Good Food

Have You Had Your Confection Consultation?

a colorful illustration of a candy bar with arms and legs jumping in a candy store, with the words: Have you had your confection consultation?

Surrender to the Sweet Spell of Allison Schraf and Zingerman’s Candy Store

I was thrilled to meet Candy Store manager Allison Schraf at Zingerman’s Coffee Company for some morning caffeine and a chat about what she’s been up to. Like so many Zingerman’s passionate food professionals, Allison’s career path began elsewhere. In her case, with a degree in Equestrian Studies followed by training horses and managing horse farms. Uncovering a zeal for cooking and moving from New York City to Ann Arbor (with several stops in between) led her to a career in specialty food shops. Thus far, her 19-year Zingerman’s career includes product specialist and staff supervisor for Zingerman’s Delicatessen from 1998 to 2006, wholesale sales manager for Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory from 2012 to 2017, and Candy Manufactory retail manager from 2017 to the present.

Although we have worked together for decades and I’m a regular at the Zingerman’s Candy Store, I learned many new things and was really energized by our talk. Her love of what she does, enthusiasm for customer service and a guided shopping experience (aka a confection consultation), and the joy that comes with being around candy is simply inexhaustible. I hope you have the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself, and very soon!

Sara Hudson
Zingerman’s Creative Services Director

Sara: How would you describe the feel of Zingerman’s Candy Store in a few words?
Allison: Magic. Warmth. Abundance. Joy. Fun.

Sara: What do guests say when they step inside for the first time?
Allison: I have found people in America have a complicated relationship with candy, or maybe more accurately, with treating themselves. Some common comments are: “This is a dangerous place,” “This is so sinful,” and “I don’t eat this stuff, it’s for my grandmother.” Others who happily give in to the joy say: “This is magical,” “I want to eat all of it,” or “You have so many things I’ve never seen before!”

One woman recently came in with great urgency and said “I heard you have calissons!” (a traditional French confection made of almond marzipan and candied orange melon). With tears in her eyes, she shared that they remind her of her family and childhood. Candy pulls on people’s memories of special times and special people. We get to watch them access those memories when they are in the store.

Sara: What would you tell someone about Zingerman’s Candy Store who’s never been?
Allison: There is something for everyone! Craft chocolate for every taste, hand-made candy bars and nut brittles, flavorful gummies and fruit jellies, locally-made bonbons, imported Scandinavian licorice, Italian marzipan, Spanish nougat, nostalgic hard candies, vegan milk chocolate, and more! Our staff is here to help you choose the right treat for yourself or gift for someone else.

Sara: What’s the best part of your job as Candy Store manager?
Allison: The very best part of my job is curating the product mix. It is endlessly exciting to learn about and explore the enormous world of confections and then bring them to the store to delight our guests.

Sara: What is your philosophy when sourcing a new confection?
Allison: We love updated nostalgia, when your inner child meets your grown-up palate and they have a good time together! A great example is the Askinosie chocolate-covered malt balls. You probably grew up with a version of chocolate malt balls as a kid, but maybe now you would love them to be made with better quality ingredients and more flavorful dark chocolate. The Askinosie version pleases your childhood memory and your adult palate.

Like all Zingerman’s businesses, we are guided by seeking out traditionally made foods. Some traditions are disappearing, so we try to champion these things, make them available to those who are looking for them, and introduce them to new fans. For instance, I knew I wanted to import really high-quality artisan Italian marzipan, so I searched and tasted (for two years!) before finally finding the one! They’re really special.

Sara: What’s next on your search?
Allison: I would like to add more confections from India, China, and the Middle East to expand the variety of flavor profiles we have in the shop. We’re also continuing to grow our “Provisions” selections which are non-candy items like nuts, dried fruits, sauces, syrups, and snacks to round out your pantry.

Sara: How many items does the candy store offer?
Allison: We offer around 400 to 500 items year round! More than 60 of those are handmade in-house by the skilled candy cooks at Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory. You’ll find an even larger selection during the holidays when we’re stacked with seasonal exclusives.

an illustration of three faces putting candy bars in their mouths
Sara: Tell me about the “chocolate wall.”
Allison: We have about 100 different bars of craft chocolate in the candy store (that expands for the holidays) and we are looking for new and amazing craft chocolate all the time. You can find white, milk, dark, vegan, the full spectrum of cacao percentages 40-100%, and a world of flavors–from the familiar peanut butter, raspberry, and coconut to the less-common cardamom, bergamot, and hot paprika.

Sara: How does one pick from 100 bars?
Allison: I ask four questions to find out where you are in your journey with craft chocolate. (That’s Step 1 in Zingerman’s 4 Steps To Great Service, find out what the customer wants!) Based on your answers, I choose two or three recommendations and offer a taste. Typically people are surprised and delighted at the thought of samples, but also those lovely Midwest manners kick in and they say, “Oh no. Don’t go to any trouble. Not if you have to open it.” But once they taste, it’s highly likely they’re going home with a new favorite confection. Watching them as they taste and seeing their reaction, it’s just the most fun. I had the same experience at the Deli seeing people leave so happy with their choice and they found the perfect things. We’re so lucky to be able to do that.

Allison’s 4 Questions to Guide Chocolate Choices

  1. Is it for you or someone else?
    (If it’s a gift you might not have answers to the rest of the questions)
  2. Dark or milk?
  3. If dark, what %?
    (It’s okay if you don’t have an answer, we’ll help.)
  4. Stuff in it, or not?
    (The industry term is inclusions, but we think that sounds too posh. We’re aiming for easy!)

Sara: What are your picks for the most unusual, rare, and prized treasures on your shelves today?

  • Unusual: Askinosie’s Sweet Potato Pie white chocolate bar (with toasted mini marshmallows!)
  • Rare: Caputo’s Wild Juruá foraged Brazilian cacao, a 70% dark chocolate bar by Luisa Abram
  • Prized: Ziba Shakhurbai Almonds, an ancient heirloom variety grown in Afghanistan

Sara: What are your personal top three favorites right now?
Allison: That is so hard! I am excited about these lately, in no particular order:

  • Fruition’s Bolivian Wild Harvest, a 74% dark chocolate bar 
  • Coloma Garcia Tender Turron with Marcona almonds and orange blossom honey
  • Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory Peanut Brittle

Confection Consultation

Our interview gave me sweet daydreams of candy, so I headed back to the store to buy my usual favorites: Omnom Sea Salted Caramel Chocolate Malt Balls, J. Patrice Lime Coconut bonbons, and an Askinosie Coconut Milk Chocolate bar. Lucky me, Allison was still working and gave me my very own confection consultation. In just a few minutes, she introduced me to things I had never even noticed or tried before, especially after she zeroed in on my love for coconut, like strawberry cheesecake bonbons, fruit punch vegan gummies, and coconut hard candies. I didn’t know I needed a personal candy shopper in my life, but a confection consultation made my experience so much sweeter. I highly recommend you try it out!


This interview originally appeared in the March / April 2024 edition of Zingerman’s News. Check out the latest issue now!