June is National Candy Month, but the folks at Wee-R-Sweetz don’t need a calendar to celebrate.
Walk into any of three retail locations on the Grand Strand, and you are immediately engulfed by tantalizing scents and sights — bins of their storied salt water taffy in a dizzying array of flavors, gourmet caramel apples and truffles, tempered by the salty goodness of fresh popcorn.
Be prepared to catch a piece of taffy, because the usual greeting at Wee-R-Sweetz is for a smiling employee to toss one to you — hot and fresh off an almost century-old, cut-and-wrap machine in full view. Lucky patrons will likely see the old machines in action — whirring away while cutting, wrapping and twisting individual pieces, like they have done since bygone days. It’s like stepping into a time capsule.
Wee-R-Sweetz is a second-generation family business founded by patriarch William B. Canipe in Charlotte, N.C., in 1964. The operation has been a mainstay on the Grand Strand since 1978, when the first shop opened in the now-defunct theme and retail park Magic Harbor. It now boasts locations at Barefoot Landing, Broadway at the Beach, a brand new shop on Main Street in North Myrtle Beach and a wholesale and manufacturing facility on S.C. 9 in Longs called Canipe’s Candy Kitchen.
But when one of Canipe’s sons, Todd Canipe, went off to Appalachian State University to pursue his degree in marketing and management, he swore that he would never make candy again.
Famous last words.
Todd Canipe said his father was a butcher, and mother Barbra Canipe had a cousin who wanted to start a candy business. They talked the elder Canipe into moving from Shelby, N.C., to Charlotte in 1964.
“They were doing primarily chocolates,” Canipe said, adding that taffy wasn’t even on the map yet. He ended up branching out on his own under the banner of Canipe’s Candy — doing chocolates, fudges, brittles and old-fashioned stick candy.
With the Jimmy Carter era came the gas crisis, but the price of sugar also skyrocketed, putting the business in danger. Canipe said the family struggled for a number of years — so much so that his mother, a stay-at-home-mom until that point, went into the workforce.
“She was always there to support my dad,” Canipe said of his mother, now 80. “We had some hard times, and she had to work other jobs — and she was a big part of the backbone of the family. When you are trying to start your own business, people don’t realize what a struggle it could be.”
Growing up around candy wasn’t like growing up in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. It was quite the opposite.
“I have been around it all of my life,” Canipe said. “We never really thought much about it. We didn’t crave candy because we saw it all of the time, so it wasn’t something that we really ate a lot of. It was weird, I guess, because people would come over to our house looking for candy — and there never was any there.”
When Canipe got out of college in 1982, he had no job prospects, and the candy business was still struggling. Like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” he returned home to make a go at the family business with his father.
“Me and my dad were real close, and we decided to try to give it a shot,” he said. “We ended up opening a little shop in Carowinds Amusement Park at the same time we were doing a kiosk at Gaston Mall.”
Salt water taffy came into play when the Canipes opened their first Myrtle Beach store at Magic Harbor, dubbing it Wee-R-Sweetz.
“My dad just got a wild hair,” said Canipe of his father, who passed away in 1992. “We could come to the beach, start making taffy — and we can make a boatload of money three months out of the year. Unfortunately, it really didn’t work that way. Magic Harbor was kind of a dud, and it struggled from the day it opened.”
But it paved the way for the family to get into Barefoot Landing in 1987. At one point, they boasted four locations there. “Opening the first store at Barefoot Landing was what really turned things around for us.”
In 1992, older brother, William B. Canipe Jr., joined the business, leaving behind a career as an electrical engineer in the Charlotte area. He now heads the wholesale side of the operation.
“We wholesale our salt-water taffy out of there,” Todd Canipe said. “We sell to a lot of beachwear stores and gift shops up and down the East Coast.”
Wee-R-Sweetz opened at Broadway at the Beach when the complex was completed 20 years ago. There also was a retail store called Canipes Chocolates & Candies at Coastal Grand Mall — the result of Canipe’s foray into the manufacture of truffles. That store ultimately closed, but truffles are a mainstay at all Wee-R-Sweetz locations.
