Handmade and moulded chocolates and lactose-free/kosher parve confections are among the many niche offerings at Illinois Nut & Candy, where kids are always welcome, repeat customers are common and the community matters.

Even in rush hour traffic, drivers cruising down Dempster Street would be hard-pressed to miss Illinois Nut & Candy, Home of Fantasia Confections, in Skokie. Ill. Located in a small strip mall on the south side of the busy roadway, the retailer’s eye-catching storefront jumps out at passers-by. Candy cane-striped columns support a peppermint awning, which is further complemented by murals of gift-wrapped chocolate boxes on either side.

It looks good enough to eat.

Some have tried, according to store owner David Levine. In fact, children who’ve no doubt seen too much of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have been known to lick the columns in hopes of a sweet taste.

Inside (where kids are treated to actual, edible lollipops), the store is even more mouth-watering. Illinois Nut & Candy pays homage to the obvious … and the unique. Behind the checkout counter lie rows of bulk candy bins containing everything from rock crystals in brightly hued strawberry, orange, lemon, lime, cherry and mint flavors to mixed nuts, including cashews, almonds, pecans and a variety of peanuts.

Custom-moulded chocolates are the calling card of Illinois Nut & Candy.

In front of the counter sit display cases full of Fantasia Confections. They include neatly filled trays of dried fruit and nuts dipped in chocolate as well as chocolate bark, chocolate-nut clusters, peppermint patties and truffles ranging from pomegranate- to amaretto-flavored, all of which are made by chocolatiers in one of two confectionery kitchens in back of the store. So are the retailer’s top-selling taffy apples, English toffee and chocolate-covered pretzels.

“You won’t find a better non-dairy English toffee in the world,” asserts David’s wife, Melissa, who co-owns the business.

Then there are the chocolate-covered kosher marshmallows and homemade cookies, the latter made from old family recipes. The retailer even produces its own popcorn, including butter, caramel and kettle varieties, in numerous colorations.

“You name the color, we’ve done it,” David states.

The confections don’t stop there. Nearby, vertical displays feature hanging bags ofJelly Bellys,Ferrara Panproducts andEda’s sugar-free hard candies, among other branded items, while aPucker Powdermachine allows visitors to conjure up their own sour-flavored mixes. Organic offerings such asPure Funcotton candy andYummy Earthlollipops also have a place here.

So do baking supplies, including half-pound bags of chips in chocolate, white chocolate, peanut butter, butterscotch and cinnamon flavors, as well as sprinkles, among other pre-packaged items.

But wait. There’s more.

Product offerings at Illinois Nut & Candy range from organic cotton candy to handmade, chocolate-covered kosher marshmallows.

Breaking the Mould

When it comes to chocolate, Illinois Nut & Candy has a true forte: custom moulds.

Near the entrance to the store stand tall glass cases full of custom chocolate creations, in every shape imaginable: Eiffel Towers, cars, basketballs, teeth, clowns, bears, houses, toy soldiers, Easter baskets, cats, shoes, hearts, champagne bottles, you name it. The store even produces chocolatedreidels andmenorahs - appropriate offerings given Skokie’s extensive Jewish population.

Corporate clients often turn to Illinois Nut & Candy for items such as these. For example, the retailer once produced chocolate handicap doorbells for a company that specializes in helping businesses become more accessible to the disabled. It’s made chocolate “pests” for an exterminator, chocolate glasses and eye charts for an optical shop, and chocolateHummers for a car dealership - “unique items that help our customers brand themselves and, in turn, us,” David says.

“My goal is to make everyone look good,” he continues. “Whatever you say you want, we’ll make happen. The answer’s never ‘No.’”

One thing David always keeps in mind is budget. He never tries to up-sell someone, Melissa notes, so customers don’t feel like they’ve been taken advantage of. If anything, he “tries to stretch your dollar further,” she adds, “especially now, when people are cutting back.”

Locals also rely upon the retailer for moulded chocolates, whether it’s a bride-to-be interested in chocolate place cards or a shower-giver seeking chocolate baby bottles.

If it does not already own the mould a customer wants, then Illinois Nut & Candy will buy it. And if the shop thinks it can use the mould again, there’s no charge. As a result, the retailer has collected thousands of them.

“My staff jokes that we’re going to have to buy a separate warehouse just for the moulds,” David says.

Illinois Nut & Candy breaks the mould in other ways, as well.

“We’re always trying something new and innovative,” David says.

Case in point: It recently introduced soft serve ice cream, as a sign up front boasts. Cones cost $1.75 for a small and $2.75 for a large, and come in chocolate, vanilla and chocolate-vanilla swirl. Customers also can order sundaes and thick shakes called Razzles. Meanwhile, ice cream cakes, another new offering, can be custom-decorated.

Custom creations are an important part of the mix at Illinois Nut & Candy. For example, shoppers looking to thank a friend or even say they’re sorry can do so with chocolates stamped with meaningful messages. The store also features birthday cake-shaped chocolates with numbers on them.

The retailer recognizes that people often shop by occasion. For example, a corporate client once came in looking for ice blue mints for use at a trade show … and found them. And a customer in Beverly Hills recently ordered red, white and blue chocolates and candies for the Fourth of July.

“One of the things we’re big on around here is color,” David says.

