The sights and sounds at HerrinFesta Italiana, an annual town fair held in Herrin, Illinois, are familiar and exhilarating: the skid and wallop of bumper cars colliding, the blue and yellow neon lights of the Tilt-A-Whirl illuminating neighboring carnival games, Ferris wheel cars climbing upward and glittering against the softly setting sun. The air is perfumed with deep-fried dough and freshly spun sugar, and the aroma of buttery popcorn is so thick you can almost taste it.
Walking through the fairgrounds, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for your childhood, when the days and weeks of summer vacation seemed to stretch out endlessly. Memories, one after another, float to the surface: hot and sticky July afternoons spent playing games of ringtoss with your kid sister, pockets stuffed with carnival tickets and candy, or timidly sharing a funnel cake with your first crush. On patches of grass or asphalt just like these, your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and millions of other Americans have felt the same joy and wonder at the fair. You know that even if you don’t win a round of balloon darts tonight, you’ll leave with a greater prize.
For the past 30 years, from behind the windows of hand-dipped corn-dog stands or saltwater taffy booths, the King family has watched these memories take shape for generations of Midwesterners – and you can bet they’ve prized every moment of it.
If it weren’t for the success of one hot-dog vendor, Frank and Vickie King probably wouldn’t have gotten into the concessions business. Frank, a fan of hot rods, took Vickie to a car show in Springfield, Illinois, in the mid-1980s. While briefly stopping to rest at a picnic table, the couple spotted a line crowding around a small hot-dog stand.
“We were watching this guy and how busy they were, and we decided, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Vickie says. “We scraped together everything we could and borrowed $3,500 from [Frank’s parents] to buy our first itty-bitty trailer.”
The Kings netted just $14 in their first week of business. While Frank was driving home from their last event that week, Vickie, who was nine months pregnant with the couple’s second child, went into labor.
“I was thinking, ‘What have we done?’” Vickie says, laughing as she recalls the chaos of those early days. “We just kept going – the one thing we did know how to do was work hard.”
Over the years, Frank’s parents and sisters and brothers got involved in the business, called King’s Food Service, as well, serving corn dogs, funnel cakes, fresh sweet tea, lemon and orange shake-ups, and King’s Taters, the well-known spiralized potato ribbon fries that King’s has been serving since 1987.
“We don’t use sugar water for our lemonade shake-ups; we squeeze real lemons with sugar, water and ice, and you shake it until it has foam on it, or a head, like a beer,” Vickie says. “We still do everything the way it started out – the way it’s supposed to be. You have to work a little harder, but in the long run, it’s worth it.”
Frank and Vickie slowly forged their own route across the Midwest, mostly vending at state and county fairs with their three children, Tony, Tabatha and Taylor, in tow.
“The best part about the business is if you go somewhere and your product doesn’t go well, you don’t have to go back – you control your own destiny,” Vickie says. “Most of the places we go, we’ve been there for many years, and we have connections there and a great following. Our same customers will come back and see us year after year after year.”
Herrin has always been their home base; during the school year the kids usually stayed home with Vickie.
“When we were little, we’d work at all the state fairs and come home, do the Du Quoin [State] Fair [in Du Quoin, Illinois], close on Sunday, drive straight home and go to school [Monday],” says Tabatha, whose upcoming 30th birthday will also mark the company’s 30th anniversary.
“It’s all we’ve ever known,” says Tony, 32.
In the early ’90s, just before the couple’s third child, Taylor, was born, Frank set his sights on adding saltwater taffy to King’s selection of fair fare.
“We started researching and calling places, and every time we called somewhere, we ended up being sent back to this man in Ohio,” Vickie says.
That man was Dennis Motter, the husband of Sharon Motter, heir to Sutter’s Taffy company, which had been a stalwart in her hometown of Hayesville, Ohio, since 1919. Founded by Sharon’s parents, Ed and Flo Sutter, the taffy company gained national attention at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, where it sold more than a million boxes of taffy. (According to the Kings’ research, two flavors were offered at the time: vanilla and black walnut.) The Sutters took their taffy-pulling show on the road, becoming a fair favorite from Ohio to Illinois to Missouri and beyond.
