Chow Town

Modern-day candy land in Hyde Park has delicious twist

Updated: 2013-08-12T19:40:18Z

By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN

It begins something like this.

You wake up Monday morning and begin managing the week, deflecting the inevitable avalanche of emails like some Hollywood superhero, fielding voicemails with lightning speed and politeness and deleting items on your checklist in order of priority, shuttling kids to more sports practices than Olympic athletes in training attend in five days.

Then the week ends with a thump and grumpy whimper.

Defeated by the very technology whose goal is to make you hyper-efficient, your to-do list is in a crumpled state of confusion and there are enough unanswered emails and voicemails to make you feel guilty until the circus starts again on Monday.

The kids’ sports schedule looms heavy, like clouds threatening your last summer weekend at the lake.

Even regular coffee breaks Monday through Friday don’t sufficiently relieve us of the anxiety of being a citizen of the 21st Century. Seems we require more than Prozac, after-work cocktails and yoga sessions to make our broken spirits limber.

We need something sweet.

Luckily a modern-day candy land with a delicious twist in Hyde Park can soothe our rattled nerves.

Bitterman’s Eye Candy and Vintage Market is a confectionery pit stop promising a moment of sublime truth: There’s no problem too prickly that can’t be solved with triple-coated chocolate malt balls.

Or strawberry gummy pigs, for that matter.

Last Friday afternoon, following a harried week that included waging battle with a stomach virus, I shut out the world and ventured into Bitterman’s at 3107 Gillham Road for a little sugar therapy.

Leslie Bitterman, third generation candy purveyor of a tradition that began with her grandfather Bernard selling peanuts in the Rivermarket 77 years ago, greeted me and immediately began plying me with samples.

She also shared her preference for an attitude adjustment as though it was classified information.

“A handful of dark chocolate-covered cashews,” she whispered.

A second favorite — Coconut Curry Cashews — seems like an oddball choice and to sway my opinion she pulled a crinkly cellophane bag filled with banana-yellow treats from the shelf of a vintage fixture spanning half the wall of Bitterman’s candy showroom and vintage emporium.

“These are trendy — they would be a terrific dessert following a Thai dinner,” Leslie said.

The obliging sweet goddess sprinkled a couple of plump pieces of candy into my hand. I drop one onto on my tongue and it sits, per Leslie’s solemn instructions, until the coating begins to dissolve and I pick up the cashew’s saltiness.

“Candy isn’t meant to be just chewed and swallowed,” she said. “It must be enjoyed.”

Bitterman’s mantra of “Have a Sweet Day®,” emblazoned on every bag of candy sitting on shelves or nestled into some sort of eclectic display designed by Alan, is not to be taken lightly.

The family — including Leslie, her father Alan, mother Marilyn and brother Stuart — proudly carries the torch of selling candy to the masses and putting smiles on faces.

“Really, who doesn’t love candy,” Leslie asked as I spied a little girl shopping the aisles of Bitterman’s with her parents, decked out in a pink dress while clutching a pink lollipop and grinning from ear-to-ear.

Point taken.

Known as a custom packaging confection distributor, Bitterman Family Confections ships candy to clients around Kansas City and nationwide — places like Bruce Smith Drugs and Tiffany Town Hallmark store in Prairie Village, hospital gift shops, restaurants and museum gift shops like Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum.

They package sour balls, fruity candy, chocolates, gumballs, gummy worms, nut mixes and more — bushels more, according to the goodies listed in their extensive catalog.

Bitterman’s carries KC’s beloved Valomilk candies and Cherry Mash, produced in St. Joseph. They are a Harry and David distributor and stock more than 300 varieties of sweet-tooth satisfiers, including classic throwbacks like candy necklaces and ruby-red lips, smiley-faced gum and boardwalk taffy.

“We sell candy by the truckloads,” assured Leslie, who started working in the business at age 5, learning how to count change from gumball machines, and is now in charge of Bitterman’s sales force.

Bitterman’s has happily hopscotched throughout Kansas City over the decades, initially operating in the Rivermarket until relocating and opening a retail store on 31st Street where popular Martini Corner restaurants The Drop and Tower Tavern reside today. They then moved to 17th and Oak, near The Kansas City Star.

Although it closed to the public in 1999, Bitterman’s continued its strong wholesale operation in new digs on Gillham.

Marilyn came up with the priceless idea of combining candy with cool vintage items and hanging a retail shingle. Bitterman’s reopened with a flair in the burgeoning Hyde Park neighborhood in October 2012.

“This neighborhood is coming alive,” said Leslie. “There are 10 restaurants like Succotash within walking distance and more to come and a coffee shop, The Filling Station. The weekly flea market across the street, Cowtown Mallroom, draws hundreds each Sunday. We get moms in here with strollers and corporate execs and families.”

Now those shoppers can choose their favorite candy, create custom favors for parties, weddings and corporate functions, order candy centerpieces, plan candy buffets for special events, browse clothing, glassware, handmade jewelry and local art and even chow down on fresh-baked cupcakes from Kansas City Cupcake Co.

On a tour around the space, Leslie paused in front of an old candy scale piled high with antique candy boxes. A Mad Hatter-like chandelier straight out of Alice in Wonderland illuminated the display.

“You never know what you’ll find here,” winked Leslie.

Mesmerized by a colorful 1950s-era Kewpie Doll pinball machine, I stop, chewing a gummy cow Leslie thrust into my hand.

“We have a customer who loves to come in, eat candy and play,” she said. “It reminds him of growing up.”

Bitterman’s hosts private events, too, including book clubs and wine groups.

“At night this place is magical,” said Leslie as she motioned to Christmas lights strung around columns and myriad chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.

As the Bitterman’s released me back out onto the street armed with enough candy to get me through the weekend, I wonder aloud how much candy Leslie consumes during the day.

“Oh, I don’t or I could never stop,” she said. “But at night it's a different story.”

So there you have it — precisely what Bitterman’s Eye Candy & Vintage Market peddles: an over-the-counter potion of magic and memories that has nothing to do — and everything to do — with the hurly-burly world outside its doors.

Bitterman’s is open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Thursday – Sunday. Check out Bitterman’s Eye Candy & Vintage Market on Facebook for product and event info.

Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.

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