If Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory had a real-life counterpart, Lisa Stephen’s Eastport shop would perfectly fit the bill.
Sweeties Downeast, the yellow clapboard storefront with red and moss-green accents, stands out from the other 1800s commercial buildings lining Water Street. Big, colorful balls wrapped in cellophane, resembling hard candy, fill the plate-glass glass windows.
Inside Sweeties, the black-and-white tiled floor draws the eye and contrasts with gold and orange walls. Chocolate malt balls, gummy worms, jelly beans, jawbreakers, licorice, jumbo lollipops, peanut brittle, fudge and just about every other imaginable sweet compete for space in the candy emporium.
“We have an older demographic here,” Stephen said of the easternmost U.S. city. The deep-water port is just a mile across Western Passage to New Brunswick, Canada, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent summers on Campobello Island. “I mean, it’s definitely the only thing in Eastport that really caters to kids.”
Opening in 2013, Sweeties has revived a longtime local fondness for candy — in particular an old-time favorite, the honey stick. The sweet actually doesn’t contain any honey. It is semi-hard fondant on a stick that’s dipped in dark chocolate.”
The tradition of honey sticks dates back to 1851 when Beckett & Co. opened its doors and began stocking penny candy just a few doors down from Sweeties. The Beckett family’s candy-making craft goes back even further and across the Atlantic to Kilmarnock, Scotland. It was there that John G. Beckett learned the confectionery trade from his father, Hugh, struck out on his own and immigrated to Eastport, where he established a bakery. As teens, the patriarch’s sons Frank and John Jr. learned how to make candy and various soda syrups and ginger and root beer, according to Al Churchill in a St. Croix Historical Society article published last year.
“A kid could buy molasses gems, honey sticks and broken fragments of chocolate by the ounce at a very reasonable price,” Churchill recalled. “I blame my addiction to chocolate on Dave and Phil Beckett, friends and classmates who occasionally worked at the store and were quite generous when reading the candy scales.”
Like Churchill, folks of all ages are discovering and returning to Sweeties. Stephen, the sweet shop’s owner and founder, tracked down and obtained the hallowed honey stick recipe from the Beckett family. She donates 10 percent of the sweet’s proceeds to the local food pantry.
Selling candy wasn’t one of Stephen’s ambitions. For 35 years, she worked in the high-stakes fashion industry where she designed clothes for brands including Liz Claiborne, Jennifer Moore, Ann Taylor and Miraclesuit Swimsuits.
Seeking a slower pace of life and a place to retire to, the Canadian-born designer had fantasized about moving to the Canadian Maritimes and began her hunt in Eastport, but immediately fell in love with the maritime, working community.
Stephen found, bought and remodeled a dwelling with a sweeping water view in town. She made it her second home before moving there permanently from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley in 2012.
“I just fell in love,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful, and I still feel that way.”
That same year, Stephen bought two old storefronts, with their original tin ceilings on Water Street and did extensive market research along the Maine Coast before settling on candy as her new occupation.
“I thought I’m just going to watch the ebb and flow of the traffic for a year to see,” she related. “I started going to other tourist towns up and down the coast to look at what sort of businesses were there other than art galleries and gift shops.”
Stephen’s artistic flair is evident everywhere from her eye-catching window displays to the restoration of dentil molding and other architectural features of the combined historic storefronts.
Open four months of the year, Stephen and Eastport have partnered to host “Moonlight Movies,” a free screening of movies Friday nights, in the city’s outdoor amphitheatre. She’s also working on securing the recipe for molasses chews — another Beckett specialty.
“I think it has lots of personality to it,” Stephen said, surveying her shop. “You can kind of get a little idea now, but it’s like a Willy Wonka fantasy store.”