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Q&A: Willow Glen Sweet Shoppe owner dishes on Big Hunks, Necco Wafers — and the retro candy everyone wants back

Matthew Rodriguez, owner of the Willow Glen Sweet Shoppe in San Jose, shows off a handful of retro candies. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

In his short tenure as owner of a San Jose candy business, Matthew Rodriguez has had to relocate his Willow Glen Sweet Shoppe, retrofit a vintage building and weather both the COVID-19 economic downturn and weeks of lost business when the wildfires kept customers at home. But he had a sweet, nostalgic inventory to help him through. He’s added a new ice cream counter and just opened his second location — out of necessity, he says. We talked with him about the appeal of retro candies and making it through challenging times in the food industry.

Q: How did you get interested in the retro candy business?

A: I was looking to buy a coffee shop actually, and the Willow Glen Sweet Shoppe just popped up in my feed. Living in Willow Glen, we recognized it instantly. And it turned out the owner and I had a lot in common. I grew up about a quarter of a mile from him. He knew my wife’s family. It seemed it was meant to be.

Q: Why do these treats appeal to today’s consumer?

A: It’s all about memories. All day long, people come in and the candies take them back. They start talking about their families, best friends, where they were, who they were dating. Grandparents are mentioned a lot. I am pretty sure grandparents are the number one sugar-pushers.

Q: What was your favorite candy as a kid? Is it one you stock today?

A: Sugar Babies and Wintergreen Tic Tacs, and we carry them both.

Q: What are your best sellers?

A: Annabelle’s bars, based out of Hayward, are No. 1 — Rocky Road, Abba-Zaba, Big Hunk. Those are tops. Other top sellers are Charleston Chews and 100 Grand Bars.

Q: What other candies from yesteryear do you carry?

A: Necco Wafers. After not being made for a couple of years, they’re back! People love them. We have a lot of black licorice and Licorice Allsorts.

Some things are very niche, like Boston Baked Beans. Same with Mallo Cups. But people walk in and expect you to have them.

Q: What candy do customers request that you sadly have to tell them is no longer available?

A: Pink popcorn may be the most asked about. Was it a brick or a ball? I can’t remember. And everyone has a different name for it. Someone should bring that back.

Matthew Rodriguez adjusts a shelf of avocado pillows at his San Jose shop. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Q: How does it feel to be selling vintage candies in a vintage home? What year was this structure built? 

A: Had I known the challenges of getting the house up to code, I wouldn’t have done it. And getting any type of construction completed during COVID was extremely difficult. The house was built in 1938. With that said, the location and retro feel are perfect for us.

Q: You originally started selling Gelato Classico, based in Concord, and now you also scoop Marianne’s Ice Cream of Santa Cruz. Has this diversification helped business?

A: We are now a one-stop shop for awesome frozen treats. Honestly, if it were not for the support of Marianne’s and Gelato Classico, we would have been out of business months ago. We couldn’t scoop from May to October because we were working with the health department on new plumbing, new tile and more. And when I’m not scooping ice cream, they’re losing money, too.

Q: Are some retro candies seasonal?

A: For Christmas and Easter, we sell the Schurra’s chocolate Santas and Easter bunnies, made in vintage molds. Those are huge. Peppermint Bark. Brach’s makes a Christmas nugget people love. Easter Peeps are also big.

Q: You just made it through the challenging pandemic economy. Why expand now?

A: I could either cut in half my employees’ shifts or find another way to make money. And these young adults have all been with us for years. We are very fortunate to have such great people who want to work at the shop.

So I chose to open another location and work it myself. I am there every day with our twin girls. We did hire a new employee to work a few shifts. So I may get a day off in a week or two.

We chose Capitola because I used to live there and have always loved it. We were hanging there just a few weeks ago, saw the “for rent” sign, and within days we were up and running. It really happened fast. We carry all the old-school candies and a lot more. But we will focus more on toys in Capitola.

Details: The Willow Glen Sweet Shoppe is open from noon to 7:30 Monday-Thursday and noon to 8:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday at 1203 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. The Capitola Sweet Shoppe’s inaugural hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 116 Stockton Ave., Capitola.

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