Chestnut Hill candy shop owner on Wonka-esque quest for unusual treats

    When I walked into Zipf’s Candies in Chestnut Hill, I’ll admit that I was on the look out for Oompa Loompas, the diminutive and perhaps slightly sinister workers in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

    Zipf’s is a very small shop, however, so if Oompa Loompas lurked in its confines, they would have to be tiny, even by knee-high standards.

    Plus, owner Alena Hackett assured me that there were no such helpers in the building, or on staff for that matter. She’s the only one who makes the truffles for sale at Zipf’s in an off-site kitchen. The rest of the candy is supplied by manufacturers both local and international.

    Store history

    Hackett purchased Zipf’s from longtime owner and Chestnut Hill resident Muriel Kaplan in 2008, but the store has been in existence since the late sixties.

    At one point, Kaplan’s husband Martin owned the business next door, The Pipe Rack. The Kaplans worked in neighboring shops for years. Day-to-day operations at the two stores were so intertwined that Zipf’s staffers would run to The Pipe Rack to use the credit card machine.

    By the time Hackett came along, operations at the two shops had been separated.

    The Cheltenham native had just returned from college in North Carolina where she worked as a kitchen manager at a shop called The Chocolate Fetish.

    It was there that she learned to make chocolate truffles, frogs and barks.

    On her return to Philadelphia, she heard that Kaplan was looking to sell Zipf’s after nearly 40 years as proprietor. Hackett made the deal and stepped into a role that every child dreams about at some point: owning your very own candy store.

    Hackett is, and is not, Wonka

    Confectionary skills aside, Hackett is by no means the quirky, top-hat wearing manchild I expected a candy shop owner to be. (I’ll cop to being unduly influenced by Gene Wilder’s 1971 portrayal of Willy Wonka, though.)

    Instead, she’s hatless and personable behind the store’s well-stocked counters. She mans the scale with poise — chocolates are sold by weight — and is quick to help me select the appropriate licorice for my amateur palate acquainted only with Twizzlers.

    If there is a little bit of Wonka in her, it becomes apparent in her quest for unique treats.

    “I’m always looking for unusual candies,” she explained.

    Like bushes that grow lollipops or mushrooms that spurt whipped cream? Not quite that unusual.

    For the most part, unusual candies tend to be ones that are made in other countries and not often sold in the U.S.

    For example, Cadbury, a celebrated English candy manufacturer known in this country for its crème eggs, produces a number of chocolates and other treats specifically for the European market that never reach American shores.

    Hackett would love to bring these unusual candies to an American audience. She said she feels they would be right at home alongside the salty licorice imported from Switzerland and the Netherlands, the German Marzipan and her own Philadelphia truffles.

    The mix of both domestic and imported candies hand-picked by Hackett is what makes the offerings at Zipf’s unique.

    While you won’t find a Milky Way bar here, or Oompa Loompas for that matter, the selection is pure imagination.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.