People who visit in Jordan might be shocked to learn the giant yellow candy shop along Highway 169 started out as a humble family apple stand.
Over the years, Robert Wagner and his seven brothers have expanded from their father’s apple orchard into a statewide attraction. And like most success stories, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store developed through hand work and hardship.
“We started selling apples here and by no means was it a big business, but we didn’t know anything different,” Robert said. “It was just that type of business.”
The orchard started as Jim’s Apple Farm, after Wagner’s father Jim returned from military service in World War II. At that time, the University of Minnesota was developing apple varieties and the state was looking to develop an apple industry, since apple farming took advantage of hilly, marginal farmland that wouldn’t normally service other crops well. Jim Wagner got to work planting apples, and by the 1960s his crop was strong enough to support a stand along Highway 169, near the current site of Wagner’s Brothers Apple Orchard.
“I don’t know if it was 16 sheets of plywood,” Robert said, recalling the business’ humble beginnings.
Jim and his sons would go on to build a second stand where the current orchard is. By 1978, Jim’s Apple Farm built a third stand at the current candy store lot. That stand was opened in 1979, Robert’s first year out of high school. The apple industry was very different then, Robert said, as apples were still a seasonal crop.
“People clamored to them with great interest,” he said. “You would sell great quantities to people who would be canning, making pies and using them for fresh eating. They would enjoy them because winter was coming and apples would be gone.”
Jim’s Apple Farm continued through the 1980s and 1990s as a “peaceful and quiet business,” Robert said. That all changed in the mid-2000s, when the family experienced a series of misfortunes.
“In 2005 we had a very significant hailstorm,” Robert said. “We’d had them before, but not like in 2005. That thing was a total massive wipeout of the crop.”
Things got worse. In 2006, another storm destroyed Wagner’s apple crop. After two years worth of pruning, spraying and maintenance and hundreds of hours of labor, the crop was lost. In 2007, a smaller hailstorm left the Wagners with a partial loss of their crop. After three years of nearly zero returns on investments, the Wagners knew something had to be done.
“We thought ‘What are we doing here?’” Robert said.
They began developing alternate, more reliable sources of income to supplement apple sales. They experimented with cheeses, milk, meats and other goods, but nothing took off. Sweets, however, were another story.
Wagner attributes the fateful addition of candy to his daughter, Christine. To fit the aesthetic of the old-fashioned apple stand, Jim’s Apple Farm began selling nostalgic American candies, like salt-water taffy, licorice and rock candy. Eventually they grew to embrace the heritage of the area and added rare European candies.
The short-term benefit of diversifying the business meant they could stay open to sell candy if the apple crop failed and could open earlier in the season before the best apple varieties were ripe. After the apple crop returned, Robert dismissed the candy and felt there wasn’t a need to continue expanding since apple sales rebounded. His daughter disagreed.
“Christine was the largest supporter of candy and continued to push the idea,” Robert said.
Eventually, Robert saw that while the apple sales rose slowly and steadily, candy sales grew dramatically and showed no signs of slowing.
“The candy brought more customers in, which meant more traffic flow and we could sell more apples,” Robert said.
Over the years, candy stock grew and sections of the store were refurbished to house candy instead of apples, squash, pumpkins and other goods.
“It just kept expanding,” Robert said.
After starting with traditional American candy and expanding to British and western European sweets, the candy store took a big leap and began importing Japanese candy, which Robert said is very different from western candy in almost every conceivable way.
“The Japanese candies are unique because not only are they very high quality but they’re interactive,” Robert said.
Robert said he still struggles to open a bottle of Japanese soda, which uses a glass bead mechanism rather than a cap or cork. Other candies require one to build a puzzle out of the candy before it’s consumed.
“For this one kit you build a toilet,” Robert said. “You put a powder and a liquid in the tank, it bubble up in the bowl and you drink it. We can’t keep it on the shelf.”
But the ability to keep product on the shelf is one of the greatest benefits of switching to the candy industry. Robert said candy is a very reliable product because its shelf life is long for both the merchant and the buyer. Customers can only buy apples they are going to use within 14 days, Robert said, whereas in about eight weeks, he’ll begin seeing customers buy candy for Christmas.
One of the difficulties, however, is discovering new unique varieties of candy. Robert said his daughter Christine, who is now their candy buyer, relies more on her taste buds than catalogs.
“She does a lot of shopping on her own,” Robert said. “Anywhere she goes in the United States through her travels, she’s looking in stores and buying things and digging into them. That is probably our number one way of acquiring new products.”
The store, which is open from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving, employs a staff of more than 100, ranging in age from 14 to 93. The staff ranges from high school and college students, to mothers who work while their kids are at school or daycare to Robert’s 93-year-old mother Dolores.
“She’s very cheerful,” he said. “She takes care of the some of the bulk candy. She chooses to come in and work five hours a day, every day.”
Looking around the candy store, it’s sometimes hard to image how such a venture is successful in an area surrounded by farmland and small communities. Even Robert isn’t exactly sure how they’ve managed to thrive, which is why he and Christine recently began questioning if their success was sustainable.
“Two years ago I felt that this was unique enough that this could be just a fad, a splash in the pan,” Robert said. “I looked around and I didn’t see anyone doing it. It’s hard for you to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing when no one else is doing it.”
Robert and Christine took a closer look at their business plan to see if it was rooted in reality. They traveled to Jungle Jim’s International Market in Ohio, a similar niche business that was seeing great success. Robert and Christine spent eight hours in the store, examining similarities and determining what made the store a success.
“He wasn’t doing what we were doing, but he was doing something similar,” Robert said. “We both walked out of there and said to each other ‘This can be done, this guy’s been doing it for a long time. He’s got decorations, not like us, but he’s quirky, he’s a one-off.’ That was kind of an epiphany for us.”
When they returned to Minnesota, they redoubled their efforts. In recent years, the Wagners have invested in remodeling parts of the store and adding decor, attractions and new candy lines. In the end, Robert still isn’t sure how they’ve managed to pull it off, but he knows they couldn’t have done it any other way.