The Highlands Historical Society is committed to preserving stories of the neighbourhood’s past. In this project’s latest chapter, longtime Highlands resident Bill Agnew shares memories of working and playing in the area. In part two of the interview, Bill talks about the adventures he and his wife, Wendy, experienced while running a successful chocolate factory, including using their ingenuity to fulfill special requests from customers. The interview was conducted by Michelle Olsen, with transcription by Louella J. Janzen Pick, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Wendy’s Dream: the Story of Riddles Sweet Impressions
My wife was at home, and we made a mutual agreement when we got married that we were going to have five kids and we were going to live life to the fullest, but one of the conditions that we [agreed] was that she would be a stay-at-home mom until the kids got to high school, so that’s what she did. She was a stay-at-home mom, but she always had four or five extra kids here all the time, and she was involved in the community and involved in all of the things which moms did then at that time, but she always wanted to start a business.
She always wanted to do it, so she took cake decorating courses and that sort of thing, and we worked hard, and finally the kids got to the age where Darren, the youngest boy, he got out of high school — or just was in high school and all the other kids were well on their way with jobs and other things, so she worked at Continuing Education and taught cake decorating and specialty things.
And she met a guy that had this idea of making logo chocolates for hotels and restaurants and institutions and corporations, so she started working on it. So that was called CHOCO-MARK, and unfortunately that didn’t go very well for a lot of different reasons, but she was the go-to person and was making it go, and everybody else was having a lot of fun.
And so that company broke up, but she wanted to keep going, so her dad owned a building over on the south side, and we started a chocolate company called Riddle’s Sweet Impressions, which was her maiden name, and started with one room and one chocolate melter, and we had – people that we’d made contacts with [who] taught us how to make the moulds, how to do all of the things, and she had the technical knowledge because it was the love of her life doing cake decorating and that.
She had won most of the culinary awards, medals in Western Canada and in North America throughout the number of years that she was [making chocolates]. She was always competing with the top chefs at the Macdonald Hotel and Chateau Lacombe, and she always came [back] wearing the gold medals, and I have cupboards full of them upstairs.
Anyway, we started this chocolate company right out of this room that we’re sitting [in] here today. We had two coolers out on the patio. We put poly down over the rug on the floor, and we started making chocolates here. And that went along until we rented a shop up on the south side on Wagner Road, and the rest is history. We did that for almost 30 years together, and I did everything to keep the business running. She ran the shops, and I did everything else.
I basically made candy every day as I ran the business. We never had a sales force or anything, and [the company] just kept growing and growing and growing. In 1986 we met a fellow by the name of Bill McCready who was the head candy maker at Pavey Candies in Edmonton from 1905, and he was with Pavey’s until he was almost 75 years old, when the company went bankrupt. So I was the only game in town that was doing chocolates — and we were making hand-made candies just with a marble slab and scissors, and he found out about us. And I went to the auction, and I’d never been to an auction in my life, but I bought the whole plant for $5.
So I moved it out of the south side and put it out in the yard where [my wife] started it on Wagner Road, and Bill McCready came and knocked on the door. And he said, do you want to learn how to use that? Bill McCready became a true friend, and he came to the plant every day and taught us all the recipes and the techniques. It was all 1800, early 1900 vintage equipment, and we made everything that they made from 1905 until we sold it in 2006, I guess. And Bill McCready came to work every day, and he made candy until he was a hundred and a half years old. And he loved life. People said I added 25 years to his life.
So that’s my work experience of where I came from, just short and dirty. There was a lot of little things in the middle there that complemented what I was able to do, so Riddle’s was the longest job I had, and that was almost for 30 years where Wendy and I made candy and chocolates together, and we did a lot. We made 40,000 lollipops a day, 20,000 hand-made chocolates a day, toasted coconut marshmallows for all the major chain stores in Western Canada, and it just kept growing and growing and growing. The biggest mistake we ever made is we always said, “Yes, we can,” and we never let a customer down, and they just kept coming.
