Spring marks the return of many things to many places.
The swallows return to San Juan, Capistrano. Professional baseball teams return to their spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. And dogwoods and cherry blossoms reappear in their spring glory to the countryside.
But all those events pale in comparison to the return of fresh strawberries covered in milk chocolate to the Kopper-Kettle Candies locations in Van Buren and Fort Smith.
That happened on the first Thursday and Friday in April and will continue each Thursday and Friday through May. And judging by the lines that form even before the doors open for business on these days it’s no secret that it’s berry time.
“We have people come from Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas and from Russellville and really all over,” said Tommy Greer, who said he’s owned Kopper-Kettle Candies “since Moby Dick was a minnow.”
“When they were building Interstate 49 we had people from Little Rock with the highway department who were coming up here to check on the construction and they would always have orders to take back a bunch of candy,” said Greer.
Mostly it’s the local customers who converge on the locations at 6300 Alma Highway in Van Buren and Green Pointe Center in Fort Smith that keep the berry business bustling.
“They come here for something enjoyable either for themselves or someone they’re thinking of,” Greer said. “So we make a product that people enjoy and are happy buying.”
And they make a lot of that produce.
Greer brings in large, fresh strawberries from California to the tune of 35 to 40 flats a day, which translates into approximately 4,000 berries sold a day.
When asked if he ever gets tired of seeing strawberries, Greer said, “No,” adding, “We might get a little tired of them but there’s a lot of money that comes in with the strawberries. It keeps our business going.”
A bonus for the business this month is that Easter falls in the middle of the first of the two-month berry boon, giving shoppers the opportunity to purchase chocolate bunnies and candy-filled chocolate eggs for Easter baskets while picking up the favored strawberries.
Greer said once May is over business drops off until the fall when workers begin building inventory for the holidays as well as crafting the caramel apples that rank as another of the store’s big arrivals.
“Our business is like what Richard Nixon said one time, ‘It goes from the highest peak to the lowest valley,’” Greer said. “It’s extremely seasonal.”
In the fall workers will “do pecan clusters all day one day, then chocolate covered cashews all day one day and maybe turtles all day another day,” said Greer.
While the big fall item might be the apples – covered in caramel and candy pieces or dressed in cinnamon – it’s the spring strawberries that rank at the top.
“Last year we did approximately 10,000 apples and 80,000 strawberries,” Greer said.
The strawberries are first dipped in a pink, strawberry-flavored fondant syrup. When they are cooled to the correct consistency they are dipped in the milk chocolate.
“The strawberry is completely encased in chocolate,” said Greer. “Then it doesn’t take very long for it to break down so it has that effect of a cordial when you bite into it.”
The dipping – which is all done by hand – takes place in rooms where the temperature is maintained at 60-65 degrees and 40-50 percent humidity.
Greer said under those conditions chocolate can be kept “for a long time. It’s not like a bakery.”
The strawberries are all capped by hand with workers preferring to use a simple paring knife to remove the green tops.
“You don’t want to cut down in there because the berry will bleed, and when it bleeds it will leak through that fondant and, in turn, through the chocolate,” he said. “So we like to pull that top off and not get down into the berry.”
Greer’s parents were in the candy business in Fort Worth before moving to Crawford County in the 1950s.
“I left here and went into the Navy after school and thought I’d never see another candy store,” Greer said, “and actually didn’t want to see another candy store. It’s like growing up on a farm, when you’re old enough to help you help. I’d been helping ever since I was old enough to help.”
Admitting he was wrong about not wanting to have anything to do with candy stores ever again, Greer and his wife, Berry Ann, soon found themselves up to their ears in the candy business.
And they seem to enjoy it as much as people enjoy eating a chocolate covered strawberry.
“People who come in here are happy to be here,” he said. “They have to buy gas, they have to buy cigarettes, they have to buy booze and they have to pay taxes. This is a fun thing to do, when you can get something you enjoy.”
He continued, “And we have men come in and buy strawberries for their wives so they can have a happy home.”
Some customers even see it as “adult food.”
“We’ve got one lady that comes in every season and says, ‘This is adult food. It’s not for kids. They can be happy with a Snickers bar,’” he chuckled.
Soon the Greers, who will celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary this summer, won’t be in the candy business anymore, having turned the shop over to their daughter, Teresa Tankersley, who has already been learning the ropes of what will soon become her shop.
“Our daughter is taking over so we’re not as involved as we once were,” Tommy Greer said, then added with a grin, “We still are, but not as much. She wants us here when she needs us, and when she doesn’t need us she doesn’t want us here.”
But, he said, “We enjoy what we’re doing.”
And that includes providing their customers with something that’s much anticipated this time of year: the return of the chocolate covered strawberries.