Over 90 sweet years: How Wertz Candies became a downtown Lebanon staple

Over 90 sweet years: How Wertz Candies became a downtown Lebanon staple

Wertz Candies’s recent announcement that the business is for sale has prompted plenty of discussion and memories of the shop’s nearly century-long stay in downtown Lebanon.

Read More: Wertz Candies, a Lebanon tradition for nearly a century, is looking for a buyer

As the shop at 718 Cumberland St. prepares to transition into a new era of ownership, LebTown visited the store to get an overview of Wertz Candies history. In between making batches of caramel corn, Charles “Chuck” Wertz spoke to LebTown about the business, its core treats, and the family that’s operated it over three generations.

Opportunities far and near

The story of Wertz Candies doesn’t begin with “Wertz Candies” as a shop. In fact, it doesn’t even begin in Lebanon County.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Wertz family was living in Muhlenberg Township, Berks County. At the head of the family were William Campbell and Mary Jane Wertz, who had nine children. Chuck’s grandfather and future company founder William Howard Wertz was second-born of these.

A Wertz family photograph taken in the late 1800s. Wertz Candies founder William Howard Wertz is at the far left, standing next to sister Grace. (Wertz)

According to census records found by Chuck, his great-grandfather’s occupation was simply described as “laborer” or “boilermaker” (a metalworker).

“There wasn’t a candymaker in the batch, in other words,” Chuck said. “And [my grandfather] only had an eighth-grade education.”

Looking for new opportunities, William Howard’s younger sister Grace obtained a teaching certificate and traveled west, landing in Midland, South Dakota. William followed his sister to Midland in 1914, where he started a job as manager of the J.C. Russel Co. General Store. Shortly afterwards, William’s girlfriend from back home, Nora Wise, made the journey out to South Dakota, and the two were married in 1917.

The young couple moved again to the town of Spencer, Nebraska, and William found new work as a proprietor of ladies apparel. William and Nora had a daughter, Mary Ellen, in 1920, followed by William Jr. in 1924.

“It was the West. It was opportunity!” Chuck said of the family’s decision to settle in Nebraska. “They had no regrets, they loved living there.”

William Sr. and Nora Wertz in Midland, South Dakota. (Wertz)

But when the Great Depression struck, William Sr. lost his job and decided to move back to the family home in Berks County. His father William Campbell had died several years earlier.

On the family’s trip back home, William Sr. happened to stop in at a Karmelkorn Shop in Illinois. An idea struck when he learned the brand was being franchised, and once back in Pennsylvania he applied and was approved for a franchise location in Lebanon.

“He wanted to do it in Reading, but Reading already had a candy store or caramel corn shop, which is why he came to Lebanon,” Chuck explained. “It was an untapped market.”

On Dec. 12, 1931, William Howard Wertz opened the Karmelkorn Shop at 777 Cumberland St. (now 718 Cumberland St.).

Various notices put out by or related to Karamelkorn in its early years. (Clockwise from top middle: Lebanon Daily News, 27 Feb. 1942; Lebanon Evening Report, 14 July 1933; Lebanon Evening Report, 11 June 1937; Lebanon Daily News, 30 Dec. 1932; Lebanon Daily News, 27 May 1932)

In its early years, the shop heavily promoted itself in local newspapers. Random coins ranging in value from 1 cent to $2.50 were included with every Karmelkorn package on specially advertised days throughout 1932. The Lebanon Evening Report regularly included details of local softball games, and during the 1937 season, a Karmelkorn League was one of the named circuits – presumably in some relation to the shop.

Under William Sr.’s management, the business survived the Great Depression. As he grew older, he made the decision to share managerial duties with his son, William Jr., and son-in-law, L. Saylor Zimmermann. Together, the three operated the shop until William Sr.’s declining health and eventual death in 1960 left the business in the hands of the second generation.

Following the death of his father, William Jr. bought out Zimmermann’s share of the company and began managing it himself, together with wife Josephine.

From Karmelkorn to Wertz Candies

As one might expect from its roots as a Karmelkorn location, caramel corn was, and continues to be, a staple product of the shop. The ties with the Karmelkorn brand, however, have been severed for decades.

Karmelkorn was a chain of popcorn vendors founded in 1928 in Wyoming. It enjoyed nationwide popularity in its early years, boasting over 530 stores around the country in the early 1930s.

Behind the counter is an original Karmelkorn pricing board. (Groh)

“My presumption is that there was a company manual and you would periodically get supporting marketing and recipe information,” Chuck said of the relationship between the Karmelkorn brand and the Wertz-operated shop.

According to Chuck, a Karmelkorn-published internal recipe page from 1969 kept in a “very yellowed binder” features a Wertz family picture. The picture’s description names the Wertz family as operators of one of the oldest existing Karmelkorn locations.

While the brand was happy to have the Wertz family among its proprietors, William Jr. was ready to move on and make the shop his own. In the early 1970s, he cut ties with Karmelkorn and renamed the store Wertz Candies, which has stuck since.

Josephine and William Wertz Jr., who managed the store together after the passing of founder William Sr. (Wertz)

According to Chuck, the family has continued to use a few Karmelkorn recipes modified to be distinct from the originals. Most of the handmade offerings in the shop, however, are still made from original Wertz family recipes passed down from the first generation of shop owners, including the store’s take on the classic Lebanon County treat known as opera fudge.

“[Karmelkorn] didn’t have an opera fudge recipe. That’s a Lebanon County thing,” he said. “That comes from my grandmother.”

As Berks County natives unfamiliar with the treat, William Sr. and Nora were intrigued when shop customers would enquire about opera fudge.

