In today’s fast-paced and increasingly impersonal society, relics of a time when quality and customer service were more important than efficiency are scarce. But when you step into Conrad’s Confectionery, in downtown Westwood, New Jersey, you have a chance to experience the way things used to be. No wonder Conrad’s, founded in 1928, is the oldest business in Westwood and one of the oldest in New Jersey. For three generations, Conrad’s has been serving homemade ice cream and candy the old fashioned way. And while they have added some 21st century innovations, like the Internet and a credit card machine, they are still the small, family-owned business they always were, producing micro-batch ice cream and chocolates with a passion for detail and quality.
Fred Conrad, was born in South Africa to a German mother and an English father. After the death of his parents, Conrad moved to Germany to be raised by his mother’s brother. In 1922, he left for the United States, arriving in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he began work in the confectionery business of a fellow German named Hollinger. Working with Hollinger during the day, Conrad attended evening classes in New York City to learn the chocolate-making process. When Conrad was ready to open a business of his own, he left Hoboken for the suburbs of Bergen county. His intention was to open his store in Oradell, the end of the train line that ran from New York City, or so he thought. When some of his best customers came from Westwood, a larger town farther north, he realized that he was mistaken in thinking nothing existed to the north but farms. After a visit to Westwood, he knew it was the type of town where his business would thrive. He stayed in Oradell during the Depression years, and then, when he was financially able to do so, moved to Westwood in 1935.
At the time there were nine soda fountains in Westwood serving ice cream sodas and sundaes. Every drug and stationery store had a fountain where soda jerks made egg creams and malteds. After the movies, everyone headed to a soda fountain to share an ice cream soda or dip into a sundae. Conrad combined the soda fountain model with his homemade candy business and quickly became a Westwood tradition. School children stopped by for an ice cream cone on the way home from school, and young couples on a date would share a booth in the back. Conrad’s chocolate confections became a staple in many a household’s holiday traditions.
When Fred Conrad moved his business to Westwood in 1935, Jim Pouletsos, the first owner of what would be three generations of family owners, was just graduating from Westwood High School. Having lived in Westwood since 1924, Pouletsos had worked in many of the Westwood fountains during his high school days and was an experienced “counter boy.” After high school he had a hard-to-come-by job in New York City earning $12 a week as an office boy, but when Conrad heard about his fountain experience, he offered him $18 a week. Pouletsos started work at Conrad’s the next morning and never looked elsewhere for employment. After serving in World War II, he returned to his old job at Conrad’s and became part owner. When Fred Conrad retired in 1960, Pouletsos and his business partner, Kenny Fournier, bought the business. In 1979, he bought out Fournier and became sole owner. Pouletsos retired in 1985, selling the business to his daughter and son-in-law, Corinne and John Krachtus. In 2008, JJ Krachtus, John and Corinne’s son, became part owner.
Micro-batch Ice Cream
Although the basic ingredients in Conrad’s homemade ice cream have changed very little since the 1930’s, the process has changed significantly. While electricity could be used to mix the ingredients, refrigeration in the 1930’s could not accommodate the low temperatures necessary to make ice cream. Pouletsos learned to make ice cream using the old ice and salt system. In the basement of the store, wearing rubber gloves, boots, and an apron, Pouletsos would load 10-12 blocks of ice from Dominick Viapiano’s Westwood Ice Company into a large ice crusher. He would then pour the ice cream mixture into a 10-gallon metal cylinder, encased in a larger wooden tub, at the core of the machine. Scooping the crushed ice with a shovel, Pouletsos would fill the space between the cylinder and tub. However, ice alone was not cold enough to make the mixture freeze in the cylinder, so rock salt was spread on the ice to make it melt more quickly. In 1938, Conrad purchased a batch freezer. Ice cream could be made in batches using refrigeration to keep the mixture cold. The finished soft ice cream was then placed in a hardening cabinet for 18-24 hours until it had frozen solid.
Conrad’s homemade ice cream is still made with the same quality ingredients using the same batch method. Pouletsos taught his son-in law, John, who taught his son, JJ. Today, JJ Krachtus makes the various flavors batch by batch at the machine in the store’s basement. Ingredients such as chocolate chips, nuts, and fruit are mixed in by hand while the finished ice cream is still soft. Ice cream connoisseurs can taste the quality of Conrad’s ice cream due its high butterfat content and the richness of the basic ingredients. In other words, it’s delicious and vastly different from what you would buy in a grocery store or in many chain ice cream stores.
