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Rob and Lindsay Wertz used to joke about buying Wertz Candies someday – if for no other reason than the name of the store.
“Honestly, it was just a joke between my husband and me,” Lindsay Wertz, a Lebanon County native and dental hygienist, told LebTown. She and her husband, who jointly own three orthodontics practices in Lebanon, Robesonia, and Hegins, have been lifelong customers of the candy store at 718 Cumberland St. in downtown Lebanon.
“My husband and I both were,” Lindsay said. “Our parents were. And our grandparents were as well.”
Sometimes, she said, former store co-owner Chuck Wertz – one of three brothers in the family’s third generation of business there – would comment on their common last name and a possible family tie, but they don’t know of any direct ancestral line that links them.
But still, she said, the connection was there because of their surname.
“When we went to local places and people learned our last name, they’d ask if we were the orthodontists or the candy maker,” Lindsay said. “My husband and I joked about buying it if it ever went up for sale, but we never thought it would come to fruition.”
Then, the couple learned back in February that the business was on the market. Chuck – who, at age 63, was the youngest of his co-owners and siblings William and Richard – said they were ready to retire.
Because they had no heirs, Chuck told LebTown in February, they decided to sell the store as a package deal, including the candy-making business, the land it sits on, the business name and a collection of “priceless” family recipes. Although there were no guarantees, he and his brothers hoped they’d find a buyer who would keep their family tradition intact.
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“It’s hard to pinpoint the magic person who is going to make the right fit,” Chuck said back in February.
That “fit” was found when Rob and Lindsay Wertz entered into negotiations for the purchase.
“We wanted to keep the Wertz legacy alive and keep a good thing going,” Lindsay told LebTown.
They closed the deal and took ownership of the business on April 14.
The Wertz legacy
The Wertz name in Lebanon has been synonymous with handmade opera fudge, caramel corn, jelly-filled chocolates and other goodies for nearly a century.
Chuck’s grandfather, William Howard Wertz, was returning to his native Pennsylvania after losing his livelihood in Nebraska during the Great Depression, according to the store’s website. A chance stop at a Karmelkorn Shop in Illinois in 1930 inspired him to apply for a franchise license, and his own Karmelkorn Shop opened its doors in downtown Lebanon the next year.
He ran the store until his death in 1960, when son William Jr. and son-in-law L. Saylor Zimmerman Jr. took over. The business was for a time the oldest continuously operated Karmelkorn franchise in the United States, according to a Karmelkorn newsletter in 1969.
William Jr. later bought his brother-in-law’s share of the business, and in 1971 he changed the name to Wertz Candies. William Jr. retired in 1986, passing the business to his four children: William Howard, Jean Louise, Richard Alan, and Charles “Chuck” Wellington Wertz. Jean left the business in 2008, leaving it in the hands of her brothers.
The business expanded twice: in 1981, the family added a satellite location at 2 E. 28th Division Highway in Brickerville, Lancaster County, and in the 1990s they added an online presence at wertzcandies.com.
The building itself dates back to the 1700s, when it was used as an inn. In 2006, the shop was featured in an episode of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel, and it was twice featured on the Food Channel. Wertz said they’ve had customers visiting from all over the world.
And Lindsay said the new owners want to keep the store on track.
“We’re hoping to grow the business a little,” she said. “We do get some online orders, but we’re hoping to expand that a little bit. But as far as big changes, nothing major is coming.”
‘Everybody was surprised’
Chuck Wertz said in April that a dozen or more parties visited the property with an interest in buying it. When he met Rob and Lindsay, he said, “we thought they were full of possibilities.”
“Because they were younger, obviously, and had energy. They had business savvy,” Chuck said. “We really thought it would be a long shot to find anybody in the mix of people who expressed interest who had any candy-making experience, and that was the case. … But I wasn’t terribly concerned about that. We had a plan. We would be there to help them with the recipes that went with the package deal.”
Two of Wertz’s long-time candy makers, Willow and Jandi, are staying on the payroll to help maintain continuity in the business and help teach the newcomers how things are done.
Also, Chuck said, “as part of the purchase agreement, we agreed to stay around and help – as much as they need us – for a minimum of two months. Beyond that, I doubt my brother or I would say no if they asked for help. … I’ll go in as needed and able.”
