For three generations, the Johnson family’s bread and butter has been a mix of delicate chocolates, crunchy peanut brittle and gooey caramels.
It all started in 1925, when Russell Johnson began crafting and selling chocolates while working at his parents’ shop in Tacoma. He and his wife, Irene, soon bought the business, managing it as a restaurant with a decadent candy selection. By the 1940s, the pair moved a few blocks away to the storefront in the city that the community now knows as the Johnson Candy Company.
Today, behind that same window-filled storefront, featuring rows of handmade candies, the family-owned shop has become a true fixture in the city, with many loyal customers, some of whom have been patrons for more than half a century.
Keeping it in the Johnson candy family
The business is now co-owned by Russell and Irene’s son Ron Johnson, and his wife, Bee Johnson. Now Ron and Bee’s son, Bill Johnson, who used to help out at the shop when he was just 12, serves as its production manager. He says he hopes his own sons, ages 7 and 10, will be able to start helping out soon.
Over the years, the shop has had a few upgrades, including an expansion of its building, but at its core it has never strayed far from its roots.
Bill Johnson explains that the family still uses some of the same candy recipes as the ones his grandfather bought from a retiring Greek candymaker in the 1920s. And several current pieces of machinery are from the business’s infancy, including a FireMixer, which the candymakers use to make caramel.
“I love to keep the old stuff going as long as I can,” he says. “You just can’t beat that stuff.”
The challenge of COVID
The candy company has also faced its fair share of challenges, the most recent being the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the family had to close the retail shop and quickly switch to selling candy boxes and ice cream bars through a window. The shop also launched Johnson Candy Company online.
By the fall of 2020, with newly installed plexiglass and mask requirements, the family was able to reopen the business to walk-in customers.
For the Valentine’s Day holiday, one of the busiest times of the year, the candy company plans to sell its popular packed heart boxes, which include an assortment of candies customers can select themselves, and also one of the biggest sellers, brandied cherries.
Bill Johnson, now 50, attributes the business’s longevity to his parents’ and grandparents’ hard work and commitment to not expanding it beyond what they could handle, as well as their small but dedicated team of employees.
The small business can be a challenge, he says, but over the years he’s come to understand and truly appreciate its importance for the community at large.
He says, “When you have people come in and they say, ‘We’ve been coming here with our family, and we just love coming here’ … you realize that it’s more than just somewhere where you come to work, but it’s a part of the community.”
Johnson Candy Company: 924 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma
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