Iconic retro sweets Opal Fruits made a temporary welcome return to Northern Ireland’s shops, including all four original fruity flavours. Launched in the Sixties, the chewy and tangy sweets wrapped in bright yellow packets were a favourite for many. When the brand changed their name to Starburst in the late Nineties and mixed up the flavours, it sparked much debate among fans. So this brief comeback is a nice trip down memory lane for grown-up sweet lovers. But what is it about old sweets that excites us so much? Sunday Life spoke to three local, traditional sweet shop owners about our ongoing love for old-style treats, and how the sweets from bygone days still retain their charm after all these years.
Curious Candy Sweet
Thanks to the ongoing demand for retro treats, former electrician Jacqueline McKeown (38) has spent the last few years living out her childhood dream of running her very own traditional sweet shop.
“When I was a little girl I always said I wanted to own my own sweet shop. It was something I always wanted and then when the opportunity came up I went for it,” she says.
Like the sweet shops of yesteryear, over 400 rows of glass jars of colourful treats line the shelves behind the counter of Curious Candy in Bangor.
Husband and wife team, Jacqueline and Glenn, weigh out the huge assortments of sweets for customers of all ages, from toddlers to pensioners, using traditional scales.
“When people walk in, the first thing they get hit with in our shop is the smell. The overwhelming aspect of sweetness takes them right back to their childhood.
“I think sweets are a conversation starter for a lot of people.
“Sweets are one of those happy memory topics that just take you back. I don’t think there’s any bad memories around sweets.
“It’s all more happy things and it takes you back down memory lane into childhood again.”
The Bangor mum-of-one tries out new confectionery items such as the American candy which is popular among kids, but says that she mainly focuses on the traditional favourites, and encourages the younger generation to try out the old classics.
“You can’t beat the likes of cinnamon lozenges, brandy balls and butter balls, we go through jars of those a week,” she says.
With a queue regularly snaked outside the shop, Jacqueline says it’s the memories that the old sweets evoke that make the shop so popular with kids and grown-ups alike.
The County Down mum explains: “You’ll have people coming in and saying, ‘That’s what my granny used to give me when I was a little girl’, or, ‘We were sitting talking and my granny was wondering do they still make these sweets anymore?’
“So they come into us and lo and behold nine times out of 10 we still have the sweets that they’re talking about.
“I know certainly it’s something I remember as a child being given my pocket money on a Saturday and going to the local shop and I used to get my quarter.”
Old Time Favourites,
Established in 1905, Old Time Favourites in Winetavern Street is Belfast’s oldest sweet shop, and has been named as one of Belfast’s seven hidden gems because of its rich heritage selling sweets to generations of customers in the city throughout the decades. Eugene Donnelly, whose family took over the shop in 1990, says: “If you walk through the door, you’re stepping back in time. I think it takes you back to your childhood.
“That’s why our shop is called Old Time Favourites, it brings back memories of carefree days when you were young. People in our shop have memories of coming in with their granny who’s probably passed on.”
The traditional sweet shop attracts tourists as well, but it’s mainly the local Belfast families who carry on the rich tradition passed down to them of bringing in their kids and grandkids to pick out a quarter bag of sweets as a treat.
Trading in the heart of the city for over 100 years as a unique, traditional shop, the Donnelly family is keen to grow their online presence with a new website launching this week.
“Obviously we have to compete with the new guys. I’m old-school, but my daughters, they’re young, and they’re saying to me we need to move on,” he explains.
The family business also wants to use the website to reach out to expats living far and wide who grew up with the shop and are now living elsewhere and craving the sweet taste of home. “We get a lot of people coming home in the summer and we send stuff to them in Australia, Canada and America. They remember coming in to the shop when they were kids. Sweets like brandy balls are sent all over. We would send the sweets all around the world now.”
Flossy Treats, Ballymena
Husband and wife team, Derek and Lynsey Montgomery from Ballymena, spotted a trend for retro and nostalgic treats around a decade ago and set up Flossy Treats, an old-style sweet shop supplying additional services for corporate events and weddings.
“We thought there would be a bit of a niche in the market for it. We started off with very limited sweets. I think when we opened the shop we only had 15 jars,” he recalls.
“At the moment we have 450 jars of sweets. We kind of stuck to those traditional routes so when people come in and ask for a quarter, you still get a quarter weighed out on a scale.
“For years we actually had a wee woman coming from Moira every two weeks for a half pound of a sweet that her son couldn’t find anywhere else. So it is things like that that kind of kept us going,” he explains. Besides the steady stream of regulars visiting the shop for their quarter bag of sweets, the County Antrim businessman has tapped into the trend for old-fashioned confectionery at weddings and events.
“We’ve actually got a wedding tonight with a candy cart. So the bride and groom have picked all their sweets beforehand. We stay with the cart and serve the guests whatever sweets they want,” he says.
“When we’re doing weddings we always ask, ‘What did your granny always have in her pocket that brings back good memories?’ One of the popular ones would be spearmint chews, for example, they might remember their granddad who used to be a farmer having a bag of them in his pocket.”
The dad-of-two likes to keep up with the current trends in the retro-nostalgia confectionery market. They create their very own chocolate brand onsite, but the old-fashioned sweets from back in the day are still among the bestsellers.
“People love the retro sweets, something they haven’t got in years. A few of the old-fashioned ones would be very popular, things that are hard to get hold of. So the likes of rum and butter toffees and the ABC candy chalky letters, they are as popular as ever. (And) the likes of bonbons, I think we’ve 14 different flavours of bonbons,” he laughs.