Saltwater taffy may be considered the signature candy of the Jersey Shore, but fudge is more popular, and certainly more American.
Fudge is made fresh and sold in more than a dozen shops from Atlantic City to Cape May, while just three locations still make taffy.
Douglass Fudge on the Boardwalk in Wildwood makes both fudge and saltwater taffy, so it caters to both sides in this competition of icons.
Jason Dugan, who with brother James manages the business owned by mom Barbara Dugan, said fudge is tops.
“Fudge is more popular. We sell more fudge, but taffy is a close second,” said Dugan, 25, of Wildwood.
He said young children and older adults sometimes have problems chewing sticky taffy.
Katie Ball, who owns and operates three Laura’s Fudge stores in Ocean City with brother John, said fudge is the clear leader and gave reasons why.
“Fudge is definitely more popular. Usually people buy taffy as a gift item they’re bringing back, whereas fudge they usually get one as a gift and one for themselves,” said Ball, of Ocean City.
She said fudge became popular before there was air conditioning, because it doesn’t melt like chocolate or get sticky like taffy.
“Fudge doesn’t need to be refrigerated, which makes it easier to transport,” she said.
Brian Corbett, who manages the Original Fudge Kitchen shop on the Ocean City Boardwalk, said taffy may be equally as sweet, “but I think fudge has a richer taste.”
That rich taste is a key to the shop’s effective marketing strategy of offering free samples of fudge to Boardwalk strollers.
The other piece of the plan is having Corbett, 32, of Egg Harbor Township, and other staffers hand mix the fudge in copper kettles with wooden paddles in the shop’s front window. That’s done in all but one of Original Fudge Kitchen’s six stores dotting the oceanfront down to Cape May.
Corbett has worked at the shop 18 years and has a master’s degree in sports medicine, which he does part-time.
“A lot of customers are discouraged by taffy because it’s so sticky,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, it will pull the crown off my tooth.’”
One thing saltwater taffy definitely pulled off was one of the greatest marketing triumphs in U.S. history.
Until the 1880s, taffy was an English candy of modest popularity in this country.
Then an Atlantic City shop owner whose store was flooded in 1889 had the brilliant idea to market his inventory as “salt-water taffy.”
The name suggests the shore and its healthful environment, and saltwater taffy has thrived ever since — even though saltwater isn’t involved in any aspect of its production.
Fudge, however, is an American invention that also turned up toward the end of the 19th century.
According to Lee Edwards Benning’s 1990 book, “Oh Fudge! A Celebration of America’s Favorite Candy,” a student at Vassar College heard about fudge making in Baltimore in 1886 and she made 30 pounds of it to sell for a class fund-raiser.
Her recipe became popular, and soon fudge making spread to other women’s colleges in the Northeast and then across the nation.
Douglass Fudge dates to the confection’s early conquest of America. Started in 1919 by Dugan’s great uncle, Harvey Douglass, it is the oldest family-owned and -operated business in Wildwood, Dugan said.
That history is the key to the shop’s appeal in a market rich with competitors.
“We have three candy makers who are incredible and have been with us more than 40 years each,” he said. “They’ve perfected their craft, and people are getting the same great-tasting fudge as years ago.”
The store’s fudge specialist, he said, is David Adams, of Wildwood.
“Our customers often say, ‘I started coming here with my grandparents, and now I’m taking my grandkids,’” Dugan said.
Katie Ball said fudge shops also compete on taste and texture, with different recipes and methods that result in some fudges being creamier, others grainier.
“Prices are pretty much the same on the Boardwalk, all within a dollar of one another,” she said. “You have to stay competitive.”
Her Laura’s Fudge shops also compete by offering special flavors such as key lime, root beer and orange cream.
“We try to change them up during the summer. Then in the fall, it’s always pumpkin fudge,” she said.
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