|Joe Oliver in 1939
If not for the Great Depression, Joseph Boyd Oliver may never have left his home in Pennsylvania for Rochester, and then wander into Batavia looking for work and finding instead an opportunity in the small town.
The opportunity: Turn a family tradition of making blanched peanuts into a business.
To blanch a peanut, you start with raw peanuts -- which Oliver obtained in Buffalo -- boil them in water for three minutes, then dip them in cold water before removing the red skin. It's time-consuming, tedious work.
Batavians really went for the stark white peanuts, and Joseph and Edna Oliver found that they had started a real business with growth potential. So they looked for other ways to please the locals' unabated craving for snacks, adding peanut clusters to their repertoire and making their concoctions in their Montclair Avenue home.
"No, I had never made any candy before," Oliver said in a 1939 interview. "I learned it all the hard way. There were so many headaches with it, I couldn't begin to tell you what they were. We just kept going, trying until we got what we wanted."
Blanched peanuts and peanut clusters were the beginning of Oliver's Candies, now in its 90th year. Oliver's will be having a birthday celebration Saturday at the store at 211 West Main St., Batavia.
Joe and Edna moved their business to that location in 1937, renting a house from Sheriff Forest Brown. They sold candy in the parlor and lived upstairs. Eventually, they bought the house and expanded the business until it took over the entire residence.
By the 1950s, Oliver's was selling candy in all 48 states.
Harold Oskamp acquired the business in 1960. In 1977, he sold it to Dick Call, Bob Call, and Alvin Scroger, then owners of Genesee Farms.
That ownership group sold Oliver's in 1998 to John Quincey, father of Jeremy Liles, the current owner.
When his parents asked Liles, whose background was in digital publishing, to get involved in the business, how could he say no? Of course, he couldn't.
"I mean, it's candy, it's retail, it's sweet business, really, you have no better words to pick there," Liles said.
Oliver's still makes candy the way Joe Oliver insisted it be made, Liles said -- real ingredients, the original recipes, no cutting corners, and as a result, the business has continued to grow.
Online ordering has given Oliver's a global reach. Liles has been able to expand the wholesale business since opening a plant in Elba, and that northern location also gives Oliver's a second storefront in the county.
It's no wonder that a business born in the Depression has weathered all kinds of economic storms, a world war, and even a pandemic.
"We're doing just fine. It's not like you don't have the generic brands of candy out there, Walmart, Tops, whatever. People's tastes have honed down. People want specialty coffees. They want specialty desserts. People are going to different places looking for these things," Liles said. "I think that's what's helping us tremendously because we are a specialty. We provide unique flavors. We make it fresh. It's made with butter and cream. We're not adding preservatives. It's not being shipped off to some warehouse and then sitting on a shelf forever. It comes from Elba, our factory six minutes up the road, and it's on our shelf ready for the customer."
One of the secrets of the success of Oliver's is employee loyalty. From the time of Joe and Edna, employees have tended to stay with the company not just for years, but for decades.
Bill Betteridge started with the business in its early days and made candy for 52 years. Ronald Drock, one of the former master candy makers, worked for Oliver's from the 1950s into the 1990s. The current master candy maker, Doug Pastecki, has been with Oliver's for 26 years.
In the top photo are long-time employees:
- Diana Cutitta (started 1983) - store associate/cashier
- Doug Pastecki (started 1995) - master candymaker
- Anna Liles (started 1999) - giftware associate
- Jeremy Liles (started 2001) - owner
- Julie Heale (started 2002) - packing line worker
- Mary Graham (started 2004) - enrober line worker
- Megan Palone (started 2006) - general manager
- Alec Frick (started 2014) - assistant candymaker
Not pictured is Beth Diegelman, hand dipper/decorator who started in1980).
"I guess, for the most part, my family, the families before us, we try to take care of the people who work for us. We're all a family. We try to treat everybody as a family. We're not a big corporate-backed store. We're just a locally owned business and, like anybody else, trying to survive each day," Liles said. "We had some great years of growth and we tried to take care of our employees during those times, and in turn, our employees take care of the business during tougher times, so it really becomes a complete family. Obviously, I couldn't do any of this without them. They are the backbone of this business."
Liles said he's proud to be at the helm of Oliver's as it marks 90 years in business, both for the stability such longevity represents, and the strength of the company to adapt to changing times.
"I love doing this," Liles said. "It's exciting. It doesn't get boring. That's the cool part about it. There are always changes and obviously, in the environment around us, there are changes. Social media, for example, has really been a change. You have gotta be so careful with it. It can help you or it can tear you apart. But that's where, if we keep striving for customer service, then the reviews online will stay five stars, and that's the way we want it to be. I mean, it's all about quality products and quality service. That's why I don't want to outgrow our britches, per se. We need to keep it real."