Story & Photos By Jennifer Myers
The warm, white chocolate oozes from the spout of the giant mixer.
Arthur Mapes collects the sweet shower of cocoa butter, warmed to 98 degrees, in a bucket. He adds nearly two big boxes of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. He prefers Kellogg’s. They don’t break up when mixed into the chocolate the way other brands do.
The heavenly mix is spread by hand onto parchment paper. Once it cools, it is carefully cut into pieces for a batch of melt-in-your-mouth white chocolate krispie bark — ready for sale at Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House.
Mapes, 81, is a real-life Willy Wonka. He’s worked in the candy business since 1948, when he was a wide-eyed 12-year-old making candy alongside his uncle at the old Thompson Farm store on Route 1 in York, Maine.
Then he worked as a candy maker at the famous holiday theme park, Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, New York, for a few years before being recruited by Bailey’s in Boston, a popular candy and ice cream shop. He worked for Bailey’s for 21 years, making candy and ice cream and inventing their hot fudge sauce (which he still makes and sells at Mrs. Nelson’s). In those two decades Bailey’s added eight locations.
“Bailey’s was sold to a big company and the first thing they did was cut costs by cutting quality,” Mapes recalls. “I didn’t want to be a part of that so I left.”
He knew the Nelson family, who had opened Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House on Route 110 in Chelmsford in 1954. The owner was aging and his son was not interested in taking over the business. Mapes made an offer.
In 1984, Mapes and his wife Connie bought the candy house and immediately installed windows in the wall between the counter and the kitchen so customers could watch the candy being made.
“I’ve always worked with people watching,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of health inspectors say my customers do more inspecting than they do.”
You can find any candy that tickles your fancy at Mrs. Nelson’s from jelly beans and lollipops to old-fashioned corn cakes. But, chocolate is still King.
“When I started in this business there was only dark chocolate. That was chocolate,” Mapes said. “Then milk chocolate came along and that’s what everyone wanted, but now it’s turned back toward the dark chocolate which is good because that is what I like.”
Choosing the correct type of chocolate for the application is key, Mapes insists, as key as pairing the right varietal of wine with a romantic dinner.
“If I’m having a peanut butter cup I want it to be milk chocolate, but if I’m having a peppermint cream, I want it to be dark chocolate,” he says. “It’s about knowing which combinations work the best.”
And he certainly knows what works best, taking a little taste of every item he makes – for quality control purposes of course.
“He is the only person I’ve ever known happy to go to work every single day,” says Kim Burke, Mapes’ daughter who works the store with him. “He wakes up with a smile, excited to go to work. It’s a great way to live.”
Like anyone who loves their work, Mapes loves to share the lessons he has learned over the years.
For instance, the trick to making truly flavorful peanut brittle is adding the peanuts into the hot sugar raw, allowing them to cook in the syrup, infusing all their flavor into it.
And those addictive chocolates with cream centers? You cannot eat them right out of the chocolate enrobing machine. In fact, they are not ready to eat for 10 days.
“The centers have to be very firm when they are covered,” he says, explaining that it takes time for the centers to return to their desired gooey texture. “If someone were to get some after two days they’d bring them back and say they were old or stale but really, they just haven’t aged enough.
As the Christmas season arrives, Mapes and his staff go into full production mode. There are pounds upon pounds of peppermint bark – and 2,300 candy canes to make.
Gift orders will pour in from all over the globe. Mapes says he has perfected shipping candy, using ice packs to keep the products at optimal temperature.
Who wouldn’t want to find a box of handmade penuche fudge, chocolate-covered pretzels or marshmallow-filled chocolates under the tree on Christmas morning?
When a treat is made with so much love, the calories don’t count.
Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House is located at 292 Chelmsford Street in Chelmsford; 978-256-4061.