Even in a sour economy, people love their sweets


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Consumers are thinking twice before plunking down their money for morning coffee, a restaurant lunch, or a dinner out.

But this new frugality has a sweet tooth.

"I won't give up my chocolate," customers have been telling Theresa Anderson, owner and operator with her husband, Michael, of Swan Chocolates in Merrimack and Nashua.

Anderson said buying a piece of chocolate, a dish of Italian ice cream, or a pastry and coffee makes customers feel "normal" during these hard times.

The sweet treats also provide comfort, evoke nostalgia, and lift flagging spirits.

"There's some candy I can't keep in stock," Anderson said, reciting a list that included chocolate covered Oreos, chocolate covered caramel popcorn, and Swan's chocolate Rice Krispie treats.

Indeed, what's happening at Swan's has a historic precedent: Candy sales flourished during the Great Depression when manufacturers introduced Snickers, Tootsie Pops, Mars Bars, and Three Musketeers, products that have retained their strong position in the market after more than 70 years.

Recently, according to an article in the New York Times, candy maker Cadbury reported a 30 percent rise in profits for 2008, while Nestle revealed a 10.9 percent increase and Hershey reported an increase of 8.5 percent in fourth quarter profits.

Likewise, New England Confectionary Co., which produces Necco wafers and Sweetheart valentines, also made a strong showing.

"Candy is a comfort food," observed Swan's Theresa Anderson.

It's not just candy sales, however, that are enjoying a boost during the current economic downturn.

Ice cream and pastries are also holding their own, although consumers are buying them in smaller quantities.

Bob Perry, who owns Coldstone Creamery in Nashua with his wife, Sandra, said patrons are buying fewer $24 and $34 dollar ice cream cakes and more of the newly introduced six-pack cupcakes which sell for $13.

"They're buying smaller products," Perry said, pointing to a freezer stocked with the new cupcakes, made with a Belgium chocolate shell, fudge, ice cream, and butter cream topping.

Tracy Wolf, a Derry antiques dealer who was treating herself to a dish of ice cream and an iced coffee at Coldstone on a recent weekday afternoon, said she has cut back, but not given up little luxuries like store-bought desserts.

"My husband and I make dinner at home instead of going out to eat, and for dessert, we'll have the cupcakes," Wolf said. "It's just the right size, and it's special."

The 49-year-old Wolf said that after the economy tanked last fall, she stopped eating lunch out every day and began making her morning coffee at home.

"I go out to lunch one day a week and buy a treat one day a week," she said. "I don't do Dunkin's, but I don't want to give this up."

In the Times story, some candy store operators said they've seen an increase in sales of sweets that were once standard inventory at penny candy counters, typically the less expensive items like Mary Janes, red licorice, and Fire Balls.

But Nashua area retailers were reporting that customers are buying less, not necessarily less expensive treats.

"So far, this year over last year, sales are going very well," said Bill Croteau, owner and operator of Bruster's ice cream on Amherst Street in Nashua. "Any promotion we do is very popular now."

Among the incentives Croteau uses to bring in customers is the banana split special: on Thursdays, customers who bring their own banana can purchase the split at half price.

"We have families stopping at the grocery store and buying a bunch of bananas," Croteau said, adding that he offers several other recession busters, including a buy-one-get one free waffle cone on Mondays and the same deal on Tuesdays with hot dogs.

"People are buying less, but they aren't not buying," said Dorothy Nazarian, owner and operator of Dorothy's Country Baskets and Gifts in the Heritage Plaza in Amherst.

Nazarian carries a variety of gift items, including specialty foods and candies, and she says customers still want what she sells, albeit in smaller amounts. Instead of the 40-flavors box of gourmet jellybeans, for example, Easter shoppers chose the single-flavored packages, orange-flavored beans wrapped in cellophane wrappers shaped like carrots.

"People are still buying," Nazarian said, ticking off a list that included chocolate and chocolate-covered, thumb-sized, shortbread cookies that come in a variety of flavors -- butterscotch, raspberry, and lime. "They'll grab little things."

Next door, at the Dutch Epicure bakery, baker Mike Ciola, the owner and operator, said customers haven't cut back on purchases of bread and pastries, at least on the retail side of the business.

"The fancy restaurants are slower," he said of his wholesale trade.

Ciola said customers say they'd rather spend a little more at the bakery and cut back somewhere else.

"I'll deprive myself of something, but not the bread and pastries," the baker said he hears.

It's been the same for "special occasion" orders, large cakes for weddings, graduations, birthdays, and other special events.

Likewise, the regulars who stop in for a single pastry, Ciola's signature Swiss Florentine, for example, haven't changed their buying habits, the baker said.

Meanwhile, Ciola has had to tighten his own belt. To deal with a decline in restaurant orders, he cut back his staff early in the year.

"We're a little leaner," Ciola said. "We have less staff and we're working a little harder."

Since February, however, business has been improving.

On a recent sunny afternoon between waiting on customers, Perry said, "The current outlook is better."

Perry, who sells a high-end ice cream as well as ice cream cakes and cupcakes, iced coffee drinks and milkshakes, said he considers his ice cream an affordable luxury, and he backs that up with an offer that's hard to resist. "We call it the 10-minute vacation," he said of the tasting bar where customers are invited to taste tiny spoonfuls of dozens of flavors before deciding what they want to order.

Nineteen-year-old Ryan Navarro, a mechanical engineering student at Daniel Webster College, was headed into a Nashua Dunkin' Donuts the other day.

Asked about his buying habits in recent months, the student said he makes coffee at home more than he used to and is also traveling less.

"I'm going to the movies more often, instead of taking trips," he said, adding that his classmates have also made changes to accommodate their shrinking wallets.

"We're all in the same boat, not much money."

Credit: The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.