Each year when autumn finally arrives and the air turns colder, John Krachtus and his son, JJ begin a candy-making process that will continue through the busy Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter holidays. Although the candy making industry itself has seen many innovations in production techniques, Conrads’ candy is still made in the time-honored fashion learned by Fred Conrad and passed on through Jim Pouletsos to his son-in-law, John and to John’s son JJ.
Fifty-pound cases of ten pound blocks of solid chocolate are regularly delivered to the store from the Merckens mill in Massachusetts. Two and a half tons of chocolate are used for Easter alone! Merckens produces ten different formulas of chocolate. Higher cocoa butter content means better quality. Conrad’s uses Merckens top-quality chocolate, which is rich in cocoa butter.
Using a stainless steel melter located in the store’s basement, John and JJ Krachtus melt the solid chocolate blocks, bringing the liquid up to 115 degrees. The machine then lowers the temperature gradually, tempering the chocolate at 82-83 degrees—the perfect temperature for molding. The chocolate is then poured by hand into tin molds. These molds generally come in two half sections, which are held together by clamps. Once the chocolate cools, the molds are separated and the complete chocolate form remains. Today, plastic molds are available, but Conrad’s still draws from their vast supply of over 100 antique molds to make everything from the traditional chocolate Easter bunny to chocolate ipods and even the leg lamp from the popular Christmas movie, A Christmas Story. Each mold is then individually hand-decorated with additional melted chocolate, used like glue, so that ribbons, sprinkles, flowers, etc. will stick.
In addition to molded chocolate, Conrad’s makes a large assortment of chocolates sold by the pound, such as caramels, jellies, creams, turtles, and dozens of others. The “insides” of these candies are all handmade using only the finest ingredients, then covered in chocolate on the premises.
Every year since the opening of the store, Conrad, then Pouletsos, and now the Krachtuses have fired up the confection furnace, a single gas burner on short legs that holds an antique copper bowl. Into the bowl goes 15 pounds of granulated sugar, one pound of corn syrup, one teaspoon of cream of tarter, and water. The mixture cooks for a half hour and is stirred with a wooden paddle as it begins to boil. When the mixture has finished cooking, John and JJ Krachtus pour the sticky syrup onto an oiled stainless steel table. Pipes under the table are filled with cold water to cool the candy as they, wearing thick leather gloves, knead the hot mix with metal spatulas. Adding red and green coloring to two of the corners, they then separate the colored section, pulling and stretching them.
While John continues to pull the red and green pieces, JJ adds oil of peppermint to the main batch, gradually folding the flavoring into the sugar candy. He forms the warm yellowish candy into a large loaf. Then, still wearing the leather gloves, he gathers up the hot mass of candy and folds it over a large hook on the wall. Hard candy, such as candy canes, requires air to get into the candy itself to make it lighter and to give it that bright, fresh sheen. To aerate the candy, he must constantly pull and fold the candy over the hook, stretching the taffy-like warm candy down over the hook, then folding it over onto itself and pulling again. This back-breaking work can only be done by someone who is strong and physically fit. As the candy cools, it becomes firmer and more difficult to pull. Once it reaches the right consistency, the mass, which has now turned white, is brought to a long wooden table and shaped into a rectangular box. John presses the red and green sections onto opposite sides of the box. Running the length of the table is a tin shield inside of which are gas jets. These serve to keep the candy warm so that it can be manipulated. John pulls at one end of the warm candy rectangle, measures a piece against a wooden dowel, snips it off of the main mass, and twirls it to create the familiar red, green, and white design. Farther down the table, Krachtus rolls the individual candy rods to cool them and then forms one end into a hook.
True candy lovers can see and taste the difference between mass-produced and hand-pulled candy canes. Conrad’s candy canes have become a holiday tradition for generations of Conrad’s customers who have come to accept no less than the best.
Conrad’s is truly unique and their customers and community have recognized them: They won 201 magazine’s Best of Bergen Poll in 2008, 2009, and 2011, as well as Bergen Health and Life magazine’s reader choice awards from 2008-2011. Their chocolate bunnies were recently featured on two of Martha Stewart’s Easter shows. Customers, who have grown up on Conrad’s chocolate and ice cream, now bring their children and grandchildren to take part in the delicious tradition. For generations, this family-owned business and its community have shared a special relationship rich in history, nostalgia, and quality.