I don’t have to scan two teeth, I can scan one.” The girl running to the register with the second set of gummy gums and uppers slows down, and Jeff Struble continues to ring her up. “You wouldn’t happen to be in college, would you?” he asks.
“No!” cry four high school girls and a mother in unison. “Right,” laughs one of them. “We’re acting like we’re in preschool!”
But reversion to infancy is normal in Ricky’s Candy, Cones & Chaos. “I had a kid in Morristown just standing with a rat in his mouth,” Jeff calls out to a couple perusing the gummy rodents. “Just standing there, the whole head in his mouth, gnawing on it. It’s this big!” He waits for me to look up. “This big!” he cries, holding his hands a foot and a half apart. “You get to see stupid things because people get stupid in here. You pick up just about everything.”
Jeff is Director of Customer Relations for Ricky’s. With mid-length light red hair, an eager smile, and a green Chinese character tatooed at the base of each forearm, the Ricky’s logo on Jeff’s black polo shirt is the only indication that he works in a candy store. But he loves his job, he tells me, and he’s been here from its very conception. “Hit it hard, hit it hard!” he cries to a girl struggling with some stopped-up bulk candy. “Open palm, not a fist! I worked with the founder at FAO Schwartz.”
Despite Jeff’s insistence that Ricky’s was designed in contrast to the old-time feel of the FAO Schweetz model, Ricky’s still operates under the same philosophy – that a store can be more than a store; that it can be an experience. “We’re trying to do two things here,” he tells me. “One, bring you back to the old candy store. Second, be more bright and fun like Disney, more Disney than FAO – because Disney is that thing that you can try and never kill it. Get down here, what do you see?” he asks, squatting to the floor. “It’s so much for kids. We are trying to be a kids candy store. Look at all this from down here.”
An instant later he is walking quickly around the store, rearranging out-of-place boxes and adjusting displays. “Kids come in here and feel like they’re in an amusement park – that’s why we have Ricky, the dragon, the mascot.” He reaches out and smacks a green plastic foot twice, eliciting a loud, hollow reverberation.
Jeff is referring to the candy and ice-cream-toting green dragon who graces most Ricky’s insignia and signage. On the napkins and napkin-holders, Ricky is there. On walls, on totes, on t-shirts and boxes, Ricky is there. He is on Jeff’s polo shirt, smiling at me, and, in stuffed miniature, he surrounds his plastic patriarch. And, apparently, he sells. Jeff reaches for one of a few dozen stuffed Rickies. “The plush does extremely – they call it plush, stuffed animals – hello, how are ya?” he calls to an adult couple who have just entered the store. “Have you been here before? Well,” he adds, gesturing around, “there’s fun stuff for kids right there, Easter – here – the good chocolate is there in the back, that’s the more classic candy, and then the ice cream.”
Until he pointed it out to this overwhelmed couple, I hadn’t even noticed the pattern of the store’s layout. Explosive and addictive, candy pops out from all sides, from consoles on the floor, from displays that reach to the ceiling.
The first glimpse is overwhelming. The color palette is bubbly and jarring at the same time, a candy concoction of bright purple floors, neon green walls, and shelving of purple, green, and orange plastic. An inlay of light blue into the purple linoleum guides the awestruck customer past, on the left, an entire wall of bulk candy and, on the right, the Easter display, the kids’ candy, towards the register, past the classic candy, and into the realms of Cones and Chaos, which together fill the back of the store.
The selection alone is enough to induce a heart attack. At the edge of the kids’ candy section, a compartmentalized stand holds twenty-four flavors of swirled candy sticks. Past it, a tall tiered stand that sprouts plastic lollipops offers three sizes and dozens of flavors of disk-shaped Whirly pops; tall, thin Unicorn swirl pops; and Blow Pops, Tootsie Pops, and Dum-Dums from depressions in its base. The shelving against the right wall challenges my capacity for comprehending variety. Cherry Ice Blow Pops and Fluffy Stuff Cotton Candy Pops flank the botton shelf. Above them are Dum-Dum Gumpops in reasonable and Jumbo sizes; Jolly Rancher Lollipops; Creamy Chupa Chups; and a Lollipop Paint Shop kit that boasts a candy brush and sour candy powder. The Soda Pop package screams, “Lick it! Dip it! Chug it!”
Around an orange shelving separator and on to the next section, the deluge gives way to a plethora of Pez dispensers. There are fifteen choices for the classic candy dispenser, classicly sized. Grinning cartoon fruits, the zebra from the Disney film Madagascar, Bob the Builder, Looney Tunes’ Buzz Bunny and Sylvester, and the Incredible Hulk all lift their jaws and pop a Pez. On a lower shelf, large boxes hold more overtly corporate Pez’s: for the Disney film Chicken Little; the Bratz doll line; the Disney Princeses; Nascar. And, on the top shelf, foot-high Leviathan Pez’s dispense entire packs of the candy.
Past this frenetic section is the register, where Jeff rings up an older woman and, behind him, a flat screen TV plays clips from the Munsters and Green Acres, while Ricky smiles from the lower-right hand corner of the screen. Jeff hands the woman her change and she thanks him profusely.
“My mother told me to be a good person and that’s what I do every day,” he says.
“You are!” cries the woman, walking towards the door.
“Thanks! Have a sweet day and come back and see us soon!”
