24 May 2008

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Beerntsen's Candy

As much as I am a New York City person, I get a certain shiver of excitement when I go on a trip that I know will cause me to pass through a mid-to-small-sized city—the kind of city that was founded 100 to 150 years ago and was once driven by a significant industry of two, since died away. Because such cities have not thrived as centers of commerce for 40 or 50 years, they tend to sit in a state of suspended animation. Their main streets and downtown retain the architecture and cultural flavor they have in the early 20th century. Thus, these cities are goldmines of Americana.

Wisconsin is a state replete with such cities. Beloit. Lacrosse. Eau Claire. Fond du Lac. Oshkosh. Green Bay. Etc., etc. Another in Manitowoc, a former shipbuilding center that sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, about an hour and a half north of Milwaukee. Driving down the main drag of North 8th Street, you'll pass a little storefront with a red-and-white-striped awning. This is Beerntsen's, a candy shop and luncheonette that's been here since 1932. Inside, time has not touched this place. The dark wood counters and cabinets are as they were. So is the back room of wooden booths, festooned with coat hooks, sconces and mirrors. A clock hangs from an archway separating the two sections of the store. Ceiling fans twirl.

I bought some chocolate and had dinner here. The help consists of young blonde girls who are Wisconsin-nice and placid. The menu is a shocker. Of the various sandwich selections, I don't think a single item was over $5. I did a triple take. My "bratwurst plate" (bratwurst, potato salad, chips, pickle) was $4.95. You can also order phosphates of all flavors.

The place was founded by Joe Beerntsen. He learned his trade in nearby Green Bay, undergoing a four-year apprenticeship at the Brenner Candy Company. He then opened a series of candy shops in a set of increasingly smaller cities: first Chicago, then Milwaukee, then finally Manitowoc, where he stayed. Three generations of Beerntsens ran the place until 200e, when new owners Dean and Chrissy Schadrie took over. Dean grew up making chocolates in another local family business, Pine River Pre-Pack, Inc of Newton, Wisconsin.

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