Saved from the brink of extinction

Anthony Abbondanza
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New life breathed into Stilwell’s tasty 84-year-old humbug tradition

Lorne Jenkins has spent nearly his entire livelihood as a candy maker, producing the infamous Stilwells humbug out of its tiny LaSalle factory for the last 20 years.

Along the way –which included various trips to the dentist – the Stilwell owner has ran into financial obstacles over the years; his humbug empire, an 84-year Montreal staple, on the verge of extinction.

“It was slow. I was starting to close the shop more often. I was having a real hard time with the accountants. So I said, ‘I’m going to work elsewhere,’” said Jenkins, the grandson of  founder Richard and Constance Stilwell  who brought their secret recipe for humbugs with them when they moved to Montreal from England in 1914.

When storeowner Toni Cochand of Pointe Claire’s Le Panier was denied her request for more of the brown and gold candy last August, learning of Stilwells eventual demise, she enlisted her husband, a well-known Montreal businessman.

“I called but was terribly disappointed to hear that Stilwells would no longer be making their famous humbugs, which was really sad news for me because so many of my customers are regulars who depend on us to keep them in stock,” said Cochand.

A humbug enthusiast since his childhood, Cochand’s husband John Angus looked into the matter and quickly decided to revitalize the 84-year-old business.

Angus has spent the better part of his career turning troubled businesses around. Upon meeting Lorne and subsequently exploring the factory, Angus quickly discovered what troubled Stilwells – bad packaging and bad business.

“Lorne is one of the best candy makers around but doesn’t know a damn thing about business,” said Angus as Jenkins continued to produce –by hand – a new batch of humbugs.

Angus took over the business and remedied the packaging problem, which not too long ago produced clumpy candy as a result of humid summers and unsealed plastic bags. Humbugs are now coolly placed into a doubled sealed bag.

So how is Stilwells operating now?

“This year when people heard it was back in business, three of five calls my wife gets at Le Panier is about humbugs. We can’t keep up. It’s like the smoke meat phenomenon. People want their Montreal staples. And apparently, they want humbugs,” said Angus.

When asked whether he’d turned the Montreal institution into a mass production factory so as to turn a heftier return on his investment, Angus said clearly “no, the humbug has to be a handmade candy. It’s part of the tradition.”

And as Jenkins eloquently put it while beating the massive sugar-based humbug in its raw state, “nothing has or will change. Otherwise, you’ll lose customers.”

For more information on Stilwell’s, visit www.stilwells.ca.

@AAbbondanza1

Geographic location: Montreal, United Kingdom, Pointe Claire

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