Does anyone really need to buy candy? I found myself asking this very question as I opened the door to the Big Top Candy Shop, a throwback in time nestled among South Congress boutiques that’s filled with rows of boxed candy, baskets of bubble gum, bins of taffy and an old-fashioned soda fountain bar.
The amount of sugar and sweets packed inside this store is astounding — more than two thousand kinds of wrapped or pre-packaged candy and more than two hundred types of bulk candy, which is priced by the quarter pound. Wii Gum Balls? Squirrel Nut Zippers? Or Choco Rocks? The delight is in the discovery.
Brandon Hodge thought about attracting more business to his toy store, Monkey See, Monkey Do!, by selling candy, but the more he considered the idea, the more he realized that a store totally devoted to candy — something Austin was missing at the time — would be a draw to the community and surrounding businesses.
“I traveled a lot and observed other candy stores in other cities, and one thing that struck me is that so many of them were afraid to over-commit. They would sacrifice candy display space for ‘country crafts’ or Beanie Babies or whatever else they thought they could sell better than candy, yet their signs said they were candy stores,” he says. “I vowed to sell sugar and sweets only at Big Top, and not dilute it with toys — I had a toy shop for that.”
“Nostalgia is a very, very powerful force. At Big Top, we provide that on multiple levels, from the vintage circus and sideshow atmosphere to the old-time candies we offer and the soda fountain, which appeals to older generations much more acutely than the new.” - Brandon Hodge
In 2007 Big Top opened its doors. The space, which Hodge designed inside and out, is about twice the size of an average candy store, and it allows for the amazing amount of goods. Hodge, who is also a freelance game designer and pursues other interests such as writing and collecting, spends most of his afternoons scouting for new merchandise, placing orders and building displays.
“I know of a few candy stores that keep the staggering amount of inventory as Big Top,” says Hodge. “If there are 21 individually-wrapped flavors of Now & Laters and one distributor only carries 7, you can bet I’ll spend my days hunting down other distributors who can provide me with the missing flavors.”
With my seven-year-old son and his friend in tow, we strolled around the shop, amazed at the options. We headed to the bulk area, and I let each boy fill a bag with goodies. As they eyeballed the manna — Green Apple Sours, Candy Blocks (they look like LEGO pieces), Cry Baby Tears, Wonka Rants, Toxic Waste Short Circuits, Milk Chocolate Gummy Bears — I realized what was happening. They were making memories.
A time to remember
“Nostalgia is a very, very powerful force,” Hodge explains. “At Big Top, we provide that on multiple levels, from the vintage circus and sideshow atmosphere to the old-time candies we offer and the soda fountain, which appeals to older generations much more acutely than the new.”
As I waited in line to place an order at the soda fountain, I could hear nearby patrons commenting on a favorite gum from their past (the Yardstick) or a candy they hadn’t seen in a while. According to Hodge, they field requests “every six seconds or so.” The Clove/Blackjack/Beeman gums are highly sought-after items as are Wonka Bars.
Two young boys looked extremely happy when I handed over their Rootbeer Italian Cream Sodas. The grins were contagious. I smiled after the first sip of my Cherry Lime and remembered the fountain drinks I used to get at a drugstore in Rio Hondo, a small South Texas town where my mother coached basketball when I was a toddler.
“Given that I own a lot of antique candy-making equipment, including a full-on taffy rig from the turn of the century, you’d think we would do more. And we will.” - Hodge
As I was enjoying my reverie, I zeroed-in on the chocolate bar. It is here — as with the soda fountain drinks — that Hodge and his team get to create their own masterpieces.
Offerings include Mint Soufflé Bark, Sea Salt Caramel Truffle, and White Russian Truffle, but the Chocolate Covered Bacon is Big Top’s claim to fame. In fact, sometimes Hodge can’t keep up with demand. That said, he’d like to make more of his own candy. “Given that I own a lot of antique candy-making equipment, including a full-on taffy rig from the turn of the century, you’d think we would do more. And we will.”
The boys made their way outside to cull through their bags in search of the perfect piece of candy — they were each allowed to have one. We decided to wait until we got home, which would provide a better atmosphere to spread the bounty around for careful consideration. This was serious business, after all.
As they trotted down South Congress, excitedly talking about Wii levels and Big Top, I realized that I’d had just as much fun as they’d had — and that every once in a while, a Marshmallow Pop Scooby-Doo! or a Giant Jawbreaker is just what you need.