BY Tami Vigness
Shopping can be a stressful time, especially around the holidays. It seems like everywhere we turn, there are crowded parking lots, throngs of people, long check-out lines, and the feeling of constantly being in a rush. Unless you are one of those savvy shoppers that buy gifts throughout the year, the closer we get to Christmas, the more hectic life becomes.
Away from the large retailers – and even larger crowds – is a small family-owned business unlike any other in Grand Forks. With its baby blue storefront and classic signage proudly displaying the family name, Widman’s Candy Shop might just be one of the only places that make you want to take a minute, slow down, and just enjoy the shopping experience. There are few places in town that give you that warm and fuzzy feeling quite like Widman’s Candy Shop. Almost as strong as the sweet smell of chocolates and candy, is the wave of nostalgia that washes over you the minute you step through the door. For the little downtown shop, it’s as if time has stood still. The endless displays of hand-dipped delights found on every shelf of the downtown Grand Forks store remind shoppers of sweeter, simpler times. There’s nothing quite like melt-in-your-mouth chocolate to make you forget about the stress at work, the endless list of chores to do, or errands to run. It’s the kind of place that warms even the coldest hearts and where you can’t help but smile.
Four Generations of Candymakers
Among the shelves of candy, chocolates, and other sweet treats are photographs of bygone days, showcasing four generations of candymakers. A black-and-white photo of William Widman outside of a candy store hangs on the wall of the downtown shop. William was the original candymaker of the Widman family and began his candy-making legacy in Dubuque, IA in 1885 by opening the New York Bakery and Candy Shop. He later worked for Pearson’s Candy Co. in St. Paul, MN. In 1911, William’s son, George I, and his wife, Clara, opened the first Widman’s Candy shop in Crookston, MN where it is now operated by George Widman III and his wife, Lois. In 1949, George II and his wife, Betty opened the Grand Forks location, just down the street from its present-day location, which opened in 1955. A third location, Carol Widman’s Candy Co., is located in Fargo, ND and owned by Carol (Widman) and David Kennedy. Even without knowing the names, faces, or history behind the dozens of photos adorning the walls, it’s easy to see that there is a story to be told. Looking at the photos is like taking a trip through time. Faded photos of candy shop storefronts, glass cases displaying a variety of sweet confections, many of which are still in production today, and portraits of the Widman’s store owners grace the walls and pay homage to the Widman legacy.
Dan Widman, son of George II and Betty, has owned and operated the beloved Grand Forks store for many years. To say that candy-making is in his blood is an understatement. “For me, I was never just a kid in a candy shop,” Dan recalled with a laugh. As one of six children, Dan and his siblings spent countless hours working around the store. “We’d come in early before school and spend every afternoon after class helping Mom and Dad.” There was always something to do: unloading deliveries, shipping packages to customers, dipping chocolate, and learning the business. Even today, Dan typically works at the shop six days a week, often stopping in on Sundays when the store is closed, just to check on things. “It really is a labor of love,” Dan said.
Some Things Never Change
Widman’s employs 15 people regularly, but around the holidays, about 35 people work various shifts at the little shop. Some work in the front of the store, helping customers as they come in, others arrange the displays of goodies served in Widman’s signature wicker trays, and of course, you can’t forget about those who package orders to be delivered all over the globe. When the Widman family first began their candy-making journey, little to no machinery was used in the process. Massive kettles needed to be paid close attention to, ensuring the chocolate melted properly and the sugar didn’t burn. While certain parts of the candy-making process have become more efficient and streamlined over the years, there are a few things that haven’t changed. Every piece of chocolate at Widman’s is hand-dipped, just as it was more than a century ago. This is a fact Dan proudly touts, and one of the many things that sets Widman’s apart.
The display case at Widman’s is a sight to behold. Trays upon trays of homemade chocolatey goodness, in every imaginable combination, entice shoppers to try a little bit of everything. Traditional treats like chocolate-covered cherries, mint meltaways, maple cremes, marshmallows, peanut brittle, and toffee are stacked high on the trays, but there are also some surprising combinations you most likely won’t find anywhere else. Chocolate-covered green olives and jalapenos are two of the strangest combinations, but Dan and his team of candy makers aren’t ones to shy away from a new idea. “We’re trying new things all the time,” Dan explained.
Those of us familiar with Widman’s Candy Shop know that, without a doubt, the “Chipper” is far and away the most beloved treat the little store has to offer. For those unfamiliar with the legendary treat, a chipper is simply a chocolate-covered potato chip. Who doesn’t love the sweet and salty combination of a crunchy potato chip – made with potatoes harvested in the Red River Valley – hand-dipped in rich homemade milk chocolate, dark chocolate, almond bark, or peanut butter? This simple treat has really put Widman’s on the map and has a loyal band of consumers far and wide. Oddly enough, although Widman’s first started making chippers in the mid-1970s, they weren’t nearly as popular then as they are today. Eventually, the chipper gained traction with shoppers and, as they say, the rest is history. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then again around Valentine’s Day, you’ll find entire displays devoted to chippers in pink boxes, fastened with red elastic bows.
The Widman’s Difference
It goes without saying that the best gifts are those that come from the heart. Whether it’s the scarf that was hand-knit by Grandma, a box of jams and jellies canned by the neighbor, or a hand-painted ornament from a child, gifts like these tug at our heartstrings in a way that most store-bought gifts don’t. When asked what sets Widman’s apart from other candy stores, Dan’s answer was simple: “Our candy is handmade with love.” G
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
From Issue 4, 2022
PHOTOS BY: Manstrom Photography