When the representative from a Madison Avenue jewelry store called the McKeesport Candy Co., she wasn't craving chocolate. She didn't want their signature Brach's candy, or their hard-to-find vanilla Tootsie rolls. She wanted pearls.
Jon Prince, the company's president, had just the thing.
In the city-block-sized warehouse of the McKeesport Candy Co., Mr. Prince, of Squirrel Hill, keeps a shelf stocked with industrial-sized bags of gumballs. They come in traditional colors like pink and red, but he also stocks them in lime green, shimmer-blue and, yes, even a pearlescent white.
Mr. Prince sold the department store around 200 pounds of them.
For more than half a century, McKeesport Candy, which has been in business since 1927, did business by supplying bulk candy to independent grocery stores. The company also owned several retail locations scattered throughout Pittsburgh.
The advent of the Internet, though, allowed the business to get into a much quirkier game: the selling of retro, novelty and themed candy, like the gumballs that eventually graced the Madison Avenue store's stylish display.
In late 2001, the company closed its last retail store in order to focus solely on Internet sales, and the decision has paid off.
Today, hard-to-find candies are the backbone of McKeesport Candy's business, and the website, www.candyfavorites.com, is the top organic result on Google for "wholesale candy."
McKeesport Candy opened its first website, the now-defunct mckandy.com, in 1998, long before most small businesses had bought into the Internet craze. At the time, the company called itself the "fundraising candy specialists," and sold almost exclusively to customers in Western Pennsylvania.
Except for some stock images of candy bars and a link to an order brochure, mckandy.com didn't offer much. The company's office, said Mr. Prince, wasn't even equipped with an Internet connection.
Then they got a call from a woman who wanted to place an order. She'd seen the site and wanted some Brach's ice-blue mints.
"How are we supposed to get it to you? You're in West Virginia," Mr. Prince remembers telling her, baffled.
But they packed up the mints and sent them to her via UPS. It was a revelation, he said, about what the business could become. Soon after, McKeesport Candy began offering candy for sale on the Web. Mr. Prince believes it was only the second candy company to do so.
That the company's first-ever Internet order was for sweets made by Brach's, one of the oldest candy companies in the country, was a sign of things to come. McKeesport Candy had been carrying Brach's since its inception, when Mr. Prince's grandfather, Ernest Prince, operated the business out of the back of his truck.
"We sold retro candy before it was retro," said Mr. Prince.
When so-called "nostalgic" candy became popular in the mid-2000s, demand for Brach's surged, and McKeesport Candy's online business did, too. Brach's candies, the most well-known of which are candy corn and individually wrapped golden butterscotch discs, are now among the company's bestsellers.
So, too, are retro favorites like Clark Bars, a onetime Pittsburgh institution now manufactured by Necco, and marshmallow-filled Mallo Cups, which hail from nearby Altoona.
The sales of retro and novelty candy wouldn't be possible without the innovative design of McKeesport Candy's current website, which was launched in 2000 to replace mckandy.com.
Picking up on the popularity of candy nostalgia, Mr. Prince came up with the idea of offering candy sorted by decade, from Brach's, which is "pre-1919," to Bonomo taffy from the World War II-era and Pop Rocks from the 1970s.
Mr. Prince said he is constantly updating and changing the website to pick up on new trends, especially the retro candy craze. Most items available for sale on candyfavorites.com are accompanied by a brief history of the sweet. An informational section of the website offers candy timelines, facts and images of nostalgic candy ads.
The "History of Candy" part of the website brings in large amounts of traffic, said Mr. Prince. A page that displays colorful magazine ads for Brach's from the 1950s and '60s, for example, links to a page where the wrapped candy can be bought in bulk.
Sales from the website now allow the company, which employs around 20 people depending on the season, to ship out several hundred packages of candy every day.
Though Mr. Prince once balked at a single out-of-state customer, he now ships boxes to every corner of the country and even the globe. A load of hard-to-find red, white and blue Tootsie rolls recently made their way to London for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Though Mr. Prince is the brains behind candyfavorites.com, it is his longtime general manager Tom Griffin, who has been with the company for more than 40 years, who keeps the stock fresh.
"We'll try anything once," he said.
He searches catalogues for anything that looks new and exciting, with a soft spot, said Mr. Prince, for whimsy. A whole section of the warehouse stocks strange novelty candies geared towards kids, like candy dog bowls, edible cell phones and even candy toilets.
"The grosser, the better," Mr. Griffin said.
But the bestsellers are a constant, said Mr. Griffin. "People will always love their Snickers bars and Reese's cups."
Mr. Prince cut in. "I've never even tasted a Snickers," he said. "Just never seemed exciting enough."
Molly Hensley-Clancy: email@example.com or 412-263-1410.