PORT CLINTON, Pa. — It’s easy to drive right through the hamlet of Port Clinton along busy Route 61 in Schuylkill County, but if you have a sweet tooth this holiday season, you’ll want to put on the brakes and make a stop at the Port Clinton Peanut Shop. And, there’s no better time to do so than at Christmas, because the vintage shop revisits the past traditions of holiday confections.
A fixture in this small community for over 50 years, the Port Clinton Peanut Shop was started by the late Grace Sunday when she moved her business from nearby Hamburg into the circa-1900 brick building at 92 Center Street (also known as Route 61).
In 1998, when she was ready to retire, Sunday sold her business to Romeo D’Aurizio, a wholesaler of nuts, dried fruits and candies, who had supplied her shop. D’Aurizio also had stands at numerous farmers markets, and continues to sell his wares at Root’s Country Market in Manheim as well as Zern’s Farmers Market in Gilbertsville.
Now, walking through the double doors into the Peanut Shop is like taking a step back in time to an old-fashioned candy shop. The immediate fragrance of nuts being roasted is just inside the threshold while a sugary feast for the eyes glistens beyond. Brightly colored candies are on display from wall to wall. At this time of year, red, green and chocolate are the dominant hues, liberally interspersed with Santas, snowmen and wreaths to accentuate the holiday wares.
Melissa Swenk, manager of the Peanut Shop for the last 10 years, makes some of the shop’s candies using Grace Sunday’s recipes.
She said that the best sellers near Christmastime include the peanut rolls. Swenk makes them in small batches by dipping a ball of marshmallow filling into dark chocolate and then rolling it in granulated peanuts. Potato candy is another favorite at the shop, made using mashed potatoes and sugar, swirled with the shop’s homemade peanut butter.
The shop sells more nuts at Christmas than at any other time of year. The Peanut Shop roasts 500 pounds of nuts per week in its old nut roaster, 25 pounds at a time. It has 27 nut mixes as well as cashew, black walnut and peanut brittles made by Swenk in batches weekly to assure freshness. Cashews, peanuts, mixed nuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts and various flavored nuts are part of its stock.
Besides the Peanut Shop’s homemade specialties are hundreds of commercially produced sweets, including many nostalgia-inducing candies no longer seen on store shelves elsewhere. Clear toy hard candy is a vintage Christmas treat found in abundance at the shop, purchased from small family businesses. Some of it is made using corn syrup, while purists can indulge in the old-style clear toy candy made with barley syrup.
Whether large or small in scale, clear toy candy requires the use of candy molds. Some of the mold shapes on sale in the Port Clinton store include Santa, a cow, a camel and a sizable train engine. The clear toy reindeer candies with delicate antlers are works of edible art almost too pretty to consume. All come in translucent shades of red, green or yellow.
Plantation candies are a traditional holiday sweet with a thin hard outer shell surrounding a creamy center. The center is often peanut-butter flavored, but can also be chocolate-, mint- or fruit-flavored cream. These candy pieces are usually formed into oblong shapes called “straws” that come in assorted flavors. “Jingle Bits” is one old-time brand of plantation candies.
Plantation candies are “not only beautiful to look at, but also look nice in a Christmas dish,” Swenk said.
Candy canes in every hue and flavor are another decorative seasonal item found in abundance at the shop.
Coal candy, made from licorice, comes in a bucket with a hammer attached. It is popular as a symbol of the old-fashioned gift that St. Nick brought to naughty children: a bucket of coal.
The Peanut Shop carries an assortment of licorices year-round, including Australian licorice, which is made from real licorice root. Another international favorite is English wine gummies, which come in flavors like cognac and rum.
Swenk reports that one item so popular that it’s difficult to keep in stock this time of year is the Belgian chocolate gourmet pretzel. These chocolate-covered pretzels are topped with various crushed toppings like Oreo cookies, toffee, Butterfingers and Kit Kats. Other favorite items come in milk chocolate and dark chocolate varieties, with nut clusters and coconut clusters being two of the many old-fashioned candy treats. The Peanut Shop is also known for its fudge, which comes in assorted flavors.
Vintage candies that recall earlier days are stocked at the shop. PEZ enthusiasts will find new holiday PEZ dispensers on sale each December. Likewise, Jelly Belly decorative tins and dispensers are another popular collector’s item.
Customers are often surprised to learn that many of the candies of their youth are still being produced. Necco wafers, Mexican hats, Good and Plenty, Mary Janes, Bit O’Honey, root beer barrels, Turkish taffy, marshmallow circus peanuts and other vintage sweets can all be found at the Peanut Shop year-round and most are available in bulk.
The shop doesn’t do much advertising. Besides being on Facebook, most of its business is generated by word of mouth. Many people have been coming there for years and at the holidays will bring along several generations of their family to experience the candy store’s old-time appeal.
Swenk reports that the store sees a lot of travelers from the busy Route 61 corridor, who will stop for nuts and candy on their way to the mountains or the beach. A nearby Cabela’s brings traffic in as well. In summertime, the shop’s close proximity to the Appalachian Trail and a hostel for its hikers draws in those seasonal customers.
Swenk and her four part-time employees love working at the Peanut Shop because, they say, “everyone is happy at a candy store. You make their day.”
For more information, call The Peanut Shop at 1-800-682-NUTS. It is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 7 p.m. Fridays and until 8 p.m. on Saturdays.