A Fresh Start for Pekin’s Sweetest Landmark

by Heather Swick

Maurie’s Fine Candies keeps pace with the times while standing firm on tradition.

In the spring of 2015, a beloved Pekin icon was nearing the end of its nearly 75-year run. Former owner Scot Johannes had laid off staff and was hoping to sell the building, while longtime confectioner Cheryl Frampton was busy whipping up final batches of the candy she had been making for more than 20 years. Loyal customers of Maurie's Fine Candies were rushing downtown to stock up on their favorite treats before they were gone for good.

And then, after closing briefly, Maurie's got a second chance. "I fell in love with this place," says Lelonie Luft. "I fell in love with the possibility of it, and I wanted to keep it alive for Pekin."

Luft is one of a handful of individuals in Maurie’s history to hold the title of “owner.” The original owner, Maurie Smith, opened the business in 1941, and it remained in the family for more than half a century before Dean Bacon purchased it in 1994. Fifteen years later, Bacon passed away, and his wife, Ann, ran the shop for a short time. In 2010, Johannes took over the business, which he frequented as a child for candy and comic books.

Luft says she was looking for a career change when the idea of buying Maurie's came to her. "I saw a grassroots effort taking hold to revitalize downtown Pekin, and I wanted to be a part of that," she adds. And so she began planning, researching and working to make her dream a reality—not only for herself, she says, but also for the faithful customers who had supported the business over the years.

Maurie's became her mission, but Luft says those first months weren't easy. "It was a baptism by fire," she notes. "I didn't know anything about candy—except that I had a wicked sweet tooth."

New Treats and Classic Staples
Since reopening last September, Maurie's Fine Candies has undergone a complete makeover. The main retail area has added bulk candy items—so shoppers can bag their own loot—plus homemade ice cream from Uncle Bob's in Eureka and a range of locally baked desserts. The glass display case shows off Maurie’s classic candies as well as several tasty additions, including cakes, cupcakes, tarts, local cheeses and whatever else is available that day.

Meanwhile, a new window offers a sneak peek into the kitchen, where Frampton is still making candy the way original owner Maurie Smith taught her. The shop still sells magazines, but it has added a section of local authors' books and a case filled with mementos of Pekin history and Maurie's storied past.

Undoubtedly, the most prominent change is the addition of a coffee and ice cream shop next door. Luft purchased this space at the beginning of the year, revamping it into an inviting area for customers to relax and enjoy coffee, pastries and ice cream. "Once I got in here, I realized it needed a lot of work," she says. "I needed to make it an experience to set it apart."

The coffee shop has a distinctive small-town urban feel to it, from its local craft sodas to the exposed brick wall. That wall alone was a labor of love; originally covered by pegboard, Luft knew immediately it had to be incorporated into the design. But the most striking new addition is the original Maurie's sign, which Luft resurrected from storage to place prominently in the shop once again. It sits illuminated at the front of the coffee shop, reminding visitors of bygone days on Court Street.

The coffee shop menu is updated regularly, and ice cream flavors range from traditional to exotic, from chocolate and vanilla bean to cotton candy and RumChata salted caramel. The cupcake flavors change daily as well, as do the pastries. And whether you want a cappuccino, Americano, hot chocolate, chai latte or fruit smoothie, Maurie's has it all. A Pekin resident herself, Luft says it was important to retain and honor Maurie's longtime history. So while you can find new treats like chocolate-covered bacon and cranberry pistachio bark, the classic staples—from chocolate frogs to ting-a-lings—are there to stay.

One treat in particular helped bolster the shop's successful re-opening. September is the peak of caramel apple mania, and customers turned out. "Caramel apple season was a blessing," she says. "Pekin takes its caramel apples very seriously, so it brought people to the store."

Staying ever true to the classics, Maurie’s caramel apples are available with nuts or plain, a simple tradition that has taken hold all over the world. Luft says she has received requests to ship the apples to a number of different countries. "It gives them a taste of home," she explains. "I usually ask people where they are from, and I would say 75 percent of them come from outside of Pekin."

A Community Hub
Luft's vision for Maurie's expands well beyond candy and coffee. She wants to help turn downtown Pekin into a destination, a place where tourists and locals alike can come to spend the day. To this end, she meets with her fellow business owners monthly, participates on the Pekin Main Street board, and works with the city’s economic and tourism staff to build a sense of community. Luft's background in retail, as well as her stint with the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, helps foster that connection. The shop recently hosted a local author's fair, as well as a coffee and canvas painting class—just the beginning of the community-focused events Luft hopes to accommodate.

Besides the addition of catering services, the recently expanded kitchen began offering lunches this summer. The revamped menu includes breakfast items, soups, salads and an assortment of sandwiches, including a reuben panini, pizza panini, grilled ham and brie, and the grilled Gouda goddess.

Whatever lies ahead for Maurie's, Luft says the people make the daily ups and downs of running her own business all worth it. "The people who have come in to thank me for keeping this place alive is one of my favorite parts of the job," she says. "I wanted to keep that tradition going." iBi

Maurie’s is open seven days a week, from 6am to 8pm. Visit mauriescandyandcoffee.com for more information, or stop in at 522 Court Street in Pekin.


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