With concessions and near-constant travel in common, Frank King and Dennis Motter became fast friends. By the late ’90s, the Motters agreed to sell the Kings their family’s taffy business, but tragedy sunk the deal. Dennis passed away unexpectedly in 1997, and Sharon and her daughter, Cameo Yeater, decided to keep Sutter’s in the family. Sharon passed away in 2006, and two years later, the Kings got a call from Yeater.
“She was ready to sell and wanted us to have the business,” Vickie says. “I guess it was our family values – they knew we would treat it like they treated it, and that was important to them.”
There are a few myths surrounding the origin of saltwater taffy, and each involves a different who, when and where. Mostly, though, all of the stories have the “how” in common: In the late 1800s, an Atlantic City confectioner’s seaside shop was flooded with saltwater after a bad storm. As a joke, the shop owner told customers that the only thing left in stock was saltwater taffy – taffy also used to be a catchall term for candy – and the name stuck.
In Fast Food and Junk Food, food historian Andrew F. Smith offers a more practical account: The candy’s coastal name was nothing but “a marketing ploy – and a very successful one, at that,” devised by a clever candymaker. The real story might forever be lost at sea, but according to Smith, more than 450 companies were making saltwater taffy by the 1920s, from Massachusetts to Florida. For Sutter’s, business exploded across the Midwest.
“Back in the [early 1900s] you didn’t go to the grocery store and get candy, you went to the grocery store and you got taffy,” Frank says. “There were only a handful of products out there at that time, and taffy was kind of the new candy, so [Sutter’s Taffy] became really successful really fast.”
Ed Sutter got his first taste of saltwater taffy in the early 1900s while working at Cedar Point, North America’s second-oldest continuously operated amusement park, in Sandusky, Ohio. After his success at the World’s Fair in 1939, Ed introduced new packaging for his taffy: goldenrod-yellow boxes featuring illustrations of farm animals, vegetables, a big-top circus tent and a large wave crashing into the ocean, each hand-sketched by Ed himself. The Kings use the same brightly colored boxes today, which hold 14 ounces of taffy.
“As cheesy as some of the stuff is on [the box], it works and it’s what people know us by,” Tony says. “I think we’ll always keep a version of our original yellow box.”
And there’s a reason the boxes are so recognizable and iconic to customers: Sutter’s wild ride at the World’s Fair catapulted its visibility and profits. During the company’s busiest year in 1957, its mobile taffy trailers visited 29 different state fairs and 64 county fairs.
In a July 1969 article about the Sutter’s “busy season” published in the Mansfield News Journal out of Mansfield, Ohio – a small town next to Hayesville – Ed is described as “… pretty generally recognized as the nation’s leading salt water [sic] taffy concessionaire.” In Ed Sutter’s 1971 obituary, printed in the same newspaper, he is remembered as the “taffy king.”
Today, Sutter’s is a King family affair. Frank and Vickie operate the businesses with two of their three adult children, Tony and Tabatha; Tony’s wife, Krista; and several other family members and friends. Sutter’s has 10 dedicated mobile concession trailers for making and selling taffy on-site at fairs and festivals. All of the trailers feature pulling and wrapping machines so fairgoers can watch the entire taffy-making process from start to finish behind the glass.
Long before the Kings bought Sutter’s, Tabatha recalls being out on the road with her family, seeking out the taffy trailer on fairgrounds across the Midwest. As kids, she and Tony helped their parents run the concessions stands, including a memorable unsupervised afternoon spent scrambling to serve customers.
“I remember my dad was like, ‘OK, you and Tony are in this lemon shake-up stand; I’ll be back in a little bit,’ and we had lines for days,” Tabatha says. “I was maybe 8 years old.”
Vickie remembers the events of that hot summer day unfolding a little differently. “That was an accident; we thought we were giving them something to do, to let them have fun… and [Frank] walks in and there’s sugar everywhere, and these two little guys are shaking lemonade like there’s no tomorrow.”
Tony and Tabatha both attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, and after graduation, they both chose to move back to Herrin to join the family business. Both sister and brother now have children of their own, and they love being able to travel as one big family.
“The reason we like it and do it is because it’s a way that our children can always be with us,” Vickie says. “The work isn’t for everybody; not everybody likes to work with [his or her] spouse and be open 24/7, but we do. We work together, and we play together. We like having [our kids] around and being able to see them every day. And now our grandchildren are out with us, too.”
