“Don’t worry,” assures Michael, racing to retrieve some of his decorating supplies. He fills the void of empty space with a line of red candy hearts, which I think only serve to highlight the mess I’ve made. But I’m not really worried. As long as the heart is filled with Luke’s favorite — the chocolate-covered marshmallows — I’m golden.
Stepping out into the retail area, still wearing my working-girl apron, I hover behind the counter, an array of delightful confections there for the taking. I giggle to myself with glee, reaching out to take whatever my hot little gloved-hand desires. Chocolate-covered marshmallows? Of course. Peanut-butter cups? Certainly. Double-dipped Oreos? Why not. As I surreptitiously stuff a chocolate-covered graham cracker in my mouth, I hear a voice from the other side of the counter.
“Miss, please get me these pretzels. I want the dark ones.”
I look up to see a prim, older lady. She has on a very proper coat and a fancy hat. I’m stunned silent for a moment, and then the thought occurs to me: She thinks I work here! And then, oh, wait, I do!
“Um, let me get someone to help you,” I blurt, before wiping the crumbs off my chin and slinking to the back.
Thankfully, I didn’t offend her — JoMart’s customers have been coming here for generations, and many of them tell Michael they remember buying a certain sweet from his father. “The enjoyment is very connected to memories,” he explains to me.
In fact, the best way to describe JoMart is as one big, happy family. TV producers have approached Michael about a reality show, but once he heard they wanted the “personal drama,” he refused. “I could never do that to my family,” he tells me. Unlike the “Cake Boss” or any other personalities, Michael isn’t a dilettante. He doesn’t scream orders across a room, subject his employees to fits of rage or even really raise his voice. The entire day we worked together, I never saw him give anyone directions, yet everyone knew that he was in charge and that there was a mission to accomplish.
“Help her wrap this,” he says to the employees in the gift-wrapping room, switching on a dime to fluent Spanish. The women take my chocolate-filled heart, wrap it in cellophane and try to show me how to form a perfect, fluffy red bow from a single piece of ribbon. “Like this?” I ask, holding up a sad little bow that looks as if it’s been sat on. The women giggle at me and again show me how to unfold each petal, until our handiwork looks like something you’d buy in a Hallmark store.
By the end of the day, I’m exhausted — making candy is hard work, and these 60-somethings have shown this 30-something just how much stamina is involved.
As I leave, I know I’m not the next apprentice to the candy legacy, but I’ve definitely been accepted as an honorary member of the JoMart family. Michael shakes my hand, then thinks again and gives me a warm hug goodbye. His wife, Debbie, sends me off with treats for the twins.
Driving away, I can’t help but think how wonderful — and rare — it is that some small businesses stay small.
RONNIE KOENIG, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a writer of comedic screenplays and memoirs. She is also an unrepentant chocoholic.