Candy for the Ages

Made in America, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on August 6, 2009
EJ Hersom Bob Burkinshaw and his son, Craig, pour onto a cooling table a just-cooked batch of Gibralter candy in its clear liquid form.

Craig Burkinshaw, 34, carefully pours a boiling, sticky, golden mixture of water, sugar and cream of tartar onto a cooling table at Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie's manufacturing center in Lawrence, Mass. (pop. 72,043). As the gooey blob congeals, Burkinshaw anchors the 30-pound mixture to a hanging meat hook and begins to pull the candy.

"This process adds oxygen to the candy mixture and makes it white," says Burkinshaw, explaining how to make Gibralter, a type of hard candy that softens over the course of two weeks to a texture of an after-dinner mint.

Burkinshaw is a fourth-generation candy maker whose family owns the company that's famous for selling the nation's first commercially manufactured candythe Gibralter.

"We're the oldest candy company in the country because of the Gibralter," says Craig's father, Bob Burkinshaw, 58, who runs the business with his wife, Christine.

The company was founded in 1806 when a lady named Mrs. Spencer and her son were shipwrecked and found themselves penniless on the docks of Salem, Mass. (pop. 40,407). Neighbors learned that Mrs. Spencer could make candy and presented her with a barrel of sugar. She began making and selling candy from the steps of a local church and called it Gibralter, although no one is certain about the name's origin. What is certain, though, is that the candy's popularity grew, and not just among children.

"Sailors loved them for the burst of energy they provided, and for the fact that they lasted a long time," Bob says.

Mrs. Spencer's son sold the company in 1830 to John William Pepper, who created a new product, the Black Jack, a stick candy made from black strap molasses, to complement the Gibralter.

In the 1890s, Bob's grandfather, George, began working at the company. "He started by sweeping floors," Bob says. Working his way up to candy maker, George eventually bought the company, including the original recipes.

Bob says today's Gibralters and Black Jacks are made with the same recipes used by Mrs. Spencer and Mr. Pepper, and still are prepared and packaged by hand.

"We have history behind us," he says. "Whenever we can, we stick to tradition."

Honoring that tradition is important to Craig, too. "I could use a motorized pulling machine when I make the Gibralters, but I almost feel like that's wrong," he says. On a busy day, Craig makes 12 Gibralter batches, with each yielding some 400 pieces of candy.

For many years, Bob's father made candy in the family's basement. Then, in 1965, the Burkinshaws opened a retail store in Salem, not far from where Mrs. Spencer launched the business. Today, one of the store's most popular attractions is a glass jar containing Gibralters that are estimated to be more than 175 years old.

In addition to a sugary sweet aroma, the candy shop is filled with an array of chocolates, fudge and taffy. Gibralters and Black Jackspriced at $14.99 a box and $5.99 a bag, respectivelyare the most popular. "I'd say seven out of 10 tourists come in to buy Gibralters and Black Jacks," Bob says.

Bob Spychalski, 61, a customer for about 20 years, orders as many as 50 boxes of candy for the Christmas holidays to give to business contacts and friends. "When I think of candy, I think of their store," says Spychalski of Salem. "They make an excellent product."

Bob says serving customers was the most important lesson his father taught him. "He always told me, 'Treat your customers the way you want to be treated and they'll stick with you.'"