Saving Stilwell’s – Humbugs To Continue 80-year Tradition
Imagine reading that Montreal had run out of bagels. Or that the city had stopped producing its signature smoked meat. To many Montrealers, a similarly disastrous fate nearly came to pass when the city’s third pillar of edible culture – Stilwell’s Humbugs – seemed destined to disappear.
The hard candy that for more than 80 years had been a Montreal staple – especially at Christmastime – was getting harder and harder to find. Ex-pats around the world lamented their inability to locate them, and first the Stilwell’s factory location had closed before locals started to see the number of other stores selling the treats dwindle to a handful.
One such location – Le Panier in Pointe-Claire – had been advised to expect a Holiday season without the popular confection, prompting owner Toni Cochand to appeal to her husband, businessman John Angus, to see if there wasn’t something he could do. Indeed, there was only one thing to do.
He bought the company.
We sat down with Stilwell’s new owner to find out just how he saved the Humbug and what the future holds for the confectioner. But first, a little history.
“The Stilwell family were making candies in the UK in the 1800’s and they brought these recipes with them to Montreal at the turn of the 20th century,” John explains. “The great-grandfather of the wife of our current candy maker – Lorne Jenkins – was actually arrested for selling candies without a license. He used to drive around on his bicycle delivering them. But eventually they had to get serious and in 1929 they incorporated.”
Stilwell’s candies became particularly popular in the Anglo enclaves of the West Island and Westmount and for generations, Humbugs were always just…there. At holidays, in grandma’s cupboard, out in a dish when visiting friends – the little candy became an institution.
But more recently, it became clear that Lorne – while a brilliant candymaker – didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the business side of the operation as he did for the product.
“Lorne’s son was working with him part-time – and that would be the 5th generation of the Stilwell family working there – but they know what they know and they needed some help. This is actually a very typical small business problem – it wasn’t rocket science – it’s going back to basics and making sure he had all the proper tools. We took the paperwork and the other responsibilities off his shoulders, which were driving him crazy.”
“As soon as we unleashed his creativity, it was like taking a cork out of a bottle. It’s unbelievable what’s happened…we’ve brought back 7 or 8 of the old original candies that haven’t been seen on the market for 10, 15, 20 years. And the reaction has been absolutely incredible. There was a real pent up demand.”
Stilwell’s adherence to the adage ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ doesn’t end with the recipes. The machinery in the factory is the same as it was back in 1928. John chuckles when he speaks of the history in the workings. “Chain driven, open-armature motors…it’s pretty wonderful.”
Montrealers agree. Since production was ramped up in September, Le Panier and the other area retailers have experienced a boom in sales. Running at capacity for the first time in 25 years, Humbugs are flying off the shelves. Indeed, when John added Stilwell’s to the FS Local directory, it immediately became one of the most popular listings on the site, with visitors coming from as far away as California to source their Humbugs.
Because they’d been around for such a long time, the Humbug just became ingrained in the minds of a great number of people who grew up in Montreal. I grew up here, and they were just something that we got, they were omnipresent. Humbugs were just part of the fabric of the times.
Thanks to John’s business acumen and the continued excellence of the Stilwell candy-making family, Humbugs look to be around for a long time to come. Candy lovers will be excited at the return of other favourites, too, like, peppermints, caramels, butterscotch and licorice. All handmade, just like they were more than 80 years ago.
“I also want to bring back the fudge, and some of the other things we used to make as well, and then we’ll see. This is a very special little company with a very special product.”
With a past as proud as the future is bright, Stilwell’s promises that Humbugs will continue to be a delicious part of the lives of Montrealers going forward. And that’s a business we can get behind.
Stilwell’s offers the famous Humbug and a number of other candies to a variety of retailers in Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta. For a list of retail locations please visit Stilwell’s online at www.stilwells.ca. Online ordering is not yet available, but they can be reached by telephone at at (514) 983-5603.
Check out Stilwell’s on FS Local.