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You have to suck on a Peach Bud. Slowly. That’s the proper way to eat one, in my opinion. You have to work the candy nugget until the center pokes through. It is then, and only then, that you bite down with wild, molar-killing abandon and discover the chewy crush of the coconut center as it melds with the sweet hard rock.
No matter your style, H.E. Williams Candy specializes in these exquisite jawbreakers, plus Pineapple Lump, Fancy Mix, Hot Rocks, Mint Puffs, Coconut Tri-Colors and other specialties. Situated in a quiet South Norfolk section of Perry Street, the company’s unassuming barn-like building doesn’t look like the home of Virginia’s longest-surviving candy operation, rather like just another house in the neighborhood.
“We don’t have a salesman,” says Lillie Williams, the energetic 82-year-old who took over the family factory when her husband Harold Eugene passed away in 2002. “Everything we do is word of mouth.”
“People don’t even know we are back here,” laughs Ann Litchfield, 61, Lillie’s daughter, a third generation member of the founding Williams clan to work here. There’s also older brother David, recently retired from Verizon, and her younger brother Gene. Baby brother Joe, 53, works elsewhere, but even he pitches in whenever equipment needs repairing.
To say that this family business is old school would be underselling it. Its candy is still handmade, forged with the same equipment used back in 1919 when the place was founded. H.E. Williams doesn’t have a website, or a Twitter account, or a Facebook page (although some fans have started one). It doesn’t accept credit cards. A small road sign on Perry Street is the full extent of the advertising. The building didn’t even have air conditioning until a few years ago.
Bagged and stapled with simple white tags, you won’t find the company’s treats in any big-box retailer or large grocery chain. Williams Candy is even too down home for Cracker Barrel. You are more likely to discover Hot Rocks or Fruit Lump in out-of-the-way convenience stores in North Carolina, where the company does most of its business.
“Mama has always wanted us to stay small,” says employee Tammy Pearce, who just so happens to be Lillie’s ex-daughter-in-law. She’s weighing and stapling bags of Mint Puffs. “We don’t have a computer, fax, anything.” The company relies on the telephone and handles a lot of mail order, especially during the holiday season. “We make more money in December than the whole rest of the year,” Litchfield says.
During the Christmas holidays, factory floor space is taken up with cases of sweets going out to churches, grandmothers, “knick knack” shops, civic organizations and even a Maryland prison. Meanwhile, buyers line up at the front door. Johnny and Sonjia Williams (no relation to the family), are longtime customers. He likes the Hot Rocks, she the Peach Buds. “My aunt once lived nearby,” Sonjia says, “I got the candy from her. Now my sister comes in here and gets candy, my niece comes in …”
This reporter is on a sugar high. I just watched a huge, 100-pound snake of tangy Watermelon Bites curl down a rickety chute (cooled by a house fan) and smash into separated pieces, a big pile of solid color sugar rocks ready to be consumed.
"I’m glad I don’t live near this place," I think aloud. "My teeth would never last."
“Oh no, don’t bite them,” Johnny Williams says, passing knowledge. “Thing is, you got to suck on ‘em, get them down to nothing.”
While customers are waited on, a big, 600-case Christmas order has to go out today—one of many pending invoices tacked to the bulletin board facing the sorting table; the staff’s big sack of McDonald's lunch food goes unattended. “We’ve got all the work we can handle,” Gene Williams says, exhaling deeply.
Gene, or “Genie” as mom Lillie calls him, was educated in the school of hard candy by his dad, Harold Eugene Williams, who ran the company for years alongside his mechanical whiz of an uncle, Shafter, Jr., known as Shack. Watching the burly, smiling farmer, 60, make a steaming batch of hard candy is not unlike studying a sculptor as he works his tools or a painter mixing and dripping colors. Gene’s medium is sugar, corn syrup and food coloring.
When he was a young boy, Lillie recalls, Gene’s dad would bring him to the factory, where he watched everything intently. “He learned from everybody,” she says. “When he was little, he was his grandma’s favorite. They’d put him on a little stool down there, and he could always tell you if something was wrong—he knew. He’d say, ‘Uncle Shack, you aren’t doing it right.’”
“I’m still like that,” Gene says today, smiling.