FOOD AND DRINK
In Search of Sugar and Sentimentality at Economy Candy
How to feel like a kid in a candy store in New York City? Head to this 79-year-old granddaddy of all sweet shops.
The first thing you notice when you step through the doors of 108 Rivington Street is that every last inch of wall is draped in a riot of colour. Floor to ceiling, corner to corner, and in every nook and cranny, the store is literally packed with bright, delightfully wrapped morsels. Rows of licorice to one side, bins of jelly beans on another; there are gumballs and lollipops and sugar straws and mounds of chocolate at every turn. Every treacly treat you could ever fathom is available in this longstanding shrine to sugar.
This is Economy Candy, New York’s oldest candy store and a haven for the sweet-toothed.
Founded in 1937, Economy Candy specializes in candy. All candy. “If they still make it, we carry it, and if we don’t, we can track it down for you,” says Mitchell Cohen, the third-generation owner of the family business.
That means aside from being heavy with saccharine scents, the air in the store is thick with nostalgia. Childhood delights are everywhere with hard-to-find favourites like Abba-Zaba, Bit-O-Honey, Mr. Goodbar, Sugar Daddy, Turkish Taffy, Charleston Chew, PayDay, Peanut Chews, Sky Bar, NECCO Wafers all in stock. Even those delectable-yet-disgusting wax lips that defy all logic can be found. Being here is to be reminded of the glee that came from being a kid palming a few coins in a candy store. Visitors can be forgiven for requiring a search party to retrieve them.
Cohen says that when it comes to visitors about 25% of his customers are from outside of the United States. “Name a country, and we’ve had customers from there,” Cohen says, pointing out that the while the brick-and-mortar store is open seven days a week, Economy Candy also sells candy online. That far-flung appeal is reflected in the store’s stock. While there’s the to-be-expected section devoted to candy from the British Isles, Economy’s offerings include international specialties such as that yummy Green Tea Kit-Kat sold in Japan.
Economy Candy’s story started in the Great Depression and it’s history adds to its appeal as much as its mouthwatering wares. Cohen’s enterprising grandfather Morris “Moishe” Cohen, who died in 2015 at the age of 97, opened a shoe store in the Lower East Side, which also sold candy from a pushcart out front. While the shoe store, Economy Shoes, didn’t take off during the country’s lean times, the penny candy sold like crazy. So Morris ditched the footwear, renamed his store Economy Candy in 1937 and started hawking sweets full-time.
Over the decades that followed, the store became a legendary fixture on the Lower East Side, and Morris’ son Jerry and and Jerry’s wife Ilene – Mitchell Cohen’s parents – took over Economy Candy in the 1980s. The couple moved the store from the corner of Rivington and Essex Streets to its current location and ran it for more than 30 years before they passed the reins to Cohen nearly three years ago.
Educated at The Wharton School, famous for churning out business leaders, Cohen left a career on Wall Street as an investment banker to run the old-fashioned candy store full-time, trading in a suit and a tie for an Economy Candy T-shirt. He couldn’t be happier with his decision to keep the family business going strong.
“I grew up in the store – worked weekends and holidays,” says Cohen, who recalls standing on a milk crate at the age of five, running the cash register. “My dad would make me do the math in my head no matter how long of a line there was.”
Cohen’s dad still works at Economy Candy, too, and they both enjoy serving and chatting with people who visit the store to buy candy and reminisce. “A lot of the older generation loves to come by and share stories of when they used to buy from my grandfather,” Cohen says. “It is always nice to hear these stories and see that these customers are bringing their kids and grandkids.”
As for the future of Economy Candy, Cohen can’t imagine the store not remaining in the family for years to come. “Hopefully, my kids will want to be in the business as well,” he says. In the meantime, it’s quite certain that Cohen is contributing to the candy-store nostalgia of the generations to come.