A Sweet Respite ReopensCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In the Lower East Side, a decades-old candy store survives, thanks to loyalists around the country. Published: August 17, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!
One of New York City’s most endearing cultural quirks is that there are as many fervently adored small businesses as there are giant institutional landmarks like the Met and the Empire State Building. Like, where else in the world will you find visitors checking off their bucket lists at a magazine store, a basement barbershop, and a pharmacy?
This week, I’m featuring one such beloved mom-and-pop shop: Economy Candy, the Lower East Side candy mecca that’s been serving a panoply of rare and popular sweets since 1937. Helmed by Mitchell Cohen, whose grandfather opened the shop, and his wife Skye Greenfield, the iconic family business only recently reopened its doors after being forced to close because … well, you know. Keep reading for my conversation with Skye on how their neighborhood has changed over the years, what got them through the last year and a half, and their most popular product during COVID (the sourdough of candy, if you will).
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you and Mitchell take over the shop on Rivington Street?
Mitchell had always planned to go into the family business. In 2013 the stars aligned when his parents were ready to retire, and I was ready to end our relationship over his 24/7 banking lifestyle [laughs]. Three years later, I found myself at a crossroads in my own career and Mitchell suggested I join him at Economy Candy, putting my art school education and advertising experience to work for the family business. We've worked together every day since!
How has the neighborhood changed throughout your tenure?
The Lower East Side has changed tremendously over our lifetimes. The effects of gentrification were undeniable in pre-COVID days. However, as many of the 20- and 30-year-olds who had moved into this neighborhood in recent years moved home during the pandemic, the LES began to feel quite deserted. Now, as things are opening back up, we're noticing a lot more people on the street supporting the small businesses that make up our lower Manhattan community.
What did the lockdown mean for your business?
We closed the doors to the brick-and-mortar shop on March 20, 2020 and only just reopened for in-store shopping on July 23, 2021. For the intervening months, we operated entirely online and curbside. While our website has always been shoppable, we did relaunch an updated version of our website in early March 2020, which turned out to be amazing timing. In response to COVID, we quickly introduced our now popular CandyCare Packs™, which attracted the attention of Gothamist, ABC, NBC, NY1, AMNY, New York Nico, and other local publications. The support of those outlets and their followers allowed our two-person team, down from our typical 14-person staff, to keep operating through the worst of the pandemic days and make ends meet. As the city began to open up later in 2020, we were still not able to afford to bring back enough employees to reopen our retail shop. It's taken us until now to be able to dip a toe back into normal operations.
How did your community show up for you from a distance?
It has been incredibly heartwarming, and even overwhelming at times, the extent to which our local community has poured support into our business. The effort seems to have been contagious because we've received encouraging messages from people all over the country, doing what they can to make sure our 80-plus-year-old business is able to weather this storm.
Did you see a lockdown sales spike similar to that of the wine and liquor industry?
In early pandemic days, there was an influx of people stocking up on their favorites, which was especially buoyed by the camaraderie of the Shop Small movement. Unfortunately, sales dipped as employment became less certain for so many of our customers.
Were there any notable COVID candy trends?
The hottest candy of pandemic life has been Toxic Waste Slime Lickers, which we had to begin accepting pre-orders for at one point, due to the overwhelmingly high demand.
How is business doing right now?
It's doing! On a given day we do approximately 50 percent of the business we had done on that same day in 2019. While we have not yet fully rebounded, we do see things trending in the right direction.
From a symbolic perspective, what role do you think candy plays in our lives, especially in tough times?
Candy is a comfort food that has previously been coined as “recession proof.” While our business has certainly been impacted by COVID, we are grateful to be in an industry that can help bring smiles to peoples’ faces — even in the worst of times.
Economy Candy has been around since 1937; how does COVID compare to other challenges the business has faced throughout the years?
Surviving COVID does not compare to anything Economy Candy had previously endured. Our business opened during the Great Depression, aiming to bring happiness to everyone even if they only had a penny to spare. Since that time, the Lower East Side has seen many changes and endured rampant drug use, crime, and, ultimately, rebirth as the trendy neighborhood it now is. Throughout all of this, and even in the aftermath of 9/11, never did the members of our community feel so unsafe on the streets as when a stranger's cough or sneeze could be so disastrous. Without the foot traffic of locals, international tourism, and party planners, our business immediately dipped below the 25 percent mark. While we hope never to experience a tragedy such as this again, we are certainly a stronger business, and stronger people, for having been through it.
How to help:
- Follow on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok
- Visit the shop over Labor Day Weekend for a special “Grand Reopening Event” in partnership with Big Gay Ice Cream, The Pickle Guys, and other neighboring vendors (more details to come; stay updated via the above social accounts!)
Until next time,