Last time: part 1 – What to put on a Chicago-style payoff party menu
Warm greetings on this cold, cold day, fellow roadies! So: did any of those brands on our Route 66 Chicago-style party menu surprise you as being from Chicago? They shouldn’t, if you’re from hereabouts. And yet, only one of them is made anywhere near Route 66 these days; a pity. We thought about including Route 66 Soda (honest, we really, really did; but the company is based in Lebanon, MO and was never a Chicago brand – sorry, guys). Route 66 Beer, on the other hand, was a no-brainer: it’s made a few states west of here, so it’s out of the question. Only one beer brand is actually brewed near Route 66 in Chicago – Lagunitas! – but even though its CEO was born and grew up here, the company is a very recent arrival … and Chicago makes too many good craft brews these days in addition to selling Berghoff’s beer, anyway, so we didn’t want to choose one. You do that. (We also didn’t want to have to choose between Eli’s and Sara Lee cheesecake, so we stuck with other desserts.)
We wrote about Vienna Beef franks and the Chicago-style hot dog recently, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. If you don’t know about Chicago’s Italian beef, though, then Scala’s, Al’s No. 1, and Mr. Beef would all be news to you. Most people order it with fries and Italian lemonade, preferably from Mario’s on Taylor Street. Italian beef originated in Chicago, though nobody remembers quite how. The beef is first oven roasted to rare inside and cooled; then it’s sliced and simmered in a savory beef-broth ‘gravy’ that has oregano and sweet green peppers in it for that characteristic flavor. The gravy’s so good that many folks like their Italian beef ‘wet’ – with the cut-open side of the bread briefly dipped in the gravy before the beef is piled on. You can take your peppers sweet or hot, on the beef or on the side, with or without the hot pickled Italian vegetable mix called giardiniera, which is added for extra oomph. But the bread must be sturdy as well as tasty to stand up to all that, which is why you must use Gonnella bread for Italian beef.
Family-owned Gonnella Baking Co. got its start in 1886 on Chicago’s Near West Side when Allessandro Gonnella bought a small bakery on DeKoven Street and began making bread. Later, he went into business with his three brothers-in-law and began delivering their freshly baked bread by horse-drawn cart. The company is still run by Allessandro’s descendants and their cousins, the Marcuccis (back in 1988, when I had the good fortune to interview the company’s management for the Business Week Newsletter for Family Owned Business, then CEO Lou Marcucci, the nephew of Allessandro’s wife, ran the firm with the assistance of about three dozen family members from three generations and assorted other employees; today, Nick Marcucci is the company president). Bigger than ever, the company delivers fresh bread to Italian-beef stands and groceries throughout Chicagoland and makes frozen dough products sold to grocery chains throughout the Midwest and elsewhere that can then bake and sell them as ‘house’ brands. The frozen products division is based in northwest suburban Schaumburg, and the company’s HQ is there now, too; the big Chicago Avenue plant in the city is still there, another facility is located in west suburban Aurora, and the company now has a plant in Hazle Township, PA as well. Like Vienna Beef, Gonnella has provided trademark signage to the Italian beef, hot dog and sandwich stands that use its bread.
Garrett’s Popcorn has been a Chicago institution since 1949. The first Garrett’s store was at 10 W. Madison St., as close to the center of downtown Chicago as you can get. There’s been a shop at State Street and Jackson Boulevard/Route 66 since the 1950s; today it’s across the street at 27 W. Jackson. This lovingly glazed popcorn ain’t your paltry Cracker Jack – Garrett’s is made fresh daily. It’s gourmet munching compared to the plebeian Jack or grocery-store Poppycock: in Garrett’s classic version, called CaramelCrisp, buttery-rich caramel, not too sweet, generously enrobes freshly popped popcorn and just begs you to dig into it. The treat comes in several varieties, the most popular being the Chicago Mix, a 50-50 blend of classic CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn (you must try it – outstanding; often copied, never bested). The CaramelCrisp also comes in a variety of nut mixes – almond, cashew, pecan, macadamia and (our favorite!) hazelnut, a special blend that is made every so often, not daily. Ditto the Spicy CheeseCorn. It’s air popped, too, therefore greaseless. You can also get the plain salted version; but honestly, why bother when the other variations are so good? Luckily, you don’t have to buy the enormous 6.5-gallon tin: you can also get a small snack-sized bag that fits nicely in your hand for a treat without overdoing it. There are many bag and tin sizes in between, also several locations around town as well as a stand at Union Station, the Northwestern station at 500 W. Madison, plus Navy Pier and in O’Hare Airport’s domestic terminals 1 and 3. Garrett’s is mandatory at any playoff party.
