"Valentine’s Day is not your typical holiday,” says Lisa Sweenor Dunham. “The Christmas season will run for several weeks. But Valentine’s Day is a four-day madhouse.”
“It’s more spontaneous,” adds her brother Brian Sweenor.
As the fourth generation to run Sweenor’s Chocolates, Lisa and Brian know that Valentine’s Day is a holiday where candy reigns supreme, even in a pandemic. Rhode Island’s home-spun confectionery features plenty of sweet novelties geared towards love. South County residents are in the choicest spot for Sweenor’s hand-dipped, chocolate-covered strawberries. “Those are only available in Wakefield,” says Lisa. Because they are perishable, there are only two days to get them: February 13 and 14.
Brian and Lisa’s grandfather, Walt, was a school teacher in Cranston who started a side hustle making candy out of his basement. He learned the craft from his father, who was employed by Kibbe Brothers Candy in Springfield, Massachusetts. Walt sold his confections wholesale to department stores like The Outlet and Gladdings. Then, in 1955, Walt retired from teaching and moved his kitchen into a retail store in the fledgling Garden City development. While much has changed over the past 65 years, Sweenor’s retains its small-batch, preservative-free tradition.
For Valentine’s Day, their biggest sellers are assortments of filled chocolates from the candy case. The decadent middles (think: coconut, buttercream, raspberry) are batch-cooked. Then small mounds are placed on the “enrober,” a machine used to coat candy. As the candy moves down the conveyor belt, they get a wash of chocolate from below. A chocolate waterfall covers the entire confection from above. Once coated, decorations are hand-piped onto the individual candies before they move through a cooling tunnel.
“It’s a slow process,” says Brian. The cooling tunnel alone takes 15 minutes. “Candy is very temperature sensitive.”
Underscoring that the most important tool in a candymaker’s toolbox is a thermometer, Walt’s neat handwriting shares precise temperature instructions on his original recipe cards.
While some of Walt’s recipes evolved to meet changing consumer tastes, plenty remain the same, including his famous Peanut Brittle.
Brian’s eyes light up. “That’s so much fun to make. And I’ve got the burns to prove it.”
A mixture of sugar, corn syrup, water, and peanuts is cooked in a copper kettle over an open flame to over 300 degrees. The molten mix is poured out and spread to cover a three-by-six-foot greased metal table. The sheet is cut in half and then, in an act of daring, Brian shoves his forearms under the still-scorching confection and flips one half onto a second table. Then both halves are stretched by hand until they cover their respective tables.
“The idea is to increase the space between the peanuts and the candy,” Brian explains. “You don’t want the peanuts to clump up in one area.”
It’s this sort of hand-crafted tradition that makes candy from Sweenor’s a real sweet treat for your Valentine.
At press time, both stores were open to the public, following the guidelines of limited capacity of one customer per 100 square feet; masks must be worn at all times, and orders can be placed ahead for pick up. Visit SweenorsChocolates.com for more information.