"I was crossing the street in my old hometown of Fairport, New York, to get some candy," Stephen Traino admits, "and the next thing I knew, this car almost hit me because I wasn't even looking where I was going. That would be the only reason I was in that part of town. Just to get candy."
We're talking at a fold-up card table in the impromptu conference room of a warehouse in National City. Every month, several thousand pounds of sweets pass through here, the hub of Traino's Internet business venture, Candy Direct. Traino has been regaling me for over an hour about his two great loves: business and candy.
"The guy in the car swerved, and he stopped and got mad at me, and he yelled." Traino speaks fast, as if in hot pursuit of his own thoughts. He sports a five o'clock shadow, though it's only 11 a.m. His eyes are wide and roundly brown. "You know, I'm glad the guy got mad at me. I thought he was a jerk at the time, and I was just a little kid." Traino's arms jump and wave in counterpoint to his words, and I can't help but get spurred by his enthusiasm. "You look both ways before you cross the street. I learned that lesson because of candy."
Stephen Traino runs a candy business, yes, but calling him a businessman doesn't seem right: he's a Candy Man, a modern day Willie Wonka. Candy Direct's website gives the impression of offering most every confection ever made (which is almost true). Traino takes a rainbow, wraps it in a sigh, soaks it in the sun and makes a groovy lemon pie. While he's at it, he looks both ways and runs a fine business.
"I love candy," Traino explains, savoring the "o" in "love" as if it were one of his sugary confections. "When I was a kid, we'd ride our bikes for no other reason: just to look for candy. One store we went to was called Clausen's. We'd go through this thing called The Trolley Bed, where the old trolleys used to go through. It was just this big, dirt path, you know, but we'd call it The Trolley Bed.
We'd go down on our bikes, going over the rocks." His voice trails off, he seems far away for a moment, wistfully pedaling into his candied past. Then he starts up again in a friendly upstate-New York accent, his excitement building, the arms waving like a conductor's. "We'd take a left at this road, and go on a few more miles to the store. And when we got there we'd spend probably fifteen or twenty minutes looking at candies, maybe more. I remember they used to make this big long candy bar called the Marathon Bar — they don't make it anymore, discontinued in 1983 — and it had a little ruler on it, so you could see how long it was in inches, and it was twirly, and I remember going to this store just to get that candy bar."
Traino is so unguarded as he tells me about these candies past, so ingenuous with his details, that I find it difficult to believe this childlike fellow sitting before me cuts shrewd business deals.
"Another time, my brother told me, 'stop by Northside,' because that was a store where they had this thing called Bottle Caps. They still make these, but they used to be in these big packages. Now they come in kind of small packages." Traino is sweetest on nostalgic candies. The Candy Direct website revisits such venerable bonbons as Bit-O-Honey, Abba-Zaba, Nut Goodie, Look! Bar, and Charleston Chew. Traino's got the Golden Ticket to most every new and old confection imaginable. He's on a roll now, and I'm starting to get hungry.
Let me confess, before this goes any further, that when it comes to sugar, I am a regular user. I lose control when faced with the temptations of Sweet. Candy comforts, at least until conscience kicks in. Many sorrows have I buried beneath ice cream, chocolate, and sugary treats of all sorts. At times I believe that glutting my body can lighten my soul. At least -- or so I tell myself -- the demons of candy aren't too destructive.
What is it about sweetness? What does it do in mind and mouth that we love it so? Is this a foolish question? One may as well ask why harmonious sounds soothe while dissonant ones grate. Why do some colors pacify, while others incite? When we say someone is sweet, we mean they are kind; we mean they exercise compassion. Does sugar somehow care for our well-being? And if so, then how can it possibly be bad for us? (Ah, so much like love.) I taste irony in the fact that sweet flavors are picked up by buds on the front of the tongue, yet when I can't think of a word, when the word is right there, right on this tongue tip of mine, then that frustrated feeling doesn't register as very sweet.
The history of candy dates back thousands of years -- at least as far back as the Egyptians, who gorged themselves on treats made from fruit and nuts in honey. Making candy is pretty simple: you dissolve sugar in water. The amount of heat applied to the mixture determines the type of candy produced: hot temperatures make hard candy, moderate heat makes soft candy, and cool temperatures make chewy candy. According to one source, the average American consumes more than 25 pounds of confectionery per year. And Stephen Traino is responsible for moving literally tons of the stuff. What kind of man gets to do this for a living?
Traino, now 35, is a born entrepreneur. He has sold frozen yogurt, bathtubs, Xeroxes, and even, as a youngster, junk from out of his own garage.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've been really good at creating new business ideas," he says. "It's like second nature for me. I just always think of business ideas. And I'm always scatterbrained, trying all these different ideas." But he knows a good thing when he sees it, and when the Internet came along he was inspired to twin his two loves, candy and e-business, into one strong braid.