Frango mints you know for sure if you ever shopped at Marshall Field & Company before Macy’s bought it. Frangos have been a well-loved Chicago treat and a part of the city for almost as long as Route 66, ever since Field’s acquired the Seattle-area Frederick & Nelson department stores in 1929. The Frango was originally a frozen mousse dessert with a flaky texture, and from that other Frango products were developed, including pies and fountain drinks. In 1918, Frederick & Nelson hired a famous candy maker to create the chocolate mint truffles we know and love today. The moment Field’s bought the chain 11 years later, a candy chef was sent from Seattle to Chicago to train the confectioners at the State Street store’s 13th-floor kitchen in the art of Frango making. Frango mints gained widespread fame as the most recognized Field’s item and were made in the State Street candy kitchen until it closed in 1999. By that time, the demand for Frango mints had so outstripped the State Street kitchen’s ability to supply enough chocolates that a company in Dunmore, PA (Gertrude Hawk Chocolates) was making most of the candies. Such was the hue and cry over the State Street kitchen’s closing, however, that years later, Macy’s agreed to bring back some of that candy-making capacity to Chicago and to the State Street kitchens to partially mollify irate Marshall Field’s fans, who are still steaming about that takeover (see note below about Cupid Candies). The original Frango mint is still far and away the most popular flavor, but double chocolate, raspberry, caramel, and dark chocolate are also popular (I like passion fruit, almond, and raspberry; you may differ). Seasonal and special occasion flavors – such as passion fruit in the summer and candy cane in winter – are also made, as are dark mint and sugar-free versions and other Frango-flavored products.
The Kool-Aid and Oreos probably surprised you, unless you grew up in my neighborhood on the Southwest Side. I grew up in the city in Marquette Park (part of the Chicago Lawn neighborhood) at 71st and Christiana Avenue, two blocks north of the enormous, long, multistory, 1.8 million square foot Nabisco factory, which begins at 73rd and Kedzie Avenue and stretches two blocks south and three blocks west to St. Louis Avenue. Although it had bakery predecessors, Nabisco, later known as Nabisco Brands, began as the National Biscuit Company in 1898, the same year it opened its corporate offices in the Home Insurance Building in downtown Chicago, better known as the first real skyscraper ever. Nabisco became part of RJR Nabisco in 1985 and was acquired in 1993 by Kraft General Foods in Northfield, IL (the cereal products were sold to Post Cereals); then in 2012 Kraft became part of Mondelēz International, headquartered in Deerfield, IL. The Nabisco bakery on Kedzie, still the largest industrial bakery building in the world and producing about 320 million pounds of snack foods a year, was just down the block from our house (the building’s official address is 7300 S. Kedzie Ave.).
Nabisco products such as Oreos (the best-selling cookie in the U.S.), Nilla Wafers, Chips Ahoy, Fig Newtons, Lorna Doones, Biscos Sugar Wafers, Ritz Crackers and Triscuits have been made there from about the mid-20th century onward. They provided a wonderful, mouth-watering scent to the neighborhood, as did the Kool-Aid factory three-quarters of a mile farther east, between 73rd Street and Columbus Avenue (invented in Nebraska in 1927, Kool-Aid began production in Chicago in 1931; the company was acquired by General Foods in 1952 and became part of Kraft when it merged with General Foods in 1990). We knew about – but couldn’t smell, unless there was a strong wind from the northwest – the factory two miles away at 67th and Cicero Avenue, where they made caramel-covered Cracker Jack and Campfire marshmallows, but we drove past the Tootsie Roll factory at 74th and Cicero all the time). It was a sweet area to grow up in.
In contrast, Lindy’s Chili is a local secret that began on Archer Avenue near 35th Street, in the McKinley Park area of the Brighton Park neighborhood on the South Side, and spread to adjoining areas; it’s still a South Side and south suburban favorite. Stewart’s coffee is also a local treasure, a beverage company that sells its coffee products in groceries throughout the Midwest – just as Berghoff’s Restaurant does its beer and root beer. My mom served Stewart’s Private Blend coffee whenever company came while I was growing up (as did I, once I had my own apartment on the North Side).
Stewart’s soda is a different company but with a strong Chicago presence in decades past. After going through several acquisitions, it’s now owned by Cadbury Schweppes PLC – which, in turn, is owned by (guess who?) Mondelēz International. Back home again! This used to be a big seller in the Dominick’s grocery stores.
Dove Bars got their start at Dove Candies in the nearby West Lawn area, at 65th and Pulaski Road. Dove and Cupid Candies were friendly rivals on the Southwest Side; the story goes that both were started by Greeks who were cousins. Both candy companies had shops scattered throughout the Chicago Lawn and West Lawn areas and next-door suburban Oak Lawn. The Dove Bar surfaced some time during the late 1950s when Leo Stefanos made the product to keep his kids from running into the street after the Good Humor truck (safety first!).
