A Rare Glimpse Inside the Kehr’s Candies Kitchen

The spirit of the season is no sweeter than inside the factory of local confection maker Kehr’s Candies.

Paul Martinka is a real-life Willy Wonka, swapping the top hat for a hairnet and the purple suit coat for an apron. When this otherwise boisterous man talks candy, a stillness settles over his face. He grins, his eyes glowing, and it’s like he’s winding up to share the biggest nugget of wisdom learned in 35 years of making sweets at Kehr’s candy factory (3533 W. Lisbon Ave.).

Instead, he makes a beeline for the cooking room, or kitchen, grabs a certain plastic container, pops it open and holds it close to my face. Caramel corn, made just hours before. The roasty browned butter aroma makes me achingly aware it’s time for lunch. I reach in for a cluster of corn, taking small, measured bites to savor the chewy-crunch and smooth, buttery sweetness.

The candyman looks at me. “It’s so simple, right?” Better than that – it’s flawless.

Kehr’s owner Paul Martinka with a molded Santa battalion; photo by Tom Grimm

The reason I’m here, enveloped in the aroma of warm, melted chocolate, is to observe the enigmatic world of candy creation as the busy holiday production season kicks in.

Kehr’s “factory” resides in a 1910 house on the West Side that once doubled as a retail store, with a vintagey shop (still intact, but now used for storage) in the front room that would get so busy, you’d have to take a number and hop in line.

The Milwaukee Public Market changed the candy-selling model for Kehr’s. Its stall near Thief Wine Shop & Bar is a “million-dollar spot,” says Paul, who landed at Kehr’s as an 18-year-old stock boy. “People are walking past my spot all day, every day.” Paul “fills up a Suburban” for twice-weekly deliveries from the factory to the market.

Pearl and B.D. Kehr founded the business in 1930, focusing first on caramel corn and potato chips, but soon realizing they’d make more money if they added candy, too. In 1941, they opened the Lisbon Avenue storefront, which became their factory. Their son, Bill, carried on the legacy until he sold Kehr’s to Paul, his protégé, in 1995.

The shop, producing 30,000 pounds of chocolate each year, is still known for old-school box assortments and, more so as tastes have changed, specialty candies in the form of sea salt caramels, nut clusters, angel food (chocolate-covered honeycomb, also known as fairy food) and the holiday creations I’m seeing them make today. When I say “them,” I mean Dave O’Keefe and James Ray. As Kehr’s gets deeper into the production crunch, the factory workforce grows by a few sets of hands.

Today, besides Paul, it’s just Dave and James, deep in warm, melted ponds of cocoa paradise while WMSE’s “The Chickenshack” show filters country music through the stereo speakers. Paul, whose fastidious (he calls it “OCD”) attention to cleanliness manifests in this spartan work space, drives in from his farm in Jackson on weekdays at 6 a.m. to temper the chocolate to the shiny, silken consistency perfect for the dipping projects.

Walking from room to room, I see equipment, much of it from the 1940s to the ’70s. Aside from the modern fluorescent lighting, the “cooking room” could still be the one in throwback photos hung on the walls in the old candy shop. Giant, beautifully patinated copper kettles, shelves and tables that have held rugged old mixers, whipping beaters and the like for decades populate the room.

Paul notices my gaze fixed on these long-used baking tools. “Yesterday I was scooping into my bag of brown sugar, and I thought, ‘How many times has this [scoop] been used?’” he says. “But when you start during the [Great] Depression, you use what you have.”

The first festive handiwork I see after being ushered into the factory through an indistinct side door is an assembly area where chocolate discs are getting their crunchy topping. In the cooking room, a sturdy work table holds metal sheets buried under a layer of multi-colored nonpareils – tiny decorative sugar dots. Dave eases warm melted chocolate through a metal funnel to make rows of discs on the nonpareils, before moving on to his next task – filling some of Paul’s impressive collection of old metal Father Christmas molds. The air conditioning is doing its best to push the muggy autumn air outside. Temps are crucial, Paul says, and many candies (caramel corn, peanut brittle) do not respond well to moisture. “The molded chocolates like 60 degrees. Most dipping is done between 63 and 67 degrees. This room I cook in gets hot,” Paul says, also explaining that each cooking kettle “has its own job – a caramel kettle, toffee kettle, chocolate kettle.”

James’ entire focus is on dipping. Seated in a kneeling chair at a small work table outfitted with a rectangular depression to hold the melted goodness, he turns out sheets of meltaways, pecan and raspberry, rolling the solid confections in the pool of warm liquid chocolate spread in thick waves that he uses his plastic-gloved hand continually to knead and smooth.

To his left is a wall covered with magazine clippings and photos of nature scenes and old Hollywood actors like Humphrey Bogart. “James wanted a window on that wall,” Paul says, smiling, “I told him he couldn’t have one, so he put those up.”

So what makes a good candy maker? Paul’s quick quip: “We only hire happy people.” Seriously, it comes down to culinary curiosity. “I love hiring people who love cooking. We’re like bakers, but we’re not. Having a foodie background is important. … And this is a wonderful place to work,” he goes on, laughing and reaching for a pretzel rod just dipped in warm chocolate. “There’s no liquor, no evening hours and you never get yelled at!”

Photo by Tom Grimm
James Ray dips meltaways while Dave O’Keefe fills a mold with chocolate; photo by Tom Grimm
Chocolate discs are given a coating of tiny sugar balls called nonpareils; photo by Tom Grimm

Bean to star

In the Kehr’s Factory on 36th and Lisbon, even the wall clock is from a bygone time. In the front room that used to operate as the confections shop, glass shelves display old candy-making equipment from the turn of the century.

Owner Paul Martinka points to a framed collage of photos – of the shop from back in the day, ladies working the counter near rows of pink and red heart-shaped candy boxes, pics of a younger Paul with his mentor Bill Kehr, and with former employees to whom Paul credits the shop’s success. Their names are Pearl (founder B.D.’s wife), Lauretta, Dolores, Adeline.

This holiday season, Kehr’s is rolling out a series of bean-to-bar chocolates. Unlike the company’s other candies, which are made by blending chocolate from various manufacturers, they’re sourcing the cacao beans and making the chocolate.

After months of collecting the tools needed to make chocolate from the ground nibs, the company will officially step into the bean-to-bar industry with a selection of dark, multi-origin chocolate bars named after Kehr’s iconic “ladies.” It’s all part of Paul’s conviction that, “You gotta keep your ear to the ground and keep changing.”

“Candy Crush” appears in the December 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the December issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 3.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.