When Charles Brooks Oakford started a candy company in Merchantville, he didn’t want to use his family name. If the business failed, he reasoned, few people would connect it with the Oakfords.
So he named it after his aunt, Charlotte. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge was not yet built over the Delaware River, and Philadelphia, where Charlotte lived, was practically a world away from his Camden County shop.
Now under its third generation of ownership, Aunt Charlotte’s Candies just weathered its busiest holiday season in memory. And this year, it will celebrate its 100th birthday, a milestone that seems unfathomable for a brick-and-mortar retailer in the 21st century.
Sisters Randy Oakford and Penny Trost, two of Oakford’s four granddaughters, said the surge in business was spurred by a good economy and compounded by the closure of a competitor in nearby Cherry Hill in early 2019. And candy has historically been seen as a luxury product that can weather even challenging economies. Candy sales have been growing steadily for years, according to market research firms.
“My dad always said candy and liquor are recession-proof,” said Randy Oakford, 65, who with Trost runs the shop. “Even when times were harder, people were still buying candy. It’s a reasonably priced gift, you don’t have to worry if someone’s not going to like it, and at the end of the day, it’s a happy product.”
The shop has long been the heart of Merchantville, a walkable borough of less than a square mile that is built around a quaint downtown dotted with restaurants and small businesses. The community of about 3,800 has tree-lined streets and nostalgic charm. The brick building housing Aunt Charlotte’s sits within a few blocks of three churches, the local elementary school, and a post office.
Its standing in the community was obvious in the days before Christmas, as customers lined up at the counter crowded the aisles, filling their baskets with handcrafted truffles and candy canes. The staff ran out of chocolates much faster than expected and employees had to work more than a few late nights to restock the store.
Aunt Charlotte’s began with Oakford selling caramels out of a Model T Ford in 1920, and this will be the first year in decades that the store will be without the guidance of its longtime matriarch. Virginia “Bunny” Oakford, mother to Oakford and Trost, died in December at age 93.
After marrying C. Brooks Oakford, son of the store’s founder, Bunny Oakford had run Aunt Charlotte’s with her husband for more than 70 years. Her daughters said she was the creative force behind the business. She designed the packaging, built custom Easter baskets, wrapped gifts with cellophane and bows, and elaborately decorated the windows for holidays.
“She could make anything look beautiful,” said Penny Trost, 62. “She brought out the creativity in everyone around her.”
Her death, coming at the busiest time of the year, meant Trost, Oakford, and other relatives spent the holiday season surrounded by memories of her but without much time to mourn. Their father died just after Thanksgiving in 2013.
“I hope they’re proud of us,” Trost said. “Because we’re hanging in there.”
Aunt Charlotte’s first storefront was on Centre Street, where Charles Brooks Oakford manned it until his death in 1945. His son, C. Brooks Oakford, took over, and in 1971, he and Bunny moved it to Maple Avenue, into a 1890s-era building that once housed a feed store.
The couple had four daughters, including Penny and Randy, all of whom worked at the store at some point. Penny’s son, Ryan Trost, is now head candymaker. Other family members pitch in and help during busy times. The business employs more than 35 full- and part-time workers, many of whom have worked there for decades, and some of whom retired, changed their minds, and came back.
Oakford believes the business has thrived because they use quality ingredients, still assemble some items by hand, and create custom treats for customers whenever they’re asked.
Much of the candy production occurs in a room above the shop. On one afternoon last month, conveyor belts in the room carried pretzels through waterfalls of chocolate, near a candy cane-dyed marble slab and copper kettles for roasting nuts.
One floor below, a customer looking for the store’s trademark chocolate-cashew “crabs” found an empty shelf. Moments later, a sales clerk rushed out with a stack of boxes that had just been packed with treats fresh off the production line.
Aunt Charlotte’s official anniversary isn’t until October, but the family has started thinking about how to celebrate. For the 75th, they hosted an open house with clowns and giveaways, but now they have so many more customers that they fear the shop would be overwhelmed.
The sisters hope Aunt Charlotte’s can stay a family business for at least another generation. Trost’s son Randy and his wife had a baby last year — and named her Charlotte. Their mother, Bunny, was still working in the store into her 80s.