From the December, 2018 issue
Standing over a cauldron of melted chocolate, Charlie Frank says approvingly, "It has a great shine! It's dark. It's behaving!"
In the frenzied holiday season, Zingerman's head candymaker does his best to make his confections behave. One second of distraction can result in something burning or spilling over-and that can be dangerous as well as frustrating. "You're working with something well over three hundred degrees Fahrenheit," says Frank, a fit, friendly fifty-two-year-old whose apron tops a slightly smeared T-shirt reading "Better Cakes Make Better Birthdays."
"Be sure you're careful," he advises. About two years ago, he recalls, a pot of boiling peanut brittle spilled and burned his thumb, leaving a blister that "took weeks to heal."
Visitors to the small Zingerman's candy store on Plaza Dr. can press their faces to the glass partition and watch Frank and his confectioners at work in what they call the Candy Manufactory. Today, they are rolling out trays of peanut brittle. It's Zingerman's most popular holiday candy by far. About 25 percent of the Manufactory's sales come in the last six weeks of the year, and by New Year's Eve, the candymakers will have produced between three and four tons of the sweet, crunchy stuff, to be shipped to businesses and homes across the country.
Frank and his crew also produce about 200,000 candy bars a year-all of them Frank's original creations. The Original Zzang! bar, described as the "classic candy bar combination of peanuts, caramel and chocolate," is still the most popular, but there are four other flavors as well.
Frank has a special feeling for the Peanut Butter Crunch bar, because he created it for his wife, Katie Frank. She loved Reese's cups, he recalls, and "I told her 'I think I can do better than that.'" The couple met when she hired in as a manager at Zingerman's Bakehouse; today, she's a consultant at ZingTrain, Zingerman's workplace-training service. Married ten years, they have three young boys-a five-year-old and
Frank takes pride in being a candy artisan. "Candy made by the billions can't be great," he says, referring to supermarket treats like, well, Reese's. By producing candy in small batches, he explains, he can maintain control of everything from the quality of the nuts to the final sheen of chocolate.
A 1989 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Frank was a pastry chef at various restaurants before he hired on at Zingerman's Bakehouse in 2001. A year later, he began making candy there. The Candy Manufactory became a full-fledged member of the Zingerman's Community of Businesses in 2010, with Frank as managing partner. It moved into its current space last year.
Changing from baked goods to candy was not dramatic, he says, noting that in the past confectioners--a word he regrets isn't used more--did both. "Cookies and cakes--that's 'soft' confectionary," compared to the "hard" confectionary of candy, he explains. "I'm using sugar, butter, and chocolate--[bakers are] using sugar, butter, and chocolate. It's what you do with it."
Frank grew up in Romeo, north of Detroit. His father was a clay modeler at the GM Tech Center, his mother was a potter, and theirs was what would now be called a foodie household-though the term hadn't been coined yet.
The family grew its own tomatoes and picked berries. His mother was a talented cook and baker who "made us all bake our own birthday cakes," Frank recalls. And like most kids, he loved sweets. Every week after his piano lesson, he'd go to Felig's candy store downtown and carefully choose fifty cents' worth of treats. He bought a lot of Swedish Fish and strips of candy dots--"I was into volume and to fill that brown paper bag!"--and occasionally splurged on a candy bar.
Full-time candy making is tough, physical work, Frank emphasizes. He's careful to stay in shape through exercise and a healthy diet--he and his family consume his treats "in moderation." His good health helps him make it through the long weeks before New Year's; he also tries to ease the stress of the other bakers through antics like "Fun Fridays," when they joke back and forth while working.
After the Times Square ball drops, he says, the tired confectioners "can chill out a bit"--but not for long. Says Frank, "For us in the candy world, you start looking out for Valentine's Day."
[Originally published in December, 2018.]
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