GARDNER, Mass. — It is a tradition 80 years in the making, but the Priscilla Candy Shop candy canes are only made once a year over the three-day weekend after Thanksgiving.
This year was no exception, with owner James Gallant and his assistant Josh Stephano, joined by Gallant’s son Sam Gallant, Brandon William and Tim Horrigan to mix, color, twist, pull, cut and bend each batch into 180 or so candy canes. It is a process followed since Charles Stephano started the business in 1936 and continued for decades by Stephano’s son-in-law Robert V. “Pete” Trudel and his wife, Virginia. It is now literally in the hands of Gallant, Trudel’s son-in-law and his wife, Maureen, who took over the business three years ago when the Trudels retired. They also run a Priscilla Candy Shop on Concord, which sells candy made in the Gardner store.
It is a family thing at the downtown Gardner candy shop. Josh Stephano is the great-grandson of the founder of the company. He never met his great-grandfather but left the restaurant business for a chance to create candy found in the older Stephano’s well-worn recipe book. He also helps Gallant with special orders and flavors, including a special candy cane created for Wachusett Brewing Co.
The tradition of making the candy canes the weekend after Thanksgiving began in the 1990s. When Gallant joined the business 31 years ago, candy canes were made after the store closed for the evening and they made many fewer than 3,300 made last year.
“It really got started when ‘Chronicle’ did a feature on it in 1996,” Gallant said.
After the television newsmagazine featured the candy shop, sales took off. Customers came from all over to visit the tiny home-made candy shop at 4 Main St. The candy-cane weekend helps kick off the holiday season in Gardner. Its candy canes last about 10 days before they are all sold out. The flavors include peppermint, wintergreen, spearmint, vanilla, molasses, maple, and the latest addition, mulled apple cider, made with cider from Pease Orchard in Templeton.
Gallant said his favorite is maple because it reminds him of Christmas morning. He should know. He estimates that he has made 50,000 candy canes over the years. Employee Skyla Johnson said her favorite flavor is the mulled apple cider. Johnson, a student at the University of Massachusetts, works at the store over the holidays. She has worked for the store for four years.
“I had a friend who worked here and got me a job when I was in high school,” she said.
Johnson was part of a busy crew waiting on customers and helping out Diane Dack pack the candy canes and other candies for sale and shipment. Dack has been with the business almost 30 years. She was a waitress at a diner that Pete and Virginia Trudel frequented. They liked her and asked her to come to work for them.
The making of the candy canes is a visual delight for customers who crowd into the kitchen area, standing around the edges to give the workers space. On a counter, there is often a small box of broken candy-cane pieces marked free. As parents watched the process Saturday, their children delighted by the discovery, picked up a few pieces to nibble on.
The canes are made with 25 pounds of sugar and cream of tartar.
It is first heated and worked into a block, which is then colored, flavored and placed on a hook to be pulled. Pulling the taffy is the big job, and the most popular part of the process for visitors. Gallant has had the honor since 1994, having inherited it from Trudel who inherited it from Stephano. He makes it look easy, but he said it took a long time for him to perfect the art.
Once the taffy is properly twisted and pulled, it is rolled and then a line of candy-cane material is pulled out, cut, packaged in plastic, bent like a shepherd’s crook and boxed or placed on the shelf, where they are quickly scooped up by customers and taken home to place in stockings or hang on Christmas trees.