Tony and Krista’s oldest child, Mason, 8, is particularly eager to join the business. “If you ask him what he wants to do when he grows up, he’ll say he wants to sell taffy,” Krista says.
Tony, who majored in marketing, knew he could help his parents grow King’s and Sutter’s through refreshed branding, new websites and social media. Sutter’s joined Instagram in 2013, and Tony has since created a Facebook page for the taffy company. Just a few months ago, Tony says, Ed and Flo Sutter’s great-granddaughter started following Sutter’s Taffy on Instagram.
Tony also sees a connection between his family’s business and the food-truck trend that’s spiked in popularity in the past decade. Long before food trucks hit streets in cities across America, the Kings and concessionaires like them have served from-scratch fare on the go. From a customer’s perspective, he doesn’t see a difference between ordering cookies-and-cream shaved snow from a popular food truck versus a cookies-and-cream funnel cake from one of King’s trailers.
“Our funnel cakes have always been made to order,” Tony says. “We’re making them right there in front of [the customer], mixing the batter, making our icings… everything is done in our stand’s kitchen. We’ve been doing this for 30 years.”
When the King family purchased Sutter’s, the company sold nine flavors of taffy, including chocolate, banana and cinnamon. Ten standard flavors are offered today, including the original nine plus peanut butter, which has quickly become one of Sutter’s most popular flavors. Vanilla is the top seller, with black walnut and strawberry as two favorites year after year. According to Tony, and best-sellers vary from region to region.
“Up north they like more of the spices, the cinnamon and peppermint,” he says. “Strawberry and banana are still strong pretty much across the board. It’s interesting – everywhere we go, they all have their own flavors they’ve grown accustomed to.”
Some flavors are strictly regional – for the Ohio State Fair, Sutter’s makes a peanut butter-chocolate “Buckeye” taffy and a blue-colored hot cinnamon “Superman” flavor. Jalapeño has been a favorite at the State Fair of Texas for years, and it’s only getting hotter. “Every year people say [the jalapeño is] good, but that it’s not hot enough, so we started buying habaneros and doing a mixture,” Tony says.
For the past few years, Tony has also been experimenting with new flavors, including sour options like lemon, lime and orange sherbet, as well as some inspired by food-and-drink trends. He usually conducts new flavor R&D when he’s home, at King’s climate-controlled kitchen in Herrin. Last season, though, two of Tony’s on-the-spot creations at fairs included pumpkin spice and an Old Fashioned made with orange zest, cherries and bourbon.
“The younger generation, it seems like they like the sour flavors and some of the out-there things,” Vickie says. “Tony is really good – when he’s on-site somewhere, he will throw together some crazy combinations that work, and he’ll sell out of them all the time.”
Although they’re always testing new flavors, the Kings haven’t changed the base recipe for Sutter’s saltwater taffy, which has been the same for almost a century. Granulated sugar, corn syrup, butter and salt are cooked over medium-low heat until caramelized, and then the mixture is poured onto a cooling tray. Contrary to its name, saltwater taffy isn’t always made with salt, but Sutter’s has included it in its taffy since the very beginning.
“Temperature is everything,” Vickie says of the cooking process.
At the kitchen in Herrin, temperature and humidity are easier to gauge and control, but when the Kings are out on the road, pulling taffy inside trailers, it can fluctuate. On cool spring days, candy will be cooked to around 246°F, but on hot and humid summer days, it might need to be cooked to 250°F. A 4-degree difference might not seem significant, but every degree counts when you’re making candy.
Once the candy has cooled, it resembles caramel; it’s then transferred to a pulling machine, where it becomes taffy. Essential oils and flavorings are added to the candy during the pulling process, including vanilla, peppermint and cinnamon. Exceptions include the black walnut and pecan flavors, which are made with both flavorings and chunks of real nuts (the black walnuts are sourced from Hammons Products Co. in Stockton, Missouri), and peanut butter, where vanilla taffy is pulled and then rolled around pieces of peanut butter.
The taffy-pulling machines have two large spinning arms that stretch the candy over and over again. The process aerates the taffy, producing tiny air bubbles that result in a light and fluffy final product. The motion and rhythm of the machines pull you in, as well. There seems to be no end or beginning, as its arms climb and dive, folding and unfolding shimmering waves of taffy in an infinite loop, undulating like whitecapped coastal swells. The rise and fall is comforting and mesmerizing.
