Ask anyone from Champaign-Urbana about Vriner’s Confectionary, and the answers you receive will vary, as does the history of the local company itself. Most townie folk remember it well, as it has not been that long since the nationally renowned candy makers had their own building in Downtown Champaign to work out of and create their sugary canes and brittles. As recently as 1997, Vriner’s was open at their East Main Street location. The building, now occupied by Memphis on Main, is a country music-themed bar. I fell into an invitation to come and see how candy canes come to life by accident. I wanted to see and hear about what goes into the candy cane making process, and to find out about where the company has been and where it is going.
I am speaking with Georgia Vrinio-Paul, one of few matriarchs remaining in the Vriner’s Confectionary family, and she is more than a little frustrated.
“The gas in this building just doesn’t want to work for us,“ Vrinio-Paul says. “I think it’s just Mahomet. We aren’t meant to be here.”
Here is the recently closed Villa Café, a small bistro and coffee bar on Route 150 by way of Mahomet, and the only place the family could find to rent at a reasonable rate to continue what has become a tradition dating back to 1898. From World Wars to Woodstock to George W., Vriner’s has been making candy canes in Champaign for the last century, and this is the first year they had to do it outside the city limits.
The Vrinio family still possess the tools from the original store they used to make the canes and brittle with, including a cane burner, a copper kettle, utensils to stir the concoction, a hook to twist the candy and most importantly, a 3 by 8 foot marble slab measuring more than half a foot deep. Alone, it weighs roughly one ton. The family keeps the tradition alive by using makeshift spaces during the holiday season to set up shop and craft their signature canes. Hutchcraft Van Services, a locally based moving company, house the heavy equipment and transport it for them year after year, in exchange for candy currency. It’s a generous trade. The thought of lifting the slab is daunting.
In the last few years, the Vrinios have been without a permanent home to make the candy. A nomadic existence is now part of the season.
The family cooked in Market Place Mall for a couple years following the sale of their historic building. For five years, the candy makers set up shop in Urbana’s Lincoln Square, before relocating again, this time to the old train station in downtown Champaign.
After the Vrinios exhausted their options for a Champaign or Urbana locale, the family and their crew moved west, to a Mahomet strip mall on a road that houses a chiropractor and a tanning salon that doubles as a video rental store.
The modest space betrays the rich history that accompanies the canes, and the Vrinios hard work over the hot stove.
The family, however, is pushing through.
The Mahomet makeshift candy shop fills up steadily with excitable Cub Scouts and their curious parents. My visit to their temporary factory has accidentally coincided with the local troops arrival and the place is jumping with excitement. A few den leaders try to calm them down by holding up two fingers, which means to quiet down and pay attention. It’s not happening. In the kitchen with Georgia, candy cane maker Nick Pelafas cooks up the liquid sugar concoction that will become candy canes. Georgia’s brother, Pete Vrinio, a short, well-built Italian man stands alongside his sister waiting for the color to turn.
Pelafas is a family friend who has been cooking up the mixture of water, sugar, cream of tartar, and their “secret ingredient” since he could stand. It’s a good part time job in the winter, he says, but he does it mainly because he values the tradition.
When Georgia discusses the economics of confection, she chuckles, pats me on the shoulder and says, “We aren’t getting rich off it. I’ll tell you that!”
Georgia moonlights as a candy cane maker during the Christmas season. She also works for Unit 4 school district at Edison Middle School, and as a waitress at Dom’s, the soon-to-be-closed, but later reopening 40-year-old Italian restaurant on South Locust in Downtown Champaign.
Nick and Pete bring the kettle of liquid cane into the front room and quickly pour it onto the marble slab. This draws more than its fair share of oohs and ahhs from the crowd. With more than 100 people in the room now, Pete talks to the crowd about the importance of temperature to the process of cane making. When he adds the liquid peppermint flavor to the still boiling hot candy, it steams the air. The smell is so pungent, eyes are watering, and the kids seem to react in unison, “My eyes are stinging!”
