Since 1916, Milwaukee-based Buddy Squirrel has been producing premium chocolate confections, roasted nuts, and gourmet popcorn with quality and artisanal care at the core of every recipe. Today Buddy Squirrel still produces more than 250 items entirely in-house in its 60,000-square-foot factory in St. Francis, Wisconsin, just a few blocks from the Milwaukee airport. Buddy Squirrel’s broad range of products is sold across four retail outlets in Wisconsin, as well as a flagship factory outlet store and hundreds of wholesale accounts. The company even offers private-label manufacturing services for several Wisconsin gift companies.
While the bulk of business is in the Midwest, Buddy Squirrel’s carefully crafted chocolates, roasted nuts and popcorn are sought after by customers as far as California, Texas, and the East Coast. And the company has recently been named a finalist in the Best of Milwaukee 2015 contest for Best Chocolatier.
The old-world way
What makes Buddy Squirrel so popular today is the distinguished difference in the level of quality in its products. “We are excited to be celebrating our 100-year anniversary in 2016,” says Dick Kerndt, president of Buddy Squirrel. “Our recipes are from long ago — the old-world style way, often in small batches, but we continue to make them more modern as tastes change. Making more than 250 items, we’re not high volume, nor a low-cost type of mass producer. Our price point is higher because we’re on the premium end with a broad breadth of products all manufactured with high-quality ingredients.”
The basis for the business began more than a century ago when Polish immigrants Joseph Helminiak and his wife, Lottie Helminiak, began their own small candy-making company — Quality Candy. The young couple began selling fine chocolates on the cobblestone streets of West Mitchell Street in the early days of one of Milwaukee’s most popular shopping districts.
The business quickly grew and added several retail locations. With more stores and rising demand for Joseph and Lottie’s confections, Quality Candy moved to a larger space on South 5th Street in 1952 and remained in this location until 1985.
“Later on in Quality Candy’s history, the company merged with a popcorn and nut company called Buddy Squirrel,” recounts Kerndt. “When the two companies joined, Buddy Squirrel became the recognized brand, although ‘Quality Candy’ is still the third or fourth key word search that gets consumers to our website.”
Today Buddy Squirrel’s operations encompass four production lines and the company has the capabilities to roast nuts, make premium chocolates and flavored gourmet popcorn all in one facility. “We have enrobing lines running every day; sometimes it’s the same product on all four lines and sometimes there’s a different item running on each line,” explains Kerndt.
Out of 250 items there’s a sweet or savory option to satisfy any preference, but Kerndt says there are some popular products that make up Buddy Squirrel’s core business. “We’re known for our award-winning butter almond toffee that we’ve been making from scratch in copper kettles since 1916,” he says.
Buddy Squirrel uses only the finest ingredients to make its butter almond toffee: sugar, double grade-A butter, fresh almonds and pure, Swiss-style milk chocolate. The result: nutty, buttery goodness.
“Another popular item is our Pecan Caramel Tads [turtles],” says Kerndt. “We make our own smooth, buttery rich caramel and pour it over crispy, freshly-roasted pecans and then drench it all in pure Swiss-style chocolate.”
Chocolate lovers also enjoy Buddy Squirrel’s sea salt caramels, cherry cordials and mint meltaways. “We’re also famous for our Fairy Food sponge candy,” adds Kerndt.
This old-world treat has a delicate and airy, yet crunchy texture. Made out of whipped molasses, Fairy Food is a favorite. “At Easter, we sell tens of thousands of boxes of whipped crème eggs,” says Kerndt. Buddy Squirrel’s original whipped crème eggs are made of smooth Swiss-style milk chocolate covering a cloud-like marshmallow center. This product is also available in vanilla, raspberry and mint.
Keep on munching
Beyond sweets and chocolates, Buddy Squirrel crafts a range of gourmet popcorn. “We have our signature Cheddar Cheezzzy Cheese Corn and also caramel, white cheddar and other mixed flavors,” says Kerndt. “We make our own caramel, pop our own corn and the cheese that goes on our Cheddar Cheezzzy Cheese Corn is 100 percent real Wisconsin cheddar. Most cheese popcorn you’ll find on the shelf at other stores is made with an artificial cheese powder spray — that’s not how we do it. Our process is a bit intensive. We use a panning machine and when the cheese is melted we tumble it with the freshly popped corn to coat it.”
While the traditional items at Buddy Squirrel remain go-to treats for customers, Kerndt says the company isn’t afraid to step outside of the box a bit. “We’re always trying new things,” he says. “We have new toffee popcorn with whole almonds and dark chocolate drizzle coming out soon. We’re also looking at making more dark chocolate items with higher percent cacao, for people who want to indulge in dark chocolate for antioxidant health benefits.”
Buddy Squirrel is also returning to its roots by reintroducing the Joseph and Lottie candies with mini bite-sized items of a dozen or so of its most popular confections. For Buddy Squirrel, sticking to a tradition of premium quality, carefully crafted products is key, but as the company rounds out 100 years in business new items are making for sweet success too.