“She was talking to people over the counter and heard enough from locals about opera fudge that she got a recipe and made it her own,” Chuck said. The basic ingredients of opera fudge change from family to family, with the Wertz recipe using whole cream as a key component, he explained.

William Jr. at the storefront, prior to his decision to cut ties with Karmelkorn in the 1970s. (Wertz)

“Caramel corn, opera fudge, caramel products, fudge – these are our core things,” Chuck said. “I would say our recipes are uniquely ours at this point.”

As for Karmelkorn, the brand was purchased by what is now Berkshire Hathaway and, until recently, co-branded with Dairy Queen and Orange Julius. While support for the Karmelkorn chain was dropped in 2019, the popcorn brand is still “in operation,” according to the Karmelcorn Online website.

The third generation and a new era

William Jr. and Josephine had four children: Richard, William (known as Bill), Jean, and Chuck. All went on to work closely for the business, helping out in the kitchen and eventually taking over management from William Jr.

“We all ‘did time’ in here,” Chuck joked, referring to working in the shop as a teenager. “I was young and I made nonpareils in the coating room back here and was taught to make caramel corn early on.”

In 1981, Richard was the first of the third generation to officially come on board as part of the shop’s management. He left a position as personnel manager for the H.B. Reese Co. (located at Hershey) to open and run a second Wertz store at Brickerville in Lancaster County, a location which closed in 2022.

William Howard Wertz behind the counter alongside employee Ed Reber. (Wertz)

The 1990s and 2000s saw Wertz Candies get more exposure than ever before, beginning with the opening of an online store page that has, in the words of the page, “effectively become our third location.”

Not only was the shop reaching a new customer base online, it was attracting more attention through television as well.

Wertz Candies featured twice on the Food Network, once on a segment of the popular sweets-focused series “Unwrapped,” hosted by Marc Summers, and as a stop visited by Al Roker as part of “Roker on the Road.” In 2004, Sharon Osbourne featured the shop on her eponymous show when she commissioned it to create a chocolate portrait of husband Ozzy Osbourne for Valentine’s Day.

Perhaps the most memorable brush with national television, however, came in 2006 when the shop was featured on the Discovery Channel’s beloved series “Dirty Jobs.”

“That was the best advertising, ever,” Chuck said. “They’re still showing it online.”

“Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe with employee Dolly Evans in the Wertz kitchen. (Wertz)

Host Mike Rowe was in the region visiting another company for shooting when the shop emailed the production team and piqued Rowe’s interest. While most episodes of the show feature Rowe doing a day’s work at a dangerous, messy, or otherwise unusual job, the Wertz Candies segment in the second season episode “Fuel Tank Cleaner” was a change of pace.

True to form, though, Rowe did get “dirty” as he helped the shop craft a customer-requested piece of chocolate in the shape of dog poop. He describes the process of making the episode in a YouTube video.

“[Rowe] was the real deal. Smart, humorous, a commanding voice,” Chuck reminisced. A photograph of Rowe in the kitchen hangs by the store’s front door. Next to the photo is a guestbook, filled with signatures from visitors from around the world who have stopped in thanks to the exposure.

What comes next?

There will be plenty to do for the Wertz siblings in the future, both as they help transition a new owner into the operation and afterwards. Just as William Howard Sr. discovered a latent talent for candy-making, his descendants have also continued to pursue interests beyond the shop.

“I will say – as you look through these generations, there is an art gene in there,” Chuck said. Both his father and his brother Bill expressed an interest in painting, and sister Jean Zaun, who left the business in 2008 to become an artist full-time, has received recognition for her works – both those made of chocolate and those made using regular paint.

Read More: Finding sweet therapy in nature – the birding life of Bill Wertz

Read More: What the rural landscape, chocolate, and oil paint have in common: Jean Zaun

Chuck, for his part, has had a long-standing interest in conservation and gardening. With a degree in horticulture, three decades of work at the Lebanon County Conservation District, and work with the Lebanon Valley Conservancy and the city’s Shade Tree Commission, he expects to be well-occupied after leaving the business behind.

The storefront at 718 Cumberland St. (Groh)

All of the Wertz siblings share an interest in family history, but Chuck in particular has made it a major hobby. Over the years, he’s tracked down and visited family acquaintances and connections in the Midwest, Southern California, and even in Germany.

According to his research, the Wertz family – perhaps originally known by the name “Wurtzer” in Europe – came over to the American colonies in 1750. Thanks to modern genealogical tools, he has amassed some 23,000 records for his family tree and is able to trace an ancestral line back to the 1600s.

As owners of a name that has, for nearly 100 years, been synonymous with candy and chocolate, the Wertz family is serenely humble about the store’s reputation.

“I think if you’re around for a long time and offering a product people like, you don’t think about it too much on any given day,” Chuck said.

“We certainly are very aware of people’s appreciation. But do we sit and dwell on it? No. [Our parents] were very German – no huggy-kissiness. ‘Get over the glory and start making nonpareils!’” he joked.

Chuck and his siblings are optimistic about the future of the business passing into the hands of someone else. While there will be plenty to miss about running the business, Chuck sees the sale as a practical choice and a way to make sure the business has the best chance of remaining a part of Lebanon County for years to come.

“I’m just being very pragmatic. Perhaps it’s that German lack of emotion,” he chuckled.

That’s not to say he and his family aren’t going to miss the world of candy-making.

“We will all miss over-the-counter interaction with people,” he said.

“We think our forefathers would be happy about it,” Chuck concluded. “They’d say, ‘You did what you needed to do, and you’ve run it longer than anybody else.’”

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