We did all the CP hotels in Western Canada, all the CN hotels, which became the Fairmont hotel chain, and we did all of their specialty stuff and equipment from desserts to chocolate specialties and anything that they wanted. Telus, and the City of Edmonton, AGT, construction companies, PCL, they were all our customers; and any time they wanted something done they’d phone up and say, Can you do this for us? “Yes, we can,” and we never backed down. And that’s a quick story of — quick from, well, 1944 till 2013, I guess.
MO: So what was your favourite part about working at Riddle’s?
BA: Oh, boy, I was master of all things, and anything came along. I was responsible for sales, marketing, accounting, equipment repair, and making candy and keeping sure that everything was running.
There were a lot of challenges. How we ever survived is above and beyond me, but stuff just kept falling out of the sky, and, “Yes, we can” would hold us in there. There were lots of times we shouldn’t have survived. But we started off with nothing right in this room and built it to 13,000 square feet of manufacturing space and a lot of stuff.
It was all fun. I made candy and wrapped chocolates and melted chocolate. We’d start at 5:00. 5:00 to 5:30 every morning Wendy and I would start the plant rolling to melt the chocolate during the night, start up the burners for the candy, and then the staff would come in and work all day. And I was on the floor most of the time and so was Wendy. We were truly hands-on.
MO: How large a staff did you have?
BA: Well, at one stage when we had so many orders at Christmas time, and that’s when we had 35 or 40 employees, but we had stable employees of around 10 to 12 or 15, because we did desserts, we made chocolates, we made candies, and a number of other things. So there was always lots to do. So, there wasn’t a dull moment, let’s put it that way.
“Yes we can do that”: Chocolate Credit Cards and Oil Derricks
MO: Any standout stories you remember, or incidents?
BA: Well, the “Yes, we can” meant there was. We made logo chocolates for all the CP hotels, so if you went to the Jasper Park Lodge or the Chateau Lacombe or any in Canada, from the Empress Hotel to the Chateau Laurier in Québec, we did their specialty items.
So one night I was working late in the shop and Wendy was working out in the plant and there was a telephone call, and it’s a guy on the end of the phone, and he said, I understand you make logo chocolates. And I said, Sure. I just — just sitting there doing some paperwork, and he rambled on. And he said, Can you make a credit card chocolate, same as a credit card? I said, Sure I can, I can do that.
And so we talked, and he said — and I can’t remember the exact number, but I’m just going to pick a number out of my head — he said, can you make 250,000 of them in the next 30 days? And, Yes, I said, I think we could. Not a chance in the world how I was going to pull this one off, but he said, well, can you meet tomorrow morning in the Telus Tower, and we’ll have a discussion about what we want to do, but we would like a Telus credit card, the actual size, in the package with the Telus logo that’s on the credit card in raised lettering on the card, and he said — he said, we’ll talk about this and see what you can do. When the conversation started, I thought it was just somebody else going to pick my brain, but this is really true.
So I got off the phone, and I went out to the plant, and by morning I had put together an idea with some samples and my dog-and-pony show of what I could do. And I got to his office. And all of a sudden I’m sitting in a boardroom with 10 or 12 people that [have] this project for all of Western Canada. They wanted a credit card for Christmas [with] every Telus credit card in the mail by December the 1st . Could I do the whole thing from beginning to end? Yes, I can. We pulled it off.
MO: Oh, wow! So how?
BA: Well, we basically could do it if we did it 24 hours a day — and Christmas was our busiest time. I mean, all the corporate customers and all the hotels all wanted specialty stuff like gift baskets and specialty chocolates. Once we got the order, then we did a prototype. I got a boxing company involved that we got a lot of supplies from, a national company, and I knew the guys. And the suppliers were always there whenever we needed boxing or whenever we needed something. And I was probably one of the only customers in Western Canada that could buy chocolate directly from Callebaut in Paris. I bought it by the container load.