To that end, the retailer even color-codes its selections for easy navigation. Milk chocolates are wrapped in silver. Lactose-free/kosher parve chocolates come in gold boxes. Candy made with dairy is labeled in blue. Lactose-free/kosher parve candy is dressed in pink.

The floorspace at Illinois Nut & Candy is dedicated to kosher confections.

Kosher Confections

Partly because they themselves keep kosher, David and Melissa always are interested in lactose-free finds. Even before they purchased the store, formerly known as Illinois Nut Outlet/Fantasia Confections, back in 2004, it was a kosher establishment. The Levines have since expanded on that theme. (Where else can you find kosher parve gummy sharks from Israel?)

Melissa, who was employed by Illinois Nut Outlet in high school, handles new products and marketing ideas (“the creative stuff,” as David says). She works from home, where she also looks after their one-month-old daughter, Joan, and four-year-old son, Nate (who calls himself “chief chocolate pretzel taster”). Melissa searches events such as theALL CANDY EXPOand one or two gift shows per year as well as the Internet for new innovations, particularly kosher ones, which are easier to find now that manufacturers understand they’re not that difficult to produce. (Contrary to popular belief, David notes, a rabbi doesn’t have to bless the candy; it simply has to be made from certified kosher ingredients.) Plus, “there’s a market for it,” Melissa notes.

Meanwhile, “I live here,” David jokes, indicating the amount of time he spends on Dempster. A former IT specialist/project developer and “dot com refugee,” David has found that those same skills can be applied to a candy environment. Today, he manages two full-time and two part-time kitchen staffers, two full-time and four part-time employees up front, and up to 15 seasonal employees.

“We’re one big team,” David says. “We’re gonna succeed together. We’re gonna fail together.” To that end, David teaches his workers valuable lessons, like how to treat people.

Workers at Illinois Nut & Candy are taught by store owner David Levine to "go that extra mile" for customers.

Service with a Smile

“Customer service is important,” David asserts. But smiling and being polite aren’t enough. You have to “go that extra mile,” he adds, “to keep them coming back” for more. For example, frequent shoppers often are greeted by name.

“It’s all about relationships,” agrees Melissa.

Giving back is another key aspect of customer service for Illinois Nut & Candy. It recently held a blood drive for LifeSource. Participants were rewarded with free ice cream. It also has partnered with Skokie Public Library, giving free ice cream to young readers.

The retailer also keeps its regular customers informed of promotions via a monthly e-newsletter. “Regulars” range from parents looking to send their children camp care packages to kids spending their allowances on sweet treats to babysitters in need of an afternoon activity.

Ideally, the store’s target audience is, as Melissa says, “Somebody who’s going to come back.” And Illinois Nut & Candy does its best to make that happen.

“I want it to be a fun, happy place,” David summarizes. “It’s all about the sweet experience.”

No wonder David thinks of himself as Willy Wonka.

That explains those candy cane columns. Careful, kids. They’re not real. But what’s inside the store more than makes up for that.

Illinois Nut & Candy
Home of Fantasia Confections
3745 W. Dempster
Skokie, Ill. 60076
Phone: 1-847-677-5777

Freebie Fun

The first customer to put a quarter in theWowie Zowiegumball machine at Illinois Nut & Candy and dance along to the crazy music that follows gets a free ice cream cone. Free soft serve also goes to anyone willing to be videotaped while doing that dance for the store’s YouTube channel. The tradition started when an employee, Courtney Bell (below), decided to get down to the sweet sounds of theWowie Zowiewhile dressed as an ice cream cone. Check it out atwww.youtube.com/illinoisnutandcandy.

'Raising the Candy Bar'

U.S. consumers looking to keep their confections kosher need look no further than www.raisingthecandybar.com, where they can purchase the majority of Illinois Nut & Candy’s products.

Kosher confections aren’t the only niched offerings available online. There’s also sugar-, gluten-, casein-, egg-, nut-, corn-, food dye- and lactose-free items as well as organic products. Shoppers can search “Special Occasions” for gifts appropriate for holidays, including Jewish ones such as Rosh Hashanah, Purim, Passover/Pesach and Isaeli Independence Day. Additionally, the Web site categorizes products by color (from pink to gold) and flavor (from acai to whiskey) for even more specific needs.

Although “it’s hard to quantify,” says store owner David Levine, the Internet accounts for about 4.5% of Illinois Nut & Candy’s annual sales. That said, many people find the retailer online before coming in or calling, he explains. Customers have hailed from as far as Hawaii and Alaska. One Christmas, the retailer hit all 50 states by working with a national company.

These are just a few of the ways in which Illinois Nut & Candy is “Raising the Candy Bar.”

Making Candy Rain

When the Make a Wish Foundation approached Illinois Nut & Candy about making a little boy’s dream come true, store owner David Levine didn’t hesitate to lend a hand.

Five-year-old Carter Kettner, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and returning from a long hospital stay, had one wish: “I want it to rain gumballs and for there to be no real food in the world, just candy.” The retailer donated a case and half of gumballs, which Carter’s family turned into candy rain.

“The Sunday he came home was absolute magic,” Levine says. “He stepped outside onto his porch, and there was his wish come true - tons of gumballs falling from the sky. … The look of surprise and delight on his face was just priceless. It was pure joy for everyone involved.”

See it for yourself atwww.you tube.com/illinoisnutandcandy.