On April 27, 1942, F. Stuart Yantis knew he had a problem.
That was the day the U.S. halted all sugar sales ahead of distributing sugar rations. Over the next two days, candymakers, bakeries and ice-cream companies across the country received the first ration books at local high schools, followed next by consumers. War Ration Book One held 28 stamps good for a half-pound of sugar per week for a year – about half of Americans’ normal consumption.
As owner of Pepsi-Cola bottling operations in Kansas City; Des Moines, Iowa; and Louisville, Kentucky; plus a piece of the main plant in Chicago, Yantis was in desperate need of sugar rations – and a solution to get even more of them.
“If you could get sugar, you could make a lot of money,” says his nephew, Barry Yantis. “The soldiers and people who were building tanks, airplanes, bombs and ammunition – they enjoyed Pepsi and Coke. And where do you get sugar rations? Buy a candy company.”
So that’s exactly what F. S. Yantis & Co. did. In 1944, the investment firm bought the Chase Candy Co., based in St. Joseph, Missouri, which was famous for its boxes of assorted chocolates. The candy most likely suffered until the end of the war, Barry admits with a laugh, since the company trimmed its offerings and reformulated candy recipes to use less sugar for a few years. After the war, Yantis sold his bottling operations and focused on candymaking; Chase’s flagship was the Cherry Mash, a double-dipped chocolate confection filled with fondant and crushed cherries. This year, the company celebrates 100 years of the iconic Midwestern treat.
“My father sold Sam Walton the first candy he ever bought,” Barry says, referring to the founder of Walmart. “It was before it was Walmart, when he still had his Ben Franklin stores in northern Arkansas.”
It takes about 20 employees to put out 36,000 Cherry Mash confections per day, although workers no longer form the treats with ice-cream scoops. Barry first joined the family business in 1974, working with his father, William Yantis, who ran Chase Candy Co. for his brother, F. Stuart Yantis.
Today, Barry is the company’s president and chief executive officer, yet he still vividly recalls moving from Minneapolis to St. Joseph to, as he describes it, be a “chocolate boy.” His father called and said he needed help. “I was selling suits at Sears on Friday, and spreading peanut brittle with a bunch of candymakers on Monday,” he recalls. “It was a real culture shock.”
As the “chocolate boy,” Barry got his start at Chase adding peanuts to the chocolate for Cherry Mash.
“The chocolate boy had to get the exact amount of peanuts into the chocolate, so that it stood up properly when the ladies dropped it on the belt,” Barry says. “And if the chocolate boy made a mistake? [General manager] L.C. Starling would tell you in no uncertain terms: ‘More damn peanuts!’ Or, ‘It’s too thick, you’ve gotta put more chocolate in it!’ I had to make sure the peanuts were right, make sure the chocolate was the right temperature – because if it was too hot, there wouldn’t be any body to it; it would just be a big blob on the belt. So I learned quick.”
To make Cherry Mash, six or seven women used to hand-dip the bright pink, cherry-fondant centers into melted chocolate, and then dip them again before plopping the Cherry Mash on the conveyor belt. They were paid for piecework, so the faster they worked, the more Cherry Mash they made – and the more they got paid.
Today, Cherry Mash – the third-oldest continuously made candy bar in the country – is made with a candy extruder and a chocolate enrober, both of which are nearly 40 years old. The ingredients have remained virtually unchanged since 1918, when Chase Candy Co. first debuted the treat. Barry says that’s the one thing his father made him promise: Don’t change anything about Cherry Mash. “And we haven’t – other than the process. No more chocolate boys,” he chuckles.
Dr. George Washington Chase arrived in St. Joseph in 1872, when he was 34. The Vermont native planned to make a living as a doctor in the frontier town, which had been bustling for years thanks to its role as a jumping-off point for the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush. When that didn’t work out, he turned to the wholesale produce business, which evolved into G.W. Chase & Son Mercantile Co. in 1876. Chase’s son, Ernest, was the driving force behind the candy business; Barry says he even traveled from St. Joseph to New York City and hired several candymakers to come back and work for Chase.
When Cherry Mash was first introduced in 1918, it was just one of dozens of Chase products, including black walnut taffy, Crispy Cluster, Pecan Patties, Chocolate Peanut Bunch and Kokoanut Krisp. In 1922, the company was renamed Chase Candy Co., and G.W. and Ernest built a four-story brick facility in downtown St. Joseph (which still stands today and houses an antique mall) and was touted back then as the most modern candy factory in the country. Two years later, Chase introduced the Z-bar, a milk chocolate bar with nougat, roasted almonds and malted milk.
“For 50 years, the Chase Candy Company, St. Joseph, Missouri, has been among the leaders of candy makers,” boasted an ad in the Daily Democrat Forum and Maryville Tribune in Maryville, Missouri. “Now they have produced a superior confection – the famous Z-bar. This manufacturer is making over 500 kinds of candy and they have selected the Z-bar as the peer of them all.”
Ernest’s son, Charles, sold Chase Candy Co. to F. S. Yantis in 1944 for more than $1 million (around $14 million today). Over the next few years, the Chase Candy Co. bought up other regional candy companies to expand its footprint, including St. Louis-based National Candy Co., which was founded by the father of actor Vincent Price and had 22 plants nationwide, and Chicago’s Bunte Bros. Candy, which Chase acquired in 1954. Bunte Bros. was famous for possibly being the first company to mass-produce candy canes, and it debuted the first chocolate-covered candy bar in 1914.