“I will!” she cries gleefully, her voice childlike and small.
“Jelly Belly is a great company,” Jeff says. He reaches for a box of Easter Tradition Jelly Bellys, on a shelving unit laden with Jelly Belly merchandise. “They have great packaging, they think about what they do. See, these are for Easter. But after Easter – ” he slides off the holiday casing to reveal a standard box underneath. “That’s very good marketing.”
The Jelly Belly shelf section comes in the first break of the bulk candy dispensers that line the front half of the store’s entire left wall. First come the Jelly Bellys themselves, in twenty-four glorious flavors. After the first set of shelves come twenty-four types of gummies – brains, teeth, blue killer sharks, cherries, zebras, the long-loved worms, and the classic bears. The next shelving break brings the classic chocolates – the Lindt, the Ghirardhelli, Toblerone and Ferrerro Rocher – and then it’s back to the bulk: six kinds of licorices, swirled, boxed, and twisted; chocolate pieces, caramels, jawbreakers, original rock candy, and sixteen varieties of chocolate- and yogurt-covered confections. And, finally, the twenty-three types of sour candies—Sour Patch Kids, Strips, Strings, O’s, and Bottles—Cola and Cherry.
“Where are the bags?” asks a woman from the Jelly Belly bulk section. Jeff jogs over to point them out to her, and then walks back over to me. “You know, that’s the most-asked question here,” he says. “I need a flashing sign. I want to hang it right here, on these gondola pieces, that flashes Bags, Bags, Bags, with the arrow.” He traces a hypothetical neon line down a large purple piece of vertical shelf separator. “I have all these ideas but we can’t do them yet, you know.” His eyes look to the floor in frustration, but he perks up again when I venture how much I love Swedish Fish. “Well, I think it’s because they’re hard on the outside but chewy in the middle. Have you had those black and white peach penguins? Not the peach colored – those are hard! They’re hard! I’m talking about the black and white ones – the other ones are hard! but these are great.”
The first Ricky’s opened in May 2004 in Summit, New Jersey, even though this store, the Princeton branch, was planned to open first.
“That’s the price of having to wait for permits,” Jeff tells me. “Cities and towns have different processes for this type of thing, and some are more difficult than others and some are not.” He looks me over for an instant, wondering whether to let me in on the truth. “From what I hear, Princeton University owns a lot of the town…and, well, those permits, especially for something this green and purple, in a town like this one – so we’re just gonna plug away, keep plugging away.”
He walks towards the Easter table and begins straightening up the rows and columns of chocolate lambs and bunnies, organizing the carrot-shaped bags of orange Jelly Bellys and Reese’s Pieces. “This town makes you earn it,” he says, reaching down to grab a stuffed candy basket that has fallen. “In Morristown, when we opened the door it was crazy. In Summit we had to call the police because people were beating on the windows so hard we had to open the door.” He looks at me, the glee gone from his expression. “It was creepy.”
The light returns to his eyes as he continues. “You just hope that’s a snowball that keeps rolling” – he lifts his arms above his head, opening them wider in quick intervals, “because we do better in this store when another store is opening, when more people recognize who this guy is.” He points to a picture of Ricky on a child’s purple t-shirt.
The front of the store is all Candy; the back is the land of Cones and Chaos. Past it, a row of round Ricky’s tables is surrounded by waffle-cone shaped chairs. To their left is the Chaos Party Room; behind them, the Chaos Factory, where behind a large window the ice cream is made in-house; next to that, a long hallway to restrooms and offices.
Nearby is bulletin board marked “Belly Buster Challenge Hall of Fame,” dozens of photos show mostly teenaged boys looking ill.
Moving back along the row of small round tables, each one plastered with Ricky’s smiling picture, Jeff indicates the room to our left. “The idea is, you bring the kids, we’ll bring the party.”
Past the Party Room and at the back of the row of tables and waffle cone chairs is the Chaos Factory. Ricky, holding a wrench, smiles broadly over the large window that looks into an ice cream factory, where a young employee is mixing something and watching me curiously. I wave hello.
Towards the front of the store, the same couple is still poking around the licorice. “See, those gloves help a lot, don’t they?” asks Jeff, glowing. Watching him watch them as they dig through licorice strings, my curiosity takes over and I finally ask Jeff the question that’s been brewing up inside me: Doesn’t he ever get sick of looking at candy?
“Naaaw, I love candy,” he says without pause. “I absolutely love candy. I am the biggest P-I-G when it comes to it. I don’t know anybody worse than me.” I wait for a break in his speech, but one does not come. “Seriously,” he goes on, “you put it in front of me and I’ll eat it. And especially when we have a new store, we’re making ice cream – ” The phone rings and Jeff is off to the register. “Sport bean recall! Sport bean recall!” he cries, running to the Jelly Belly Shelf and then disappearing with two poles hung with red Sport Bean bags.
With his insatiable sweet tooth, I tell Jeff when he returns, it’s no wonder he works in a candy store. “You know,” he says, “my favorite part of my job is that it’s different every day. I get to see the differences in how people sell things, how the stores are shaped, how the stores sell. I just make sure the customer and the franchise is happy. I look and see, can you shop this store? There’s got to be a picture, a picture or a story to something. Everything has a reason to exist. You always have to think of yourself as a consumer. Because if you don’t, you stop shopping.”