Then there’s the saltwater taffy, which has nothing to do with salt water other than the fact that it is a coastal phenomenon, first introduced in Atlantic City in the late 1880s.
“Everybody has a different recipe,” Canipe said. “Some people use milk, some use egg, some use strictly corn syrup and sugar. Most taffies are on the coast, but they do a taffy log in the mountains.
“There are a lot of different things called taffy, but we try to make a traditional-style, saltwater taffy. The nice thing is that we get people who come back year after year.”
He said he has watched kids grow up and then come in with their kids and buy taffy.
And then there are the old red machines — called K-Wrappers or Kiss Wrap machines — which, according to Canipe, are from a company called Package Machinery Works of Milwaukee. The oldest one in his possession is from 1917.
Wrapping and packing machine engineer Kenneth Kemp has been working on these machines since 1960, when he began his apprenticeship in England. He said the only other person who works on these is based in Chicago. Kemp has been working with Wee-R-Sweetz for 20 years and said the last one of the little K-Wrappers was made around 1930.
“There are hundreds of them around the country, and [Wee-R-Sweetz] has got five of them,” he said.
“At the factory on [S.C.] 9, they have got two in there, which are fairly high-speed. The ones in the stores wrap at about 120 pieces a minute. The ones at the factory are doing up to 700 pieces of taffy a minute.”
The generic term for these contraptions is cut-and-wrap machines.
“You put a roll of candy in like a big sausage, and the machine cuts off a piece of candy, cuts off a piece of paper, wraps it, twists it — and throws it out.”
Kemp fabricates all of the parts himself from his engineering workshop off S.C. 9 and travels all over the country working on them. He is licensed by Package Machinery to make spare parts for the old machines.
“They don’t want to deal with them; they don’t make them anymore,” he said. “They asked me if I would take over all of the spares, and that’s what I do.”
Kemp said the biggest challenge is when people accidentally drop something, perhaps a tool, into the K-Wrapper when it is running, breaking parts.
“That is a bit challenging for me to get them working again,” he said, “but I’m normally just running adjustments, replacing things here and there, and putting in new bushings.” He makes the rubber rollers himself and sharpens the knives on the machines.
Humans also are integral to the well-oiled machine that is Wee-R-Sweetz, and a sense of family emerges.
Abby Smith, 26, manager at the Barefoot Landing location, started with the company when she was 13. She worked summers at a kiosk in what is now Myrtle Beach Mall and over the years took on more responsibilities.
Candy put her through school, said Smith, who holds a bachelor’s in management and marketing, and a master’s in business administration from Coastal Carolina University.
“They bent over backwards for me to be able to go to my classes and then come to work — and that just made it so much easier for me to work with my school schedule and continue my education,” she said.
Smith’s scope of duties goes well beyond the walls of the shop, including a lot of charity events, and she said she never would have thought she’d be with the company for so long.
“I love my job, … It’s hard to find a place that you can go every day and love what you do,” she said. “People shuffle along in life, doing a job they hate forever, and they realize that they have wasted all of this time. If you can do a job that you love at a company that actually gives a damn about you — it’s just so much different.”
Curtis Sarvis, manager of the Broadway at the Beach location, has been on board with Wee-R-Sweetz for four years and said he is amazed by the friendly family atmosphere at play there.
“My second day making taffy, Todd came over and ask me if I was afraid of messing up,” he said. “I told him the only thing I am afraid of is not getting a paycheck. From that moment on he would put me in places that I was allowed to grow without being yelled at or put down for messing up, but taught how to do better.”
In January, Sarvis collapsed at work, ultimately finding he needed a pacemaker at only 30 years old. He said Canipe helped him throughout the ordeal and to get back to work, despite his restrictions.
“Todd let me basically clean and try to work even when I felt useless,” Sarvis said. “That helped me regain my self-esteem.”
At the peak of the season, Wee-R-Sweetz employs about 50 people, and Canipe said he is pleased with his managers, including Michael Anderson, who runs the new North Myrtle Beach location.
“As long as we can make money and make a living,” Canipe said, “we want to keep them with us to where they get more and more control of what’s going on, so they can make a better living, too.”