Candy cane making is a science. If the candy cools too fast, the sugary liquid won’t mold into thin strips to make the canes, Pete explains. He keeps turning the mixture and kneading it, letting it fall onto the table. He is able to gauge the temperature simply by watching how fast the candy falls. It’s a skill only a veteran candy cane creator understands.
After the cane has cooled properly, Pete splits the piece in two and hands half to Georgia. She adds bright red dye to her half which quickly turns it a bright blood-like color. They both return to the kneading process. He works his sweet confection on a hook in the corner, like a taffy puller, and Georgia kneads on the marble slab table.
After about two minutes, frustration sets in. Georgia sets her half of the cane on the table and clenches her fist, lets our a quick breath and stamps her foot. The candy hardened too fast, and it’s become worthless. Pete looks over and scans the scene. He is still using the hook in the corner, organically pumping oxygen into the candy with the hook to turn it white and make it more malleable so he can create canes from it. The crowd gets restless. The red batch is gone to waste, and Pete tells everyone not to worry; they’ll be the first people in the world to eat purely white candy canes. The crowd applauds, but almost as soon as he he starts to turn out a few of them, his candy suffers the same fate as Georgia’s: hardened and the whole batch is wasted.
Pete apologizes profusely to the audience. The kids seem a little stunned but are also learning a valuable lesson: sometimes life hands you a bad piece of candy. As a consolation, the Vrinios offer each kid a free candy cane as a token of their appreciation. The offer does not go by unnoticed. There is a mad dash to get them from the family members.
The future for the Vrinios is an uncertain one. But one thing is sure: in 2008, in some capacity and in some building, the family will make candy canes and peanut brittle. It just won’t happen at the old Villa Café. Only about one quarter of their batches have turned out properly today. It’s not so much a waste of money in product cost (the ingredients are practically free in the face of the profits); it’s a waste of labor time and most importantly, a stiff reminder that they don’t have a home. The Vrinios are reliant upon the use of foreign gas lines to heat their candy in just the right fashion so that it doesn’t fail to produce.
After the crowd clears, we stand around to talk with Georgia. Pete is a little frantic, but it seems to be his nature, at least during candy making time. He takes it seriously. As Georgia sells candy canes to parents, we read a blown-up version of an old Roger Ebert column from 1983 in the Chicago Sun-Times, where the Urbana native reminisces about going to Vriner’s regularly with fellow reporters when he worked at the News-Gazette in 1963.
Of all the businesses that have come and gone in Champaign-Urbana, few are as unique and have been as lasting as Vriner’s, even without a permanent home. The building and the sweets hold folklore in ways that no one or no place else in town.
Legend is, during prohibition, Al Capone came to Vriner’s regularly to conduct business with his partners from St. Louis. It’s said that the chubby criminal would put away one, two, and sometimes three chocolate marshmallow sundaes while planning out heists and murders. It’s said that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt demanded a soda upon her arrival to Champaign in 1942. She proclaimed Vriner’s to be the finest she had ever had. Someone offered JFK a Vriner’s candy cane in 1960 during a campaign stop, lore has it; he scarfed it down faster than you could say “peppermint”. And when REO Speedwagon decided on a place for
their first press photo a press photo for their second album major label debut in 1972, Vriner’s was the picture-perfect backdrop. And that one is no myth. (UPDATE: This press photo was for their second album called TWO) The photo exists.
(UPDATE: Thanks to Robert Sarzanini for kindly sending us the photo of REO at Vriner’s.)
Some of the kids and parents hang around for the second batch, which should be done in roughly 20 minutes. The process has started over and the Vrinio’s are back on their game. After all, they set their goal at 36,000 canes per year. Each batch makes 150 and they have only finished about 1/3 at this point. Christmas is two weeks away, so, like all the years leading up to this one time is, now officially, of the essence.
As I leave, I can see Pete laughing in the corner, starting to raise his hands in some fashion that makes the rest of his family start to laugh too. And it’s appropriate. Grumpy and cynical people wouldn’t be able to continue to churn out this type of product year in and year out. For the Vrinios, the fun has only just begun.
Photos by Justine Bursoni