Niswonger family marks 50 years of producing Patsy’s Candies, last 30 on Westside
The “Willy Wonka” comparisons are inevitable at Patsy's Candies. Like the internationally popular candy company from the book/movie, the building's exterior on
South 21st Street is unassuming, while the inside area (behind a small retail shop) is a maze of exotic machinery - much of it home-made - with chocolates, popcorn,
nuts, mints, taffy, almond toffee or peanut brittle in different stages of preparation.
In the midst of it all, aided by some oompa-loompas (OK, em-ployees), stand not one but four beaming “Willys” - the principal workers from the Niswonger family that has owned the business for the past half-century.
The past 30 of those years have been at the present location, 1540 S. 21st St., where the Niswongers have expanded their original building three times, tripling its size from 5,000 square feet to 15,000. This reflects a business growth which has been pleasing, albeit with the side effect of stretching the family's time resources so that in recent years they had to close the popular downtown store and sell the original (103-year-old) Manitou Patsy's as a franchise.
The current family group is led by Wes and Annette Niswonger and their sons Si and Mike. Si cooks up such goodies as the popcorn and toffee; Mike and Wes generally make the chocolates; and Annette runs the office, designs the boxes and does the buying.
A yellowing news article reveals a 1980 snapshot of the operation, when Wes' parents, Howard and Caroline (since deceased), were still quite active, and Si and Mike were already trained hands, though aged just 15 and 11, respectively.
Wes himself was just a kid in 1956 when his parents bought Patsy's. The business was over a half-century old even then, having been founded as a taffy and popcorn enterprise by Indiana Irishman Patsy Mehaney in the late 1800s; he started the Manitou store in 1903.
“I was 16, and I was all excited about it,” recalled Wes. His sisters, Ann and Jane, helped out off and on over the years that followed, “but it was primarily my dad and I,” he said.
The business was different then, in terms of scope and location. The operation consisted solely of the downtown and Manitou Springs stores - managed at the time by Mary Goshen and Roy Edgar, respectively (each of whom would eventually work more than 50 years for Patsy's). But there was no automation, almost no factory and - believe it or not - no chocolates.
“I developed the chocolates,” Wes ex-plained. “I was looking for what I could do to expand the business.” He found local residents who had quietly developed skills at making sweet concoctions by hand, then learned their recipes. Principal among these were Ruth Barnett and Walt Barthel. “They said they'd like to see it continue,” Wes said.
But making chocolates by hand was too slow for a high-trade candy business. “I knew we needed to develop machines,” Wes said. So he embarked on another quest, combining his own ingenuity with knowledgeable people to give Patsy's its first mass-production capabilities. Today, the business counts more than 40 mechanical devices, which perform chores ranging from pulling taffy, to cooling or warming candy, to spreading chopped almonds on English toffee, to individually wrapping small candies. Several machines are used just in making chocolates. The process starts with a plastic unit that looks a lot like an icecube tray. As the tray moves along a conveyor belt, a unit squirts chocolate into each of the “cubes”; shortly after, the tray is turned upside down. The chocolate on the outside has already solidified enough to stay inside, while that in the middle is still liquid and pours out. Turned back upright, the little tray continues along the belt to eventually receive the appropriate filling, while the poured-out chocolate is pumped back to the main chocolate vat to be used again.
Wes and Howard created much of the automation, often with construction help from the late Walt Weiss, who had welded ships in the South Pacific during World War II. The Niswongers would tell him what they wanted to do, and he would sketch it out, then build it.
The automation hasn't caused the Niswongers to lessen the quality of their candies, just to make more of them. They don't even try to compete with cheaper chocolate companies in the big stores. Their business is chiefly a combination of the retail store at 21st Street, a mail-order catalog, corporate gifts and wholesale. Orders can also be placed on the website (patsyscandies.com).
By the 1970s, the Niswongers had factory space south of downtown, but it was out of the way, with “no chance of retail,” Wes said. A real-estate friend showed them available land on South 21st Street. At the time the street had scarcely any businesses, but it suited the purpose. “It had a nice view, it was a light industrial zone, and we like it on this side of town,” Wes summarized.
The move had its funny moments. “It was quite a sight seeing the equipment strapped to a flatbed coming over here,” he said.
The retail side on 21st Street took a while to catch on. “When we started, we didn't have a customer a day sometimes,” Annette said. “It was very quiet. But it slowly built up.”
Another part of building the business had started in 1963, when Wes married Annette. She laughs that one of her favorite songs was the Johnny Cash tune, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” which features the line, “she loved the boy next door who worked at the candy store.”
It has been the abiding interest of their two sons, Si and Mike, that has enabled Patsy's to remain a family business, their parents noted.
“We've been very blessed to have them stay with us,” Annette said.
“If they hadn't stayed,” Wes added, “my dad would have had to sell, because the business was getting bigger.”
For Si, the decision was not that hard. He tried college, but “I realized I liked doing this,” he said. “And Dad really needed the help.”
He also relishes the opportunity. “You don't find places like this anymore, with ties to the past and future,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in the tradition we have and what Patsy's means to the town. And as the city grows, it's neat to still be here.”
A tradition he enjoys maintaining is the vintage air popper that makes Patsy's popcorn. It dates back to the 1940s. “We tried buying a new one, but the popcorn was too hard,” he said. “This one was 100 times better. Now the new one is in mothballs.”
A tradition Si has helped start is the store's annual Easter fundraiser for Down syndrome, during which Patsy's provides a free open house and encourages donations for the cause.
The candy business is generally quite seasonal, with Christmastime the busiest. Valentine's and Easter are good, and tourist season is also brisk. Depending on the season, the number of employees ranges from 10 to 15.
Looking to the future, Patsy's continues to grow. Will there be a fourth generation to keep it in the family? It may be a little early to know. Si has two daughters. The older, Georgia, is just 7. She helps out some, and samples the candy some - not unlike Si and Mike when they were that age, Annette observed.
Mike himself has not started a family yet, “but you never know what might happen,” he grinned, as he sent another batch of English toffee down the conveyor belt.
Westside Pioneer article