the hamburger on the grill, make a milkshake, pack a pound of candy, then drop off the burger. That was the best training to be a server anybody could ever have.”

But it wasn’t just Roths working the shop. A lot of names come up immediately—Sherry Eckel, Linda Hess, June Halbrunner, and a hell-raiser named Laura Welch, who rode a Harley, tempered chocolate by hand, and didn’t retire until she hit 93. Angie Washington, who started there in 1962, put in 17 years. “It was very interesting work. I got a chance to see how all those different candies were made,” she says. “I started back in the factory, where the candy was made, then graduated to working in the store at the luncheonette up front. I was working there the day John Kennedy was killed. Nobody could believe that it happened. People wandered in and out of the store, shocked, and things just sort of came to a standstill for the rest of the day.”

In 1970, Cape May got a facelift when then-Mayor Frank Gauvry broke ground on the Washington Street Mall. “I remember them tearing up the cobblestones and the railroad tracks and everything that was buried,” Bob Roth says. Before long it became a three-block pedestrian thoroughfare.

Business owners spruced up their own shops to match the tone of the mall, and Roth’s underwent a serious renovation. “They just gutted it, and then everything was tiled and modern, with a new kitchen in the restaurant and a new cold room,” Jon says. Walking in, you’d see five four-top tables to the left, with candy display cases to the right, and toward the back a soda fountain and an extra-long ‘family table’ before the kitchen.

“Everyone’s gonna mention the family table,” says Tom. “There were a hundred people that would just sit at that table throughout the week, including just about every cop and every politician in Cape May.” Some regulars included Rob Sheehan Sr., R.E. White, Bob Robinson, Barney Dougherty, John Sudak, and John Ward, who won $10,000 scratching off a lottery ticket there in ‘77. “We all used to congregate in there with the guys, have coffee and shoot the breeze and chase the girls that worked the counter,” Barney says. “We had a good time.”

“He was a socializer,” Bob tells me. “Pop sat outside all the time and greeted everybody coming up and down the street. When they had the mall there were finally benches, so he had a perch out there. After all, you can’t make candy all day.”

But for the most part, he did. Even more than summer’s crush of visitors, the holidays were the busiest times at Roth’s—particularly Christmas and Easter. A 1983 article in The Cape May Gazette shows George and my uncle Joe, cooking, rolling and bending candy canes by the hundred. That year they made 20,000 candy canes, 2,000 a day, in both peppermint and cinnamon flavors. “We make anise when we can get it,” George said in the interview, “but this year it was $600 for a pound.”

Easter was an even bigger production, as the team turned out chocolate-covered Easter eggs in ten flavors (fudge, peanut, and buttercream were favorites). “On Good Friday, my dad would close the store from noon to three,” Marge says. “When we got back, there would be a line of people stretching past the church, waiting to pick up their orders. Everyone used to get their eggs there.” And not just in Cape May—candy from Roth’s made its way across the country and the globe. “I remember going to the post office and taking boxes to be mailed to France, England — all over the world,” says Bob.

Despite the demand, it became increasingly difficult for Roth’s to turn a profit. George was an old-school perfectionist, which could lead to a lot of wasted inventory. “If the candy canes didn’t have the right shine, they weren’t being sold,” Patty says, echoing her father’s words from his ’81 Gazette interview about Easter eggs: “If the temperature is off by one degree, we can’t sell them.”

So, yes, maybe the candy was too good. “He didn’t skimp, that’s for sure,” Tom says. “The hot fudge he used for the sundaes, that was the same fudge that he sold by the pound.” A sign inside the store read: “We have no qualms with those who sell for less. They know what their stuff is worth.” It was funny, and it was true, but it became a liability. “That business wasn’t really making money,” Tom says. “Costs kept going up, and you had to keep prices really competitive. That wound up being our downfall, I think.”

In 1983, George Roth closed up shop, selling the space to the Bogle brothers of The Original Fudge Kitchen, who still run it today. He retired, and six months later died of a heart attack. After more than 50 years of beating fudge, pulling taffy and coating eggs, maybe taking time off was the biggest shock of all.

He did live long enough to help his son, Joe Roth, set up a new candy factory out of the Cape May Airport. When his father passed away, Joe tried to keep the company alive through mail-order business, but the money wasn’t coming in. “Joe just lost the location,” Marge says. “You can’t lose the mall and still survive.” In today’s age, where shoppers prize artisanal chocolate and purchases are made with a mouse-click, it might have taken off. But in the mid-80s, it was a short-lived enterprise. “Joe was bound and determined to keep that business going,” Barney says. “Even when he started working for the ferry, I think he was still doing something on a limited basis.”

In 1995, Joe was diagnosed with leukemia and died a year later. He left behind a grieving family, and took with him every Roth’s recipe he’d ever learned. From my great-grandfather Joseph, to George, to his son Joseph, the family passed on their knowledge as a kind of oral history, one-to-one, never writing down a formula. Some of us still think there’s a book of recipes somewhere, the keys to Candyland. But the more people I talk to, the less likely that seems.

George Roth

So we don’t have the store, and we don’t have the recipes. But when we all get together, the Roths still end up talking candy. Bob says there’s a spot in Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, where a guy makes fudge that’s close to his father’s. Aunt Patty found a place in Vermont that sells chocolate straws almost like her dad’s, but they’re broken up in pieces (George would have thrown those out). If my dad wants to remember Roth’s Candyland fudge today, he’ll go to the mall and order some maple fudge, no nuts, which he says tastes nearly as rich as his father’s vanilla. But not quite.

I’ve never tried a piece of that candy, but I’ve heard about it from upwards of a hundred people now. His fudge was killer, his chocolate straws were to die for, and nobody could touch his Easter eggs. People still dream about the sundaes and the red-hots, remember the marzipan and the saltwater taffy, the caramels and the mints and the buttercreams…

And if you listen long enough, you can almost taste them.