I was eating Dove Bars when only Southwest siders knew about them, but apparently we-all couldn’t keep a secret. By 1984, Dove Candies was selling 100,000 bars a day and needed a bigger manufacturing space. That got the attention of privately held candy maker Mars, Inc., whose execs paid tens of millions of dollars to the Stefanos family and bought the brand, which they continue to make according to Stefanos’s secret recipe in a big Mars Snackfoods plant on 79th Street in suburban Burr Ridge. That’s about one-third of a mile south of Route 66 and the closest any Chicago area ‘name’ product comes to being made along the route. Today, Dove Bars are a national brand and have spawned a legion of imitators.
Cupid Candies has their own version of the Dove Bar – same high quality, but without the catchy name – which they make at a factory at 74th and Western Avenue, where they also make candies and their own pint-sized and bulk ice cream. The factory is still going strong after a few generations. Cupid, which once had half a dozen shops from Gage Park in the city to Oak Lawn, now has only two retail locations in the suburbs besides the factory store (one in Oak Lawn on 95th Street, and one on 147th Street in Orland Park). Both shops have a soda fountain where the soda jerks make the best malts, shakes, sundaes and banana splits, using fresh fruit plus ice cream, caramel, hot fudge and chocolate made at the Cupid plant. I still love their chocolate-covered marshmallow and caramel bars, their dark-chocolate, caramel and pecan turtles, the ice cream bars, and their fresh strawberry milkshakes at the soda fountain (I have one on the first day of spring every year). However, Cupid Candies also makes chocolates for corporate gift programs and other clients – and it’s been making Frango mints, too (under a contract signed with Macy’s in 2009). So, some of those Frangos sold at Macy’s these days are still made in Chicago – on the South Side.
Kraft Foods Group, now part of Mondelēz, is another national firm. Synonymous with cheese, it began in Chicago in 1923 as the National Dairy Products Corporation and eventually diversified into related foods. For decades, Kraft Foods had its headquarters on Peshtigo Court in the Streeterville area, just north of the river on the Near North Side. When Kraft moved to north suburban Northfield, where it remains today, its old office building was occupied for a while by the Chicago Public Schools system’s administration, then was sold for development (that area near the Ogden Slip is all way-expensive housing today).
Other brands began here and moved, usually to newer and more spacious facilities. Jays potato chips were born in Chicago in 1927 and, for many decades, were made in a factory just south of I-94 near the Roseland section of the South Side, near 99th Street. You could see the factory with its big Jays sign on the roof – and sometimes see the train cars hauling in potatoes – when you were driving up or down the adjacent east-west section of I-94, which at that point is part of the Bishop Ford Expressway. The train tracks were up on a viaduct paralleling the plant, and if you were really lucky, you got to watch the train cars tilt and empty the potatoes directly into the factory. Cool! That plant closed, however, when I was a teenager, and the chips are made elsewhere now; but the brand’s still a Chicago tradition. Jays Foods also sold O-ke-doke popcorn products.
Plochman’s mustard was once made in a factory on the near Southwest Side in Brighton Park, just south of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55). Although the firm’s headquarters and main plant moved to Cicero during the 1930s, Plochman’s still had operations in Brighton Park into the 1970s. However, Plochman’s, too, moved out – waaaaay out – about 40 or 50 miles south in 1997 to Manteno, IL, a town of about 9,200 that until then was chiefly known for its state mental hospital. Plochman’s still considers itself a Chicago brand, and so do its customers, but now it’s sold regionally. In fact, it’s among the top five mustard brands in the U.S.
Finally, there’s one Chicago brand that was actually made in a plant on Jackson Boulevard along Route 66 for many decades. Its name still survives, although the company went bankrupt in 2002, was sold to Alpine Confections (which bought the name along with the retail stores and logo), the factory was demolished, and production was moved to Green, OH: Fannie May Candies, of course. It’s been owned since 2006 by the floral delivery service 1-800-FLOWERS (clever combination!). There’s a new-ish Target store standing on the spot where the candy factory on Jackson Boulevard was (the lot was empty for a long time). We still have a Fannie May store by us over on 95th Street at Ridgeland Avenue, on the border between Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge. There are more retail stores scattered throughout Chicagoland (you can also buy boxed Fannie May chocolates in the freezer section at Jewel-Osco grocery stores in the greater Chicago area).
And there you go. Happy playoff parties, all you roadies!
Your Route 66 food maven,