There are few foods that incite as much nostalgia as candy.
Between the syrupy, uncomplicated taste of candy and the familiar packaging, which, for many brands, hasn’t changed much since one’s childhood, can bring back early memories. One needs only to see blocky white script on a brown cellophane rectangle to recognize a Hershey’s bar.
Eugene J. may change all of that.
Eugene J. has done many things in his life—studying chemical engineering and playing in a punk band (two things, many might argue, that one never truly gives up). Now, he owns an eponymous candy store — Eugene J Candy — nestled between a laundromat and a Crossfit studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The store offers an uncanny mix of nostalgic favorites and the unfamiliar. Its small footprint belies its large personality—Eugene J Candy is decked out year-round with Halloween decorations like cobwebs and plastic spiders. The perimeter of the store is lined with clear plastic bins of familiar candies like Jawbreakers and gummy animals alongside less commonly-known imports from Scandinavia.
Eugene’s trademark, however, is a candy of his own creation. They’re hard, lumpy, bite-sized candy called “Freaks.” Eugene refers to them as “off-brand Nerds,” which seems apt for a store that seems set on jostling the familiar into something that is not.
MOLD sat down with Eugene to talk with him about his store, what he’s working now, and what he thinks the future of candy might be.
You studied to be a chemical engineer. How did you end up becoming a confectioner?
I started making candy just as I was starting undergrad. I was taking everything I was learning in lab work and chemistry class and playing it back in making candy. All the recipes I do right now, it is all lab work. And when you’re coming up with a recipe, you have to change or tweak a variable and see what comes out. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, so you just have to learn from it and move on.
At the time, I was just doing what everyone else does, hard candies, marshmallows, whatever. I was trying to make a gummy bear, and I couldn’t make it, I was struggling with it for years. It wasn’t until ten years later that I got the consistency that I wanted, and it was just a matter of using different, more industrial ingredients. And that was all from looking at nutrition facts and carbohydrates, sugar. It was just a lot of math and science.
I always wanted to create new candies. Right now, everything is a brand extension, there’s no new product. Everything was invented like 100 years ago, so there’s no brand new candy.
What’s stopping people from making new types of candy?
I guess everything is just a line extension of something that has existed before. I guess a popular thing right now are those bite-size, mini candies, but they aren’t new, right? It’s just a different version of an old thing.
But 100 years ago, there was no gummy bear. And someone came up with this idea to use gelatin and mix some sugars and make a gummy bear. And it seems like there hasn’t been a ton of innovation since then.
What I’m doing right now is difficult, because I have to learn how to do everything right, but I also want to throw everything out the window and start from scratch. I might just strike gold from trying to figure it out that way.
What about your signature candy, Freaks?
With Freaks, you can come up with weird flavors. In terms of flavors that may be coming next, I’m thinking flowers and botanicals.
Yeah, but weird combinations like orange rosemary, or something kinda savory and sweet.
Also, elderberry, blood orange (the “blood” part really fits the vibe of my store), juneberry, prickly pear. Cracked pepper is going to be a good one, too.
Of course, these are all just trends, they come and go.
One of the things I want to do with the Freaks, though, is create the flavor from oiling down different fruit syrups instead of using an extract, like I’ve been doing. It might weaken the flavor, but I think it would be cool to have pieces of the strawberry in the Freak. But that could impact the shelf life. I have to work on that.
What’s your favorite type of candy?
That’s a tricky question, because it’s always changing.
Right now, it’s a lot of sugar and dextrose, like hard candies. I can do anything with a candy shell or chocolate shell, like a jawbreaker, a malt ball, and chocolate-coated anything.
I don’t like chocolate so much. I prefer to stick with sugar.
Right now, it’s kind of trendy to quit sugar. How do you see yourself working with that in the future?
I don’t think that affects this store at all. We have sugar, but the attack is on high-fructose corn syrup and added sugars, not on sugar itself. So, I think it’s a little insulated from that. If you do something special like this [store], it’s a special item.
What initially drew you to candy?
It was just a natural progression from when I was baking and watching a lot of Food Network and public TV, just a lot of cooking shows. I was doing a lot of cookies and muffins and cake, which just led to candy. It’s kind of similar, it’s just that it’s very exact measurements . It’s kind of cool, because you start with basic ingredients and end with something fantastic.
What’s next for your candy?
For me, this is a paintbrush and canvas. I can come up with candy, sure, but then you have to come up with a name for it, a graphic, a logo, a candy jingle. There’s constant design on packaging, it’s just endless design. It’s just another medium.
The candy is a story. And [with the store] it’s the story that’s really fun and fascinating, and that’s the exciting thing about candy.