By Cathy Lockman
Where can you sit on a 100-year-old stool at an original marble soda fountain and sip an old-fashioned ice cream soda or a Green River phosphate while enjoying a handful of homemade toffee, a freshly made caramel apple or a selection of hand-dipped chocolates?
For those traveling near the Central Illinois town of Tuscola, the answer is just down the street and around the corner at Flesor’s Candy Kitchen. This family-owned confectionery has been a local favorite since Gus Flesor traveled from Greece and opened his doors in 1901.
Many Tasty Returns
The candy kitchen is a return destination for anyone looking for a taste of small-town Illinois.
“Flesor’s is the one place former Tuscola residents are sure to visit when they return for class reunions and family celebrations,” says Dan Ponder, a longtime customer.
But no one would be coming back to the candy kitchen if Gus Flesor’s granddaughters, Ann Flesor Beck and Devon Flesor Nau, hadn’t come back first. The sisters, who grew up sitting on those stools and then working the soda fountain and the cash register, never intended to enter the family business. In fact, Beck had been an administrator and management consultant on the East Coast for 25 years, and Nau had taught English at Eastern Illinois University for nearly 20 years when the two considered reopening the business that had closed in the late 1970s after their father, Paul, retired.
“I had come to town and saw the ‘for sale’ sign on the building, and that started me thinking about what it would take and what it would mean to reopen the store,” Beck says. “We knew it would be a challenge, but also an opportunity for us to get back to our roots and to do something for the community.”
Beck was right on both counts. The challenge was made a little easier through economic incentives provided by the city and the state, but the real coup was finding out that all of the former candy kitchen’s fixtures had been removed from the now-deteriorating building and were never sold. In fact, they had been kept by the original buyer and preserved for more than 30 years.
The fixtures included not only the marble soda fountain and stools, but also the original wood cabinets, booths, tables, etched glass mirrors and stained glass lamps, as well as the marble slab candy-making tables, copper kettles and popcorn machine.
Knowing they had the treasured fixtures to begin their business, the sisters purchased the building in 2003 and began an extensive renovation, which included restoring the original mosaic floor and tin ceiling, and cleaning and refurbishing all the wood. One year, almost a million dollars and untold hours of sweat equity later, Flesor’s Candy Kitchen reopened.
Old Tradition, New Beginning
Renovating the building was one step. Learning to make the candy by hand was a second.
“The recipes we had were little more than a list of ingredients and a temperature,” says Nau. “There were also some notes that my grandfather and dad had made, but we had to learn by doing. When we were growing up, our mother taught us how to dip the candy, but actually cooking the candy was considered a man’s job, so our brother, Scott, learned that while we worked the cash register.”
The old tradition now had a fresh start. Scott came in from Michigan and taught his sisters the art of candy cooking. Nau became the chief confectioner, wielding big copper kettles of Illinois corn syrup to whip up batches of honey-salted caramels, peanut brittle, divinity and chocolate treats, including their signature “turtle” candy called Paul’s Pecan Favorites, after their dad. The sisters then added more seating and a bistro menu, which features a wide variety of sandwiches, salads and daily specials, so customers can enjoy lunch along with their sweet treats.
Home Sweet Home
Every morning, a group of Tuscola businessmen, which includes Ponder, starts its day with coffee at Flesor’s. He remembers Gus attending a community concert more than 75 years ago and handing out tokens for a free nickel Coke to all the musicians. “He was always generous to the kids,” says Ponder, who was an 8-year-old cornet player at the time.
According to Jack Allen, another member of the group, the sisters have followed in their grandfather’s footsteps. “The women, and the store, are valuable community assets,” he says. Not only do they make great candy, they also donate generously to the town, provide jobs for local residents and bring visitors to Tuscola.
Many of those visitors comment that Flesor’s reminds them of their childhoods. And while the Cokes may no longer be a nickel, the handmade treats, nostalgic ambiance and small-town hospitality are reminiscent of an earlier time.
Says Nau, “When people step into our store, we do our best to make them feel at home.”
If You Go…
Flesor’s Candy Kitchen is located at the corner of Main and Sale streets in Tuscola. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Lunch is served daily from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
In addition to the wide selection of chocolates available year round, Flesor’s offers an array of candy specialties for the holidays. For more information or to order online, visit www.flesorscandy.com or call (217) 253-3753.