For whatever reason—most likely, the heavy late-19th-early-20th-cenutry influx of German, Dutch, Belgian and other immigrants in the area—there are a high proportion of old-fashioned, quality, family chocolate shops in the towns of the Fox River Valley, nestled around Lake Winnebago in central-eastern Wisconsin.
Among there are Seroogy's in De Pere; Beernsten's, a wonderful old soda fountain in Manitowoc where you can also sit in a booth and enjoy a cheap lunch of bratwurst and chips; Oaks, a century-old candy shop in downtown Oshkosh; and Hughes Chocolates, an unfathomably quaint chocolate factory situated in a white clapboard family home on a suburban street. (The New York Times called it "a figment of Wisconsin's imagination.) You walk through a side door down to the basement, where you can buy plain white boxes of bulked chocolates (no fancy individual wrappers) from a small counter in a room so cramped you have no choice but to leave immediately after you make your purchase. Hughes chocolates have been a Christmas tradition in my family for decades.
About a year ago, I read an article in the New York Times that mentioned a sweets chop of this ilk that I had never heard of: Wilmar Chocolates in Appleton. So, during a recent drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay, I made a point of stopping at the store, located since 1956 at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Superior Street.
Wilmar is a conflation of the names Wilbur and Mary Jane Srnka, the founders of the company. Before striking out on his own, Wilber worked at other local candy shops, including Otto Kaap in Green Bay (which still exists) and Oakes Candy of Appleton. The Srnkas owned the shop until 1984, when they sold it to the current owners, the Garveys. Over the years, the store expanded, taking over additional space on the Wisconsin Avenue side.
Wilmar is known for its caramels and truffles, as well as its oysters. Oysters are achingly sweet, cream-filled chocolate bonbons covered in a thin layer of crushed nuts. They are a local specialty peculiar to the area. According to Wilmar, they were created by Dutch immigrants with the idea of making a candy that reminded them of the look of the oysters they enjoyed back home.
Last year, Wilmar came up with a great customer attraction. They opened up their kitchen for inspection, and now give consumers the opportunity to make their own custom made candy bar. You pick dark or milk chocolate (or a mix) and four ingredients. On the spot they blend your bar, put it in a mold and stick it in the freezer for 10 minutes. And Bob's your uncle—your own unique Wilmar creation.