Paul Wilson: It's already Christmas in Hamilton, Canada's candy-cane capital

In an old brick factory on the other side of the tracks, they're cooking up the bulk of this country's candy canes – enough for every man, woman and child.

In an old brick factory on the other side of the tracks, they're cooking up the bulk of this country's candy canes – enough for every man, woman and child

Samuel Singh is vice-president of Karma Candy. In the old factory behind him, at the end of the Emerald foot bridge over the tracks, they make more candy canes than anywhere else in Canada. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

We don’t make tires in this town anymore. Or laundry soap, farm equipment, elevators, vacuum cleaners. Those factories have been gone for years.

But we still know how to crank out the candy.

Reader's Digest has put out a list of "13 Awesome Things You Didn’t Know Were Made In Canada." The best baseball bats, best racing bicycles, even best cymbals.

And then there are Swedish fish. Don’t go looking for a factory in Sweden. It’s right here, the Digest reports, in Hamilton. Swedish fish are candy. They come in many colours and they don’t taste like fish. The Hamilton plant, just off Main in the west end, hatches five billion a year, enough for the entire North American market.

Wendy Reeves is a happy shopper. She got all this at the Karma Candy factory store for eight bucks. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Though it didn’t make the Reader's Digest list, there is another big candy story to be told in Hamilton.

It’s not exactly a secret. After all, the Food Network is going there on Friday to shoot a segment for its Food Factory show.

Other side of the tracks

But Karma Candy is a little off the beaten track, at the end of an old pedestrian bridge over the tracks at Emerald North.

I wandered around this neighbourhood the other day while they were giving my 13-year-old Honda its annual rustproof treatment. I walked past the old brick building that is Karma Candy and saw a woman at a door marked Candy Store.

"I’d never been in there," Wendy Reeves told me. "I got excited." She had an armload of chocolate hearts and cream eggs. Total cost, $8. She’ll be back. Candy Store hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to four.

Frank Raso, 74, knows candy. And retirement is nowhere in sight. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Samuel Singh, vice-president of Karma Candy, kindly agrees to conduct a little tour right on the spot.

One thing you should understand. It’s already Christmas here on Emerald Street. Has been for several months.

Christmas means candy canes. Big ones, small ones. And nobody in the country makes more candy canes than Karma. They produce 30 to 40 million. Doesn’t matter what store you go into, chances are that cane was made right here.

From cans to candy

Karma Candy isn’t a well-known name. Not like Cadbury or Mars. The reason is that the products coming off the line here end up with other brand names on them.

Singh can’t say which ones – except for the Warhead line. (I’m not big on candy canes, but can now recommend the Warhead sour ones. Maybe factory fresh makes a difference.)

They honour the history here at Karma. In the beginning, a century ago, this was the site of American Can and there is a big aerial photo in the lobby of the plant. It was a huge structure – some of it gone now – and 600 once worked here.

It went from cans to candy in 1961, with the arrival of Allan Candy. There is a man on staff at Karma who knows the history, because he’s been here for all of it. Frank Raso is 74. He’s director of business development, and for younger staff eyeing his job, he has these words: "I love the candy business. I will never retire."

Lollipops are one product that comes off the line all year long at Karma Candy. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

"We pick his brain every day," says Singh, whose father bought the operation three years ago. It employs about 170.

Father arrived from India at age 16, worked his way up from the candy department of the Towers chain and now owns an 80,000-square-foot candy distribution warehouse in Oakville. The Hamilton plant was a good fit.

A candy cane is complicated

It’s a business of razor-thin margins. And there is much that can go wrong. With candy canes, for instance, the temperature, humidity, striping, colours, flavour all have to be just right. And the hook has to be shaped just so.

Get anything wrong, and those canes go in the scrap box and Christmas comes early out on the pig farm. The recipe for a good candy cane, by the way, is sugar, then more sugar.

Every candy cane has to be perfect. This product didn't measure up, but somewhere there will be happy livestock. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

They make Easter bunnies here too, a couple of million. That’s in October. Valentine’s comes to Karma in September. And lollipops are all year round.

Amanda Montreuil lives right across the street from Karma and has two children, Nate, 4, and Abby, 3. There are trips to the Candy Store every week.

"And sometimes," Amanda says, "I might be playing outside with the kids and somebody just comes over from the factory and gives us candy." Does life get any sweeter?

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.