MO: How did it get here?
BA: On the boat. So we got the order, and I phoned up Barry Callebaut; I got this order, and they filled the order and got it on the boat, because that was a lot of chocolate. That was a lot — because the size of a credit card and it was about 3/8 of an inch thick, and thenthe boxing company made me the packaging for it, then we bought two cello wrapping machines, and then we started working 24 hours a day, to manufacture them.
Then we put them in a storage room, and we just kept piling and up and piling. And then we got a production line and the two vacuum wrappers and the packaging, and we folded the boxes by hand. And so that’s when we had, like, 30 or 40 employees or two shifts, two 12-hour shifts, and we got them done, and we put them in the mail, and it just went like that.
MO: That’s really neat.
BA: It was. So that was our biggest single order we had. We had a standing order with every CP hotel in Western Canada for all of their dining rooms, roll-downs in their bedrooms, and their specialty shops, so that was a lot of chocolates.
BA: So we did an average of 20,000 hand-made, hand-wrapped chocolates a day.
MO: What was the other story you were going to tell me?
BA: So the Jasper Park Lodge and the Banff Springs Hotel are the same chain. The Jasper Park was a CN hotel, the Banff Springs was a CP hotel, but then they became the same management teams.
So the Oilmen Show always had a golf tournament every year at these hotels, and it would be one at Banff, then one at Jasper, then one at Banff. So the food and beverage managers and the managers and the chefs would always try and outdo each other every year that it had to be something really, really, really special.
We had been involved with the hotels for probably nine or ten years on an annual basis, so everybody knew who we were. We got a call in July, and it was the Jasper Park Lodge’s opportunity to do something for the golf tournament. So the chef phoned me up, and the food and beverage manager said, “Can you come out, we want to sit down. We’ve got an idea we want to run by you. It can be done, because we can do it, but we don’t have the expertise, nor do we have the space nor the pizzazz to do it all. Can you build an oil derrick to — to-scale oil derrick out of chocolate with all the rigging and everything that would go with that, 18 to 24 inches high, in that vicinity; could you do it?”
“Yes, we can.”
So we got the order, and we started in July. I made every mould that we made out in my garage.
MO: What did you make them out of?
BA: They’re made out of plastic, and you make a positive and a negative, and it’s a technique that we developed with the printing department that printed our boxes. And so we developed a technique where we could get the three-dimensional image on the chocolate. And so when the oil derrick came, I actually got the blueprints of an oil derrick and reduced it down to size, and then made moulds with strips of chocolate the size to the scale of the oil derrick. And we had to do 85 of them because there was 85 tables in the dining room that they wanted dessert to come in with the maître-d’ and the waiters to deliver that to the table, and then there was a gifted chocolate for everybody at that table, and there was, like, 1,000 people or 800 people at that dining room that night. So it was pretty spectacular.
Anyway, we started making the pieces like we did with the Telus logo chocolate, and we stacked them up and all the pieces, and Wendy would put them all together. Then we rented a truck, and we drove them up, and we delivered them right to the tables that night of the banquet.
MO: So how long did it take to make each derrick?
BA: Oh, Wendy was pretty good at it. All of it was made out of solid chocolate, and I don’t know how long it would — but maybe an hour’s time once all the pieces were made. That’s to assemble it.
MO: Over 85 derricks?
BA: Eighty-five derricks.
MO: Eighty-five hours.
BA: That’s just for the assembly, yeah. And it was fun, but we worked around the clock.
BA: We worked real hard. We did. It was a lot of fun. It was my wife’s dream, and she fulfilled her dream to the fullest.
We had a lot of support, as I told you about the Highlands. People were always there, and if you treat people well and treat them like you want to be treated, you’ll be surprised what comes back. And that’s what life’s all about.
Stay tuned for Part III of Bill Agnew’s life story in Highlands, when we go from work to leisure