A Seder Different From All Other Seders

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Screenshot of www.bartonscandy.com/

In typical recession-era corporate fashion, in the late winter of 2009 a Barton's Candy salesman, planning his annual Passover sales, had heard about a round of layoffs at the company. The news was followed by a more jarring discovery: the chocolate company had canceled its production for its most important time of the year, Passover. The salesman called Menachem Lubinsky--kosher industry insider and editor of the Kosher Today newsletter--in tears, lamenting his professional fate as well as that of the iconic chocolate company.

The salesman's fears were well founded. Cherrydale Farms, Barton's parent company, officially ended the beloved chocolate brand's 71-year run on March 31, 2009. No representatives responded to this reporter's inquiries, though a secretary confirmed the date of death.

Barton's, or Barton's Bonbonniere as it was known under its original owners, is mostly remembered fondly as that chocolate from Passover. Its chocolate desserts had been seen as a near-addendum to the seder plate along with Manischewitz wine.

"People living in the '40s, '50s, and '60s couldn't think of life without Barton's," Lubinsky told me in what might have been an exaggeration. But Barton's tins of Almond Kisses did tempt seder-goers for years, and generations of Jewish children sold Barton's candies as fundraisers. This night--the first in more than half a century that Barton's will not be present--will be particularly different from all other nights.

The Darling of New York

In many ways the Barton's story is the story of New York City. A Viennese immigrant, Stephen Klein, came to New York in 1938 and within a year of his arrival started a chocolate company, bringing his trade and know-how from Old World Europe, where his family had been chocolate wholesalers. In the United States, with companies like Barricini's and Loft's, Barton's rose in prominence as the boutique box chocolate industry played into a new consumerist ethos.

By the 1950s, Barton's was a major chocolate player, the owner of what one Commentary magazine writer described in 1952 as "the most highly mechanized plant of its kind in America." The Barton's brand was also cosmopolitan; its chocolate was sourced from Switzerland, was shipped to New York, and then processed in one of its three Brooklyn facilities. According to a member of the founding Klein family, the competition between Barton's and its rival, Barricini's, was like that of Macy's and Gimbel's.

At its height, in the late '50s and '60s. Barton's boasted over 70 franchises around the country, most in New York. The architect Victor Gruen, a fellow Austrian émigré and the creator of the modern indoor mall archetype, designed its first store in Manhattan on 81st Street and Broadway. Barton's also showcased its products at counters in Bloomingdales, Filene's, and other department stores.

The fall of boxed-chocolate glamor in the '60s forced the Klein family to adapt to a new market. Barton's shops closed and the Kleins once again were in the wholesaling business. Soon Barton's was available in drug stores throughout the country. The Klein family sold its stake in the company in 1978, and Barton's has since changed hands twice more before its death at Cherrydale.

Jewish Roots

"Out of a smooth blend of Viennese charm, American merchandising, and Jewish Orthodoxy, have grown the Barton's candy shops," Commentary wrote in an effort to explain the distinctiveness of the Barton's business model. Barton's had "discovered a gold mine" in its Jewish customer base.

Although its customers were of all different religious backgrounds and its products ecumenically exploited non-Jewish holidays, Barton's was very much a Jewish company. It placed advertisements in leading publications that told the stories of the major Jewish holidays. Even its Easter chocolates were kosher for Passover. In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, when most Jewish shops stayed open on the Sabbath, Barton's closed its doors. Customers searching for chocolate Easter bunnies or candy Santas would be sure to make their purchases before Friday's sundown.

The tin, tinsel, and ribbon packaging added an unusual elegance to a holiday table. It was those wrappings that stuck out in Lubinsky's memory, along with the chocolate shofar. Hasia Diner, a Jewish historian, remembers the Passover chocolates as iconic: "My father was an early health nut and we weren't allowed chocolate in the house, although there was always a box of Barton's on Passover."

In some ways, Barton's was a reflection of the goals and visions of Jews in America--to be both distinctly American, accepted into the mainstream, and still be able to unabashedly practice Judaism.