For Ann Flesor-Beck and Devon Flesor-Story, studying at Eastern Illinois University was supposed to be the first step in a quest to put as many miles as possible between themselves and the family business.
The sisters -- and Tuscola natives -- did indeed embark on long journeys away from their hometown, but it wasn’t until many years later they realized their ultimate destination was right back where it all started: Flesor’s Candy Kitchen.
“We all left,” said Ann, the eldest of three siblings who wanted nothing to do with carrying on a candy-making business their grandfather, a Greek immigrant named Gus Flesor, bought in 1904 just three years after arriving stateside.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of town. I had no desire to work really hard and stay in the candy business.”
Located prominently on the corner of Main and Sale Streets in downtown Tuscola, you’d never guess Flesor’s Candy Kitchen sat vacant for nearly 30 years. Humming with customer and employee activity as the late morning sun shines through the expansive front windows and reflects warmly off an old fashioned soda fountain and glass-enclosed racks stocked with seemingly endless rows of chocolates and other goodies, it’s hard to imagine the space as anything short of vibrant.
Vacant it was, though, as the sisters and their brother all decided their childhood years working at the shop were more than enough. Once their father retired from his own stint running the show, the show simply stopped. In fact, the entire downtown section of Tuscola was starting to
“Nobody was in the building and it kind of fell into rack and ruin and disrepair,” remembered Ann. “But in early 2003, there was a for sale sign in the window and I got this hare-brained idea that maybe we should go back into the family business.”
At the time, Devon, the youngest of the three siblings, was living in Tuscola but teaching freshman-level comp and lit in EIU’s Department of English. She had done so for 16 years after earning degrees at Eastern in 1984 and 1988, following her sister to the university after Ann earned her bachlor’s degree here in 1977.
“A lot of younger siblings follow their older siblings to various universities,” explained Devon. “EIU was good for my sister. I went to Eastern because I knew Ann was successful there. And I got scholarship money — what’s not to love about that?”
Ann, whose husband, Roger, is a history professor at EIU, majored in Africana Studies at Eastern after opting out of her original plan to study education. She went on to work in non-profit administration and development roles before doing some management consulting for corporate entities and eventually moving back to the area and doing development work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at EIU. In the meantime, she got a master’s degree at the University of Connecticut and is currently in a Ph.D. program at UIUC.
“I don’t think we sat around and said ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to go back in the family business?’” said Ann. “I think Devon and I were ready to do something else. It all lined up. The fixtures were in town. Devon was ready for a career change. I was ready for a career change.”
“I guess we missed it,” added Devon.
“We did miss it,” said Ann. “I enjoy that we are the place where the coffee guys can come. Kids can ride their bikes up to the pool or play softball and then they can come back down here to have a coke or a “green river” or an ice cream and it’s that safe place their parents know its okay to come here.”
Resurrecting the building wasn’t easy. It took a year and a half of the sisters’ own hard work and that of a construction crew to gut and renovate the building, all while refurbishing and reinstalling all the original fixtures that had luckily been sitting in storage as if waiting to get back home.
“We brought the building back to life,” said Devon. “We took it down to the rafters and then brought it back. It was the biggest challenge we’ve ever taken on in our lives.
“We also had our original recipes, and that was really, really important. We could not have put this together had we not grown up in the business. When we were kids, we had to work here. There was no choice.”
In roughly a decade since reopening the business, it’s safe to say they’ve put their childhood lessons to good use. While Ann tends to handle the business end of things, she has also learned to dip candies and has trained other staff to do so. Devon spends more of her time physically making all sorts of candy: Caramels, chocolates, fudge, brittles, horehounds and cinnamon, to name a few.
“We make about 50 different kinds of candy,” said Ann. “High-quality candy. It’s fresh. We don’t use preservatives; we use very good ingredients. Quality, pure ingredients.”
“Ours is really good,” said Devon. “It’s right up there.”
Devon’s confidence in their confections is apparently well-founded; in addition to in-store sales, they sell a great deal of candy online and have an ever-growing customer base. They stay particularly busy around the holidays and quite a bit of media exposure from national outlets as large-scale as CBS Evening News brings visitors from all over. Add that swelling demand to the day-to-day duties involved with the store’s restaurant and soda fountain, and it’s a great deal of work.
“Had I known how much work it was going to be, I’m not so sure I would’ve done it,” joked Devon. It’s not just hard work on the sisters’ part, either. They employ a full staff and really focus on hiring locally.
“We hire a lot of high school kids who help us after school and on the weekends,” said Ann. “We employ folks from Tuscola. When we opened up, I remember sitting on the steps of Coleman Hall (at EIU) with Devon and we wrote up a vision and a mission statement. One of our mission emphases is to hire local people, so we do.”
That commitment to community is undoubtedly a driving force for the Flesors sisters, and they take pride in helping reinvigorate downtown Tuscola along with being involved in other aspects of the city like the library board, tourism board, and chamber of commerce.
“We are the third generation,” said Ann. “For the folks who remember my grandfather, that’s important. I’m not saying total strangers couldn’t come in here and run a business, but I think the fact that we have that history in place makes a big difference.”
A lot of motivation also comes simply from connecting with customers, particularly those for whom the shop brings back fond memories. They shared a great story to elaborate.
“We had a man come in when we were first open,” remembers Ann. “He walked in the front door and he stood there and he cried because he remembered coming with his grandfather when he was little. He cried and he said thank you.
“So whenever I have a low moment — I’m tired and I think I can’t do this and wonder what were we thinking — somebody will come in and say thank you so much for doing this.”