Production moved to Chicago for a few years after Chase bought Bunte Bros., but returned to St. Joseph full time in the late 1960s. “It’s our home, and we’ve been here since 1876,” Barry says. “[Even when] production was in Chicago, we had a huge warehouse [here]. All our candy in those days shipped from St. Joe. It’s the middle of our Cherry Mash territory; our biggest customers are in this part of the world.”
When Barry started at Chase as a chocolate boy in 1974, the company was in the midst of its midcentury boom, making jawbreakers, jelly candies, peanut brittle, peppermint discs, dipped chocolates, candy bars and more. Chase even workshopped a few different flavors of Cherry Mash with coconut, vanilla and chocolate centers. Barry says they tasted great, but the company didn’t have the advertising budget to effectively introduce new products to consumers.
Despite that, Hobby Lobby took Cherry Mash national a few years ago (although it’s not available in every store), and Chase sells to distributors from southern Illinois to parts of Utah, up to Minnesota and down to Texas, as well as Walmart, Hy-Vee, Price Chopper and more in the Kansas City area.
Chase candy is available online, too, and Barry says Facebook has been particularly helpful in getting the word out – as well as a great place for loyal fans to share their cherished Cherry Mash memories.
“I kid you not, Cherry Mash is seriously amazing! It DID NOT FAIL,” wrote one fan on Facebook. “It's so olde-tyme [sic] and perfect, an intense cherry [flavor] with [a] finish of chocolate and peanuts. Rock, rock, rock.”
Barry says some of the posts really blow him away. “A lot of them have stories, like, ‘It was my mom’s favorite candy bar, and when I go to visit her grave, I always leave a Cherry Mash – we had one like that six weeks ago,” he says, astonished.
When you arrive in the small lobby of Chase Candy Co., situated in a St. Joseph industrial park, you’re immediately hit with the overpowering aromas of cherry and chocolate. The scents are slightly deceiving, though: You’re still several doors (and sanitary steps) away from the mammoth warehouse where the candy is made.
Cherry Mash production begins around 6am, with just sugar, corn syrup and water. The three ingredients are heated in large copper pots to make fondant, which is then dripped through a cylinder with a cold-water jacket into an auger, which cools and whips the fondant at the same time until it looks like cake frosting. “Russell Stover probably makes more fondant in a day than we’ve made in 100 years,” Barry says. Near the copper pots, a large bread-dough mixer combines crushed cherries (Chase goes through 15 tons of cherries a year), Wild Cherry flavoring and red food coloring with the fondant.
Next, the sweet, bright-pink mixture goes into the candy extruder, which rolls it and pushes it through molds into rows of 12 Cherry Mash centers. They then move slowly down a conveyor belt into the chocolate enrober, which looks like a chocolate waterfall.
The chocolate itself is melted in a separate, very warm room and combined with hand-roasted, crushed peanuts. Chase gets raw, whole peanuts in 2,000-pound bags, and roasts 300 pounds at a time at 350ºF. Once they’ve cooled, the peanuts are poured into a grinder that the company has used since at least 1916.
The peanuts and chocolate are then combined and poured over the cherry centers on a wire rack and left to cool; any mixture that doesn’t stick is recycled for later use. Candies then go through the chocolate enrober a second time to ensure the right amount of coating and size, topping out at about 2.05 ounces each. When they emerge from the enrober for the final time, they resemble a Star Crunch, a mound of peanut bits covered in chocolate.
The most modern piece of equipment at Chase is the wrapper, which is digital, and can wrap and seal 200 Cherry Mash candies per minute, or 300 Mini Mash – Cherry Mash's 1-ounce sibling – per minute. Safety improvements are about the only thing that’s changed at Chase Candy Co. over the years: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, requires food manufactures to run everything through metal detectors, which happens at Chase after everything is wrapped. Chase also used to use Red No. 2 food coloring for the cherry centers, but a while back it had to switch to Red No. 3 due to FDA regulations. Although Chase once had production facilities across the country, employees only churned out 50 to 60 Cherry Mash per minute in the ice-cream scoop days. Chase has since consolidated its operations in St. Joseph, and is now making more than ever before.
In addition to Cherry Mash and Mini Mash, Chase offers a few seasonal candies: peanut brittle, peanut clusters, peanut squares, peco flake (like peanut brittle but with coconut flakes instead of peanuts), vanilla haystacks and coconut bonbons – all made by hand.
The peanut brittle, for example, is heated in those same copper pots before being poured onto long, marble cooling slabs with cold water running underneath. The brittle is then carefully spread with spatulas. Once the brittle has cooled, it’s cut into pieces using rolling knives and then packaged by hand. The coconut bonbons are hand-dipped, giving them a signature “squiggle” on top that you won’t find with machine-made bonbons.
“It makes the best candy,” Barry says of Chase’s handmade process. “There are machines you could buy to make peanut brittle, but I don’t know of a machine you could buy to make peco flake. [Handmade] looks better, and it tastes better. That’s [what] we want – to make the best Cherry Mash ever, and keep all our loyal Cherry Mash customers. We’re very proud to still be here.”
Cherry Mash, cherrymash.com