Finally, the silky, pliable candy is carefully fed through a wrapping machine that cuts it into a round shape called a “kiss.” Vickie estimates that some of the company’s oldest taffy-pulling and candy-wrapping machines have been in operation for 60 or 70 years. The machines were originally made to wrap pieces of bubblegum, and when saltwater taffy became all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, it was either cut into a kiss shape or a long and cylindrical “log.”
Sutter’s vintage machines loudly hum and vibrate and make a clickity-click noise as they cut kisses and then wrap them in bow tie-shaped pieces of wax paper.
“If you were to ask our customers what they remember about our taffy – besides getting a box and eating it – it’s the sound that the machines make,” Tony says. “And when we’re running the machine, it’s just a clickity-clickity noise, making 160 pieces of taffy a minute, and you can hear it really far away.”
On a busy day at some of the larger state fairs, Frank estimates that Sutter’s makes around 100,000 taffy kisses. Customers swarm the Sutter’s stand to watch the entire process unfold, often asking to try a warm piece of taffy fresh off the line.
“Taffy is one of those lost, dying breeds,” Vickie says. “To do it the right way, the old-fashioned way, [customers] have to see you make it.”
In just a few years, Sutter’s Taffy will celebrate its 100th anniversary. When Ed Sutter took his first taffy trailer out on the road, state and county fairs were largely focused around agriculture and livestock competitions and exhibitions, with concessions and games and amusements fortifying that foundation. These industries still drive many state and county fairs, but the King family has seen a sea change in the past three decades, with more fairs – in particular, the heralded Minnesota State Fair, where they have vended for five years now – spotlighting artisan food-and-drink producers. (Back in the ’50s and ’60s, Sutter’s vended at the Minnesota State Fair, too.)
“Today, the best fairs in the country are based around food,” Frank says. “You go to Minnesota, and it’s a food fair. The numbers that they produce there… some of them are staggering. That fair is so successful because when you go there, everything is at the same level.”
Candy options have also dramatically changed and increased in America in the past century. Candy companies like Nestle and Brach’s opened around the turn of the 20th century, and early on, each produced taffy or some sort of soft candy similar to Sutter’s. “My opinion of Ed [Sutter] is that he got stuck – he was in the fair world, and he just stayed right in it; he was making a good living,” Frank says. “And then another fair guy decided he was going to make Tootsie Rolls and stay at home.”
Tony is determined to make sure Sutter’s doesn’t get stuck a second time. He believes the taffy company can expand to encompass the best of both worlds: 14-ounce boxes sold at fairs across the country, as well as smaller, more retail-friendly boxes made with a slightly updated design to sell in artisan food shops.
“Saltwater taffy is such an old product, and we’re trying to make it relevant again,” Tony says. “If my kids didn’t know better, Airheads would be their soft candy of choice. In the chocolate world that’s a big thing: artisanal, bean-to-bar chocolate, and that’s what I want us to be in the taffy world.”
Tony also wants to expand the number of taffy flavors sold online to include some of the specialties like salted caramel and lemon-lime, as well as a line of organic and all-natural taffy. “One of the top questions we get is, “Is there salt in the taffy?’” Tony says. “And now, also, ‘Is it gluten-free?’ And the answer to both is yes.”
Sutter’s currently buys its corn syrup from Gateway Food Products Co. based in Dupo, Illinois. Gateway recently introduced an organic corn syrup, and Tony has already placed an order.
The King family believes that new and all-natural flavors have the potential to reach a wider audience – likely a slightly younger one, as well – but they also know where the heart of the business beats strongest. “Most of our customers are out on the road,” Tony says. “Those are the people we know.”
The Kings are currently in the thick of their busy season, driving from town to town and fair to fair. They’ll be closest to home at the Du Quoin State Fair in August and the Semo District Fair in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in September.
The family looks forward to seeing familiar faces, as they do every year, and catching up with generations of people who still cherish Sutter’s saltwater taffy.
“I can’t tell you how many teenagers come up to our stand and say, ‘I promised my mom and my grandma that I’d bring this home for them,’” Vickie says. “It’s kind of instilling in the younger generation that this was really something special when the fair came to town – the taffy was there, and it was something you could only get at the fair.”
King’s Food Service, kingsfoodservice.com
Sutter’s Taffy, sutterstaffy.com