When he was a toddler, Curtis Nokleby said his mother would drop him off at Lee’s Candies, then located at 8th and Jefferson streets where McU Sports is now.
“I can remember a playpen in the back of the store, so I was a prisoner in this place and they’ve never let me out,” said Nokleby, who owns of the shop that has served Boise candy fans for 71 years.
Now 64, Nokleby comes to the shop in the Vista Village shopping center every day to make and sell chocolates and other candies.
Three months before he turns 65, Nokleby said he is ready to be paroled from the business where he’s worked all his life.
He hoped one of his five children would take over the business, but they have their own careers and aren’t interested. He says he is resigned to the fact that when he leaves, the Nokleby family’s four generations of candymaking will end.
“I think a lot about that,” Nokleby said. “That’s kind of sad and bittersweet. I would love to sit home at Christmastime and not worry about what’s going down at the candy store.”
The shop, which has employed eight workers for many years, is named after Nokleby’s father, Lee, who started Lee’s Candies in 1947. Lee Nokleby learned the craft from his father, L.G. Nokleby, who made candy for 35 years and operated the Dewey Palace Confenctionary at the Dewey Palace Hotel in Nampa, beginning in 1911. The hotel was torn down in 1963.
Most of the recipes still used at the shop came from L.G. But Curtis Nokleby developed a cherry walnut cream, a raspberry cream and a sea salt caramel, among others. The chocolates are made using chocolate from Peter’s Chocolate, a Swiss company started in 1875 that Nokleby says produces the finest chocolate in the world.
Curtis Nokleby has operated Lee’s Candies since 1986. His father, who died in 2006 at age 90, kept his hand in the business even after Curtis took over.
Nokleby doesn’t have any firm plans for retiring when he turns 65 in March, so he may end up working beyond that. But he would like to find someone to take over the shop at 840 S. Vista Ave.
No experience necessary.
“Somebody could probably learn the candy-making part,” he said. “If they just worked with me and I taught them, it wouldn’t take too long.”
But covering the candy with chocolate is trickier. A conveyer belt takes the candies through one machine that adds a layer of that Peter’s chocolate (either milk or dark chocolate, tempered to give it a glossy coating) to their bottoms, and then through another one that coats the tops and sides. The chocolates come out on a belt where a worker picks them up.
“It’s exactly like that “I Love Lucy” episode,” Nokleby said, referring to a famous scene from the 1950s TV comedy. “We put her to shame sometimes, because you can’t just stop the machine, because you’ve got all this stuff coming down. If you stop one, then they all run into each other.”
Longtime Lee’s Candies customer Gerald Rudd said he was saddened to hear that Nokleby is looking to retire and potentially hand the shop over to someone else.
“I buy all of my Christmas candy there,” said Rudd, a retired Albertsons executive who was once neighbors with Nokleby’s dad. “Lee’s just has the right combination of chocolate and other ingredients. They make a superb chocolate that match up with any of the best European candies.”
Customers can ask for any amount of chocolates, peanut brittle, truffles, peppermint bark and other sweets that they want. Boxes of chocolates sell for $24 for one pound up to five pounds for $120.
“This time of the year is the most critical,” Nokleby said. “I would say I do a good 65 percent, 70 percent of my business at Christmastime. Then Valentine’s Day comes in for a quick one-week boost and then a little bit at Easter.”
But business isn’t as robust as it once was.
Since 2008, Lee’s Candies has seen a significant decrease in the number of boxed chocolates bought by companies for their employees and clients at the holidays. Those sales traditionally were an important part of the company’s success, Nokleby said. The Great Recession caused many companies to cut back on gifts, and those sales never rebounded.
“If I just settled on walk-in traffic just to come in and buy a few pieces, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “It’s the gifting period that’s important.”
Nokleby declined to provide sales figures, but said the business continues to be profitable.
Lee’s, not See’s
For years, some people have confused Lee’s Candies with a California company with a similar name, See’s Candies.
See’s was founded in Los Angeles in 1921 by Charles See, his wife, Florence, and his mother, Mary. Now owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, See’s operates more than 200 stores in 20 states. The company first came to Idaho in 1988, Nokleby said. It has a store at Boise Towne Square and a holiday store at The Village at Meridian.
“We have people who bring us See’s coupons and are surprised when we tell them we’re Lee’s,” Nokleby said.
Do you eat Lee’s candies? What are your favorites? How do their chocolates and other candies compare with other brands? Reporter John Sowell would like to hear from you for a possible follow-up story. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appears in the Dec. 19, 2018-Jan. 16, 2019, edition of the Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of special coverage of retailing.