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Q&A with William “Bill” Johnson

Local candy connoisseur carrying on his family’s nearly 100-year legacy of candy making

By Marguerite Cleveland | Photo by In-Gear Media

The Johnson family has deep roots in Tacoma. William “Bill” Johnson is a third-generation candy maker at the iconic Johnson Candy Co., the family’s business. His wife, Mariclair, is an elementary school teacher in the city. They are raising two boys, ages 7 and 10, who will have the opportunity to continue the family legacy in this iconic business.

The Johnson Candy Co. started in 1925 when Bill’s grandfather Russell Johnson began working in his parents’ business, the Olympic Dairy—a creamery, ice cream shop and finally a confectionery. With a love for candy, he began selling handcrafted chocolates he made using vintage molds. Russell and his wife Irene purchased the business from his parents in 1927 and ran it as a lunch counter where he also sold his candy. In a stroke of luck, he purchased recipes from an old candy maker which have stood the test of time. Many are still used today.

Popular local architect Silas Nelson designed the building on what is now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and the company moved in in 1949. It is in the Hilltop District, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Tacoma. This historic building has a bright neon light sitting atop the roof and draws people in to enjoy the delectable treats within. Bill makes the candy and runs the business now, and his dad, Ron, is still active in the family business.

The candy has always been made by hand—and it is still that way today. The open-face caramels are one of the top sellers. It is easy to see why as they truly are an artisan work of culinary art. Caramel is a notorious medium to work with as the temperature must be just perfect; a few degrees too cool and it is a syrupy mess; too hot and it becomes a hard chew. Throw in Tacoma’s rainy weather, which affects candy making, and you can begin to appreciate the craftsmanship. The company’s caramel is soft and chewy, made with real butter and not too sweet. It is combined with roasted almonds and then hand dipped in either milk or dark chocolate. Whether you purchase at the store or online, the candy will be fresh, and that really does make a difference.

Q. What is it like to work in a family business, especially with your father still dropping in to work most days?

A. I enjoy being able to carry on this legacy. My grandfather started this business, passed it on to my dad, and now I get to share in that. We are genuinely a small business. Family is very important to me, and the opportunity to work with my parents has been something I have really cherished. I have memories of melting ice mints with my dad when I was a young boy, and everything I know about candy making I learned working alongside him. Since COVID has begun, my father has been working from home, but he is still involved in daily operations.

Q. Your candy is seriously good (I sampled as part of my "research”). What is the secret to such a great product? What is your favorite? What is the most popular?

A. I use the same 100-plus-year-old recipes my grandfather used when he started this business. We truly are a small business, and we genuinely care about everything we make, and we hand make most of our candies onsite. My favorite is the dark mint truffle. Our most popular is probably our sea salt caramel, but people also love our open-faced caramels, nut clusters, and our hand-dipped ice cream bars. Our gluten-free and vegan options have been very popular as well.

Q. Can you share with our readers about your company's commitment to staying in the Hilltop District of Tacoma and the exciting updates with the Tacoma Link Rail Expansion running right past your door?

A. I love being a part of the Hilltop neighborhood. We have been here for almost 100 years and don’t plan on going anywhere else. We love the passion people have for the neighborhood. Hilltop has a wonderful history and a great sense of community. The Link Rail has been an exciting development. We hope the neighborhood can grow and honor the people here and its history.

Q. The Johnson Candy Co. has a loyal local base of customers. Can you share what that support means to you as a small business owner.

A. Nobody relies more on their customer base than a small business. When you wait on our customers you quickly learn many of them have been coming here since they were children. It often feels like the candy store is as important to those multi-generational families as it is to ours. I feel like our loyal customers are almost an extension of our family. I am incredibly thankful for their support.

Q. Do you or the company do any community volunteer work or support local nonprofits?

A. The store donates to small charities and nonprofits like the Hilltop Action Coalition, local food banks and shelters. I am also a PTA member at my sons’ schools.

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