This summer, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store is counting on its customers’ sweet tooth to propel it past the headache of road construction.
Travelers making an annual pilgrimage to the big yellow barn on Hwy. 169 in Jordan will have to navigate pesky lane closures as crews rush to make safety improvements along the busy thoroughfare. Months of roadwork to replace aging concrete and install median barriers could have a devastating effect on area businesses that rely on heavy cross-traffic.
Robert Wagner, owner of the popular candy store, made an impassioned plea to the Minnesota Department of Transportation after estimating that the proposed detour would slash business by 75 percent.
“We would have been wiped out,” he said. “A lot of people wouldn’t have jobs.”
MnDOT obliged and altered course, but Wagner is still bracing for a 20 percent reduction in sales.
His iconic store, known for quirky sweets like bacon-flavored chocolate and jalapeño cotton candy, has become a popular destination for visitors from across the country. Novelty-seekers can peruse rows of retro soda flavors, Amish popcorn and thousands of saltwater taffies.
“It’s kind of a bazaar/flea market where you just don’t know what you’ll find,” said Jerry Kornder, known as “Jerry the Soda Guy” for his position managing the eclectic soda collection. “All our customers are coming in because they’re looking for something fun.”
Nearly 150 employees, mostly high school and college students, run the seasonal store — where they can eat as much free candy as they can stomach. This week, teens were prepping the operation for its May 11 opener as construction crews droned outside the door.
To maintain the unusual shopping experience for its 600,000 annual guests — and incentivize motorists weary of battling summer construction — Wagner turned to a host of superheroes.
This weekend, he’ll unveil the new attraction: A majestic, hand-painted mural depicting Batman’s Gotham City. Life-size superheroes like Ironman, the Incredible Hulk and Aquaman are scattered throughout the room, with the building’s vaulted ceiling transformed into a comic book wonderland.
A bat signal peeks out from behind some dark clouds above the Gotham City skyline, which then evolves into a brightly lit Minneapolis.
Wagner spent upward of $100,000 commissioning 11 street artists for the job last winter after observing how excited children got around a Spider-Man statue.
Once completed, he introduced the room to his 13-month-old grandson. The tot’s mouth was agape.
“He was transfixed by it,” Wagner said. “I think we’re going to get that [reaction] from kids coming in.”
In fact, the Wagner family has always relied on nostalgia at the big yellow barn.
Old favorites like Pop Rocks, candy cigarettes and Zotz fly off the shelves. Priced at 39 cents a carton, candy cigarettes remain one of the store’s top sellers (guests bought 160,000 packages last season).
The candy occasionally draws criticism from visitors who accuse Wagner of promoting smoking. But he waves it off by saying that most people think it’s a fun reminder of their childhood.
“I don’t have to be politically correct,” Wagner said with a laugh.
His workers also have a gift for riling up passing motorists with controversial signs. Last month, during an April snowstorm, Kornder changed the giant yellow sign to read: “In Only Two Years Trump Fixed Global Warming.”
It was meant to be a jab at 2018’s never-ending winter, but it didn’t sit right with some customers who interpreted the message as outward support for President Donald Trump’s agenda. The message gained media attention and resulted in a bunch of free publicity.
“We have three seconds to convince them to stop,” Wagner said. “If I see people out there photographing the signs, then I know it’s a good one.”
Last spring, the Wagners added a 60-foot-tall space-themed planetarium to help drive traffic.
Three-dimensional rockets and spaceships, including “Star Trek’s” Starship Enterprise and “Star Wars’ ” Millennium Falcon, dangle from the rotating ceiling, while the Black Pearl from “Pirates of the Caribbean” sails on the floor.
“Dr. Who” fans can also revel in an exact replica of his signature blue phone booth.
The planetarium is filled with obscure, interactive candies from countries such as Germany and Japan.
If you go, leave your credit cards at home. This old-fashioned candy shop only accepts cash and personal checks.