Chuck says he feels confident the new owners will carry the Wertz Candies legacy forward.
“Yes, I am,” he said. “It feels good to have that level of confidence. … There are already family members in there learning how to make caramel corn. They are hiring additional part-time staff.
“I don’t know what their ultimate plans are, but they certainly knew the core of a nearly century-old business were there, and they aren’t planning to make a lot of changes.
They had a real interest in seeing a good thing continue for the community. So many times, these businesses die on the vine. We didn’t want to see that happen.”
The common surname is a bonus to the deal, he said.
“Everybody was surprised,” Chuck said, that the new owners carried the same last name. And, while he didn’t know them personally, he recognized them as customers.
“They’ve been familiar with the business for a long time,” he said. “I certainly had seen the name in connection with the orthodontics business. I could see they had a lot of respect for running a business.
“I still have a hope that they might be related, but the research I’ve done has been inconclusive so far,” he added, noting he has already traced Rob’s family history back to Cumberland County in the early 1800s in search of a link.
In any case, he added, “We’re very happy. We’re happy for Rob and Lindsay and their family, as well as the Lebanon community.”
‘NOT much is changing’
The sale was handled by Rick Clay of Clay Realty Group, 203 Walnut St.
“Let me assure you, Lebanon County readers and patrons of Wertz’s,” Clay told LebTown in an email earlier this month, “NOT much is changing!”
“The best thing about this transition is first a Lebanon landmark has been saved and the candy business will go on with minimal changes!” Clay wrote. “Some new faces, same service expanded product and good quality! I must say thanks to the Wertz brothers who were VERY accommodating for marketing & showings of the property. Chuck especially was always there and willing to share any and all information of the business, procedures of candy making and answer any and all questions.”
Clay said Rob and Lindsay Wertz are “local business folks who genuinely wanted a hand in the tradition of the Wertz name for candy.” They were a pleasure to deal with, he added, “and they hit it off with the Wertz owners. … How ironic, the name & tradition continues with little or no changes!”
The property was originally listed for $350,000 in December. The Wertz brothers reduced the price to $300,000 in February – a concession, Chuck said at the time, to the economy. Ultimately, he said, it sold for $320,000.
The sale includes the property itself, which spans 714-718 Cumberland St., as well as the candy store retail area, kitchen, packing area and garage, a second-floor office, storage, the adjoining coffee shop space most recently occupied by Gus Deraco’s, and 21 parking spaces (18 of which are rented for $35 per month).
Lindsay agreed that customers a year from now won’t notice much difference in the iconic store.
“We don’t have plans for any big changes,” she said. “We have retained Willow and Jandi, who are longtime candy makers there. All their recipes are going to stay the same. We’re going to offer the same candies, the same treats.
“We have some exciting new things to come, but there will be no major changes.”
‘That’s going to be where I go’
It’s a little ironic, Lindsay acknowledges, that a couple whose primary occupation is in dentistry would take on a candy store.
“We strictly do orthodontics. So we need the teeth healthy to work on,” she said. “It’s a funny thing. But you can enjoy candy and have a healthy mouth. It can be done.”
While her husband Rob plans to continue working full-time as an orthodontist, Lindsay said she has already been working only part-time as a hygienist, “so the candy store is more my baby, so to speak. I’ll be more hands-on.”
She’s learning the ropes, she said, although that doesn’t extend yet to actually making the candy … “not to say I won’t in the future,” she hastily added. “But right now I’m learning the front, the business end of it. We’ll see where it goes.”
She was a little worried, Lindsay admitted, that the store’s loyal customers would balk at new ownership. She needn’t have worried.
“Much to our surprise, the customers have been so excited, so happy that they sold it to people who are going to keep their legacy going,” she said. “It’s been very well received by a lot of their loyal, frequent customers.”
Although she insists no big changes are coming in the Wertz Candies operation, Lindsay did tease something new on the horizon.
“It’s a fresh idea,” she said. “We’ll know more in a few months.”
As for Chuck, he says Wertz Candies will remain his go-to destination for sugary confections.
“I’ve already spent I don’t know how much in the last week there,” he said with a laugh. “If I have a sweet attack, that’s going to be where I go.”
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