As urban legend has it, a man named David Bradley owned a confectionary stand on the Atlantic City boardwalk, at the turn of the 20th century. After a night of heavy storming, Bradley returned to find his stand flooded and his candies soaked with seawater. He decided to sell the taffy anyway, jokingly calling it “salt water taffy.”
Bradley’s marketing ploy worked—driving fellow Atlantic City taffy-makers, James Candy Company and Fralinger’s, to rebrand their product as well. “Salt water” taffy and the health of the tourist-reliant Jersey shore economy have been inextricable since.
Atlantic City sits on Absecon Island, a small coastal barrier near the southern tip of New Jersey. The establishment of regular rail service in the 19th century connected the shore to Philadelphia and New York, and led to the rise of large resorts and the country’s first boardwalk. By the 1880s, thousands flocked to “The World’s Playground” for gambling, drinking, jazz music, and taffy. The Garden State’s most prominent boardwalks featured several candy stores where confectioners could be seen throwing six-foot-long ropes of taffy over hooks.
The bustle of Atlantic City only slowed with World War II, when the city was used as a military staging port. After the war, current CEO Frank Glaser’s father and his three brothers bought James Candy Company, in the hopes of riding Atlantic City's revival. What the Glaser family, and many others, did not expect was that the decline of railways through the 50s and 60s would slow the taffy business.
“People used to take a train down to Atlantic City. But then the mentality was ‘I have a car, I can go to the mountains or I can go to a lake,’” says Glaser. Other beach communities that were previously not accessible by mass transit grew to new prominence, and Atlantic City lost its unique appeal. The economy slowed for two decades until the city found a new way to distinguish itself—as a hub for gambling.
With the state legalizing casinos in Atlantic City in 1976, the city's status as a global playground was reinstated. Boxing matches, concerts, and other major events came with the casinos, and with that, a multitude of taffy customers (Glaser recollects taking Frank Sinatra’s order in 1978, for 500 pounds of taffy). The James Candy CEO struck deals to open sweet shops within three of the largest casinos, and shortly thereafter, he bought out his competitor, Fralinger. Salt water taffy was firmly enshrined as part of the new Atlantic City experience, and for better or for worse, officially tied Glaser’s fate with that of his city.
James Candy Company’s persisted due to its storied past and nostalgic customer. “We haven't changed anything since I've been here, and that's 50 years,” Glaser says. “People love nostalgia, it’s like going to an antique store. Actually the older, antique [taffy] boxes sell even better.” But looking backwards can only carry Glaser forward so much longer. Over the last 30 years, surrounding states have passed laws permitting casinos, ridding Atlantic City of its gambling monopoly. The South Jersey Economic Review reported in March 2017 that the city’s GDP declined 21.4 percent between 2006 and 2015, and in 2016 the state government took the city over to prevent bankruptcy.
The changing of hands has threatened many of the tourism-dependent businesses in the area, Glaser’s company especially. “In 2006, this was a very, very strong company,” Glaser told me. “But the last few years, it’s just been extremely difficult to try to keep things open, to pay the bills, so I just said ‘you know what I’ve dumped enough money into this.’” As Glaser plans to complete his bankruptcy process this month, he is optimistic but still expects challenges ahead. After three months of closure due to the pandemic, Glaser’s warehouse and retail facilities are slowly reopening now, but to much fewer customers.
Even with its opulent boardwalk skyline, it is hard to imagine Atlantic City as the roaring entertainment capital it once was, and COVID-19 imposes an additional hardship on the city’s tourism-reliant economy. But as Atlantic City’s casinos shutter and tourism dwindles, salt water taffy stubbornly remains—a reminder of ritzier times, even as the city struggles to not stretch itself too thin.