Heading to Boothbay Harbor this summer like they do every year from home in Holderness, New Hampshire to their standing reservation at Brown’s Wharf Inn, Steve and Ellen Jackson were disappointed to see Big’s Al’s Super Values store on Route 1, Wiscasset was closed and for lease. Ellen, who has taught elementary school 35 years in New Hampshire, always stopped at Big Al’s to stock up on school supplies, her husband said.
Then July 24, Steve Jackson’s 55th birthday, he was out watching the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club Regatta when a friend suggested Jackson open a candy store at the old Big Al’s. Jackson has had other candy stores in his career which started with selling baseball cards and their bubble gum to pay for college at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Jackson studied business, then left before getting a degree because a baseball card company hired him.
He has had a candy distribution business 10 years and, when the pandemic struck in March 2020 and the ski lodges he was selling candy to shut down, he said, “I pivoted” to retail. In two years, he has opened one Sweetz & More retail store each in Tilton, North Conway, Merrimack and Manchester, New Hampshire. Wiscasset will make five. And Jackson said distribution has come roaring back like a lion. It is up 30% from pre-pandemic levels, he said. The distribution center is in Holderness.
“Candy is recession-proof,” because people can afford a piece of candy even when they can’t afford high-ticket items in life, Jackson said in Friday’s phone interview after Wiscasset Newspaper saw the “leased” sign over the “for lease” one.
Jackson said it was very hot in the Midcoast when he recently checked out the building. He noticed it was fairly cool inside, thanks to the building’s extra insulation. Cool is good for candy, Jackson continued.
July 25, Cohen texted Jackson a photo of a car that had pulled into the parking lot. The license plate read “CANDY,” Jackson said. Cohen told Wiscasset Newspaper Friday, for him, seeing that Maine veteran’s plate with that word on it meant leasing to Jackson was “meant to be.” Cohen had been getting offers from numerous types of businesses since January but, he said, since a lease is like a marriage, he held out for leasing to a business and business person he thought would be right for him and Wiscasset. He knew some businesses Wiscasset didn’t need in that spot, and he liked what he saw, heard and bought at the New Hampshire Sweetz & More’s, including Bonomo’s Turkish taffy, a favorite of a friend of Cohen’s.
Cohen recounted being at one of the stores and hearing a 40-ish couple talking. Looking around, the woman’s eyes got big, Cohen said. “And she said to him, ‘Leave me alone and come back in an hour.’” Cohen said he also heard “an 80-year-old woman come in and say, ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven.’”
Children say that at the stores, too, Jackson said. He said his personal motto is “Working hard to make the world a sweeter place.” He wants to make his Wiscasset store “Maine’s sweetest destination.”
Jackson does not have an opening date yet, but is “more and more” moving from his first thought of a seasonal store to keeping it open until January or year round, given Bath Iron Works commuters and others, and Gardens Aglow and Boothbay Lights visitors.
The building’s old carpet is being been pulled up. This has left the concrete Jackson said he may seal and not re-carpet. He explained, this might work best, due to the ice cream and soda he also plans to sell there. He said the business has 40 ice cream flavors and 600 soda flavors. That gives people 24,000 options for floats, he said. There could be a couple tables for enjoying the ice cream inside, and others outside.
In their separate interviews, Jackson and Cohen praised each other’s business accomplishments. And Jackson said, though he had never met Cohen at Big Al’s Super Values when Ellen Jackson would shop there, he is now honored to consider Cohen a friend. And both have served on planning boards: Cohen in Wiscasset; Jackson, in Louden.
Cohen added, his Big Al’s Fireworks store next door and the candy business will each add customers for the other.
Cohen said the lease to Jackson will run at least five years. “This is going to be a local attraction. I think it’s amazing,” Cohen added.
How to get the workers these days? Jackson does not expect a problem filling the about 10 to 15 retail jobs in the retail store that will take up about 8,000 square feet and the about five to 10 jobs in the warehouse or distribution area in the other 5,000 square feet. It is enjoyable work and employees can eat candy, he said. All his New Hampshire stores are fully staffed.
Jackson said he had been concerned by the three-hour drive, but he has a pilot’s license and has already been landing at Wiscasset Municipal Airport. The commute there from a grass strip in Plymouth is an hour, he said.
When Cohen announced last September that his longtime Super Values store would close, Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Mary Ellen Barnes said the store and its well-known TV ads helped put Wiscasset on the map, so it was a loss, but also an opportunity “for new use” there. Hearing from Wiscasset Newspaper Friday inside LCRPC’s office, that the building across the road was set to become a candy store, Barnes said it is a great location for retail, and “I think it’s another sign that Wiscasset is booming. To me it is, you’ve got different businesses opening up or changing hands. To me, thats’s a healthy economy in town.”
Barnes said she would look forward to visiting the store to buy gifts for friends and family.
The Jacksons have six grown children – “none in the candy business, yet” – Steve Jackson said, and four grandchildren. When he was growing up in the town of Norway, his family would vacation in Boothbay Harbor. Ten years ago, he and Ellen started the tradition anew.