MilWorking: Jim Niemann, Third-Generation Candymaker
For a lot of us, the week leading up to Easter is a time to slow down. Some might see it as a period to contemplate their faith, or simply enjoy the chance to spend time with family. But the days leading up to Easter are anything but slow if you're Jim Niemann.
Niemann is the proprietor of Niemann's Candies and Ice Cream, the business his great-grandfather Fred Niemann started - informally - in 1919. Jim has been in charge since 1986. The company has occupied a picturesque storefront in Wauwatosa Village for almost half of its history. But customers who visit the shop may have no idea what goes on in the back of the building.
"All of our products start from scratch," Niemann explains. "We do open-fire kettle cooking - making our toffees, our caramels, our brittles."
The kettles - and much of the equipment Niemann and his staff uses - have been in use for decades. Some recipes still call for hand-stirring, while others employ a fire mixer, which rotates and agitates the ingredients.
But Niemann says it's not just the equipment that's remained consistent through the company's history. "Our recipes haven't changed much," he says, though he notes the size of the batches has increased. "We still use the very traditional basic ingredients."
That means they don't need to use preservatives, which he says surprises some of his customers. "People think we're like a bakery, where if you buy it today, it has to be eaten tomorrow. Our candy has, like, a three-month shelf life."
Not that many of us could keep candy around for three months.
There was a time, Niemann says, that he considered not going into the family business, even as he studied business. "But I came to realize, what better way of doing something that I already knew how to do and liked, and apply the business principles to it?"
That proved to be a good decision. Niemann says there are more good days than bad ones in the candy business. "The real truth is - how can you feel bad about making something that makes people happy?"
In an era in which candy is readily available everywhere from the grocery store to the gas station to the internet, Niemann's chocolate-covered toffee, Easter eggs and peanut brittles cost more than a Hershey bar.
But Niemann says his customers are seeking something beyond a sugar rush. "I think they're looking for a tradition of a really good candy. We have customers all over the country, and they say, 'We don't care what it costs, just don't stop making it', which is a dream come true."