My friend Max Knowlton-Sachner’s birthday was last week. He was a camp counselor of mine when I was 16 and we kept in touch afterward. There are many things he has a strong affinity for, but two of them are labels and packaging indicative of a bygone era, and candy. It was only natural that when I heard of Vic’s Wholesale Inc. (1911 W. Forest Home Ave., 414-383-2570), I invited him to come in an effort to turn him loose on the inventory. What ensued was a very pleasant and strange hour.
Vic’s Wholesale has existed since 1928. It was opened by Victor Jazwiecki, who arrived in Milwaukee from Poland when he was 17. He worked in Milwaukee’s foundry industry, which was the reason immigrants from all over the world flocked to Milwaukee for decades. Vic’s is currently owned by a third generation family member, who tends to it with some help. During our trip, that help materializes in the form of Craig, who has been working at Vic’s for more than 30 years.
“The original store was over there,” Craig says, pointing to an empty lot across the street. “The building has since been demolished, but it started as a candy and tobacco shop. Demand grew so Vic moved in here.”
Vic wanted to capitalize on the bar market in Milwaukee, which was thriving as much as the aforementioned foundry industries. “Corner bars have been our biggest and most consistent customers,” Craig says. “We go as far as Verona, Wisconsin, but we haven’t left the state.”
Wisconsin corner bars in the 1930s were a very different animal, and that’s apparent in the choice of snacks along Vic’s walls. Pickled eggs sit on a shelf next to pickled turkey gizzards and pickled pork hocks. The gizzards look like science experiments and seem like they would taste like oysters. “These were very popular for a long time, and they are still made here in the city,” Craig tells us excitedly.
The bar supplies are all in the same area, where plastic speed pourers and caps for liquor bottles sit next to Efferdent denture cleanser behind glass dividers. Every kind of candy seems to have its own section; half aisles are dedicated to name brand chocolates and ancient companies that made taffy and sour candy. A 50-pack of Cry Babies will set you back all of $7. The only complaint me and my partner in candy have during our trip is the fact that everything is sold in wholesale quantities, and there is no option to fill up bags in an “a la carte” fashion. “Vic never thought to have anything like that,” Craig says dejectedly.
Toys from different generations are stacked in the back. There is a “Rap & Dance” box that makes beats and is shaped like a Walkman. (I see Max eye it with great interest.)
Craig explains that this has been the slowest year for Vic’s Wholesale. Many bars have maintained a 25-percent capacity rule, he says, and others haven’t opened at all. Festivals have also been canceled—a main staple for the store.
“Little League was canceled this year as well, and they bought this stuff in bulk,” Craig says, motioning to a fully stocked shelf of (sadly un-chewed) Big League Chew. Happily, Craig ends on a note of positivity: “We never closed and I don’t think we ever will,” he says.
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