You may have visited the town of Tuscola before to hit up the Tanger outlet malls, or if you’re like me, you loved hitting up that flea indoor market just behind the mall for antiquing and for some of the best fried chicken in the county. Well, last weekend, I bypassed those Tuscola offerings for some downtown Tuscola food treats. My friend and I decided to hangout at Flesor’s Candy Kitchen, an historic food institution located at the main downtown intersection.
Sure, you can get really delicious ice cream, pies, and sandwiches in Champaign-Urbana. But can you also get homemade chocolates and vintage soda fountain aesthetic too? Really, I don’t know. I’m asking. Nevertheless, we categorized our food & drink plans under “Champaign County Excursions" and committed to some Sunday afternoon culinary fun. Please note that the excursion is an easy 30 minute drive to downtown Tuscola.
As soon as you enter through the doors of Flesor’s Candy Kitchen, you’re greeted by the cheery soda fountain in the front corner which stocked with homemade ice cream that is also ready to become your favorite soda fountain treat if you’re on the search. Then, your eyes travel through the immensity of the space until they finally hit the back wall and you maybe feel its history wash over you. Many internet reviews will tell you that stepping into Flesor’s is like stepping back in time. I say you would be stepping back into times, specifically into the years of 1901, 1970, 2004, and the time in which you visit the establishment.
1901 The year that Gus Flesor, a Greek immigrant and budding entrepreneur, opened up shop in the town of Tuscola. You can see a framed picture of Gus smoking a cigar and churning a popcorn machine atop that very popcorn machine that now serves as one of the Flesor artifacts.
1970 The year that Gus Flesor’s son, Paul Flesor, closed shop. The building stood vacant, abandoned at the main intersection of downtown Tuscola for decades. You can feel the 30 years of Tuscolan pleas and bargains with the universe tossed into what was then no longer just a vacant building but a wishing well.
2004 The year that sisters Devon Flesor Story and Ann Flesor Beck, grandchildren of Gus Flesor, decided to leave their careers and reopen Flesor’s Candy Kitchen. When you ask Devon why she and her sister decided to reopen the shop, Devon jokingly tells everyone that the decision was crystallized into a hard candy idea in a single night when her sister poured her a few drinks and convinced her to make the space the family business again. Ann adds that the idea came from a glimpse of the “For Sale” sign up in the decades dusty window of her father’s store and felt sweet nostalgia bubble in the pit of her stomach.
October 15, 2017 The date that my friend and I visited Flesor’s Candy Kitchen. Not long after we found a table and started looking over the lunch menu, we were greeted by the Flesor sisters who took the time to show us around the place and tell us their story.
The Flesor Sisters, who are both PhD carrying, badass leaders, left their lifelong professions then to restart the family business. Devon left her job as a Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University and set to serving up Flesor’s delights on the very table where she wrote her Master’s thesis a few years before her father closed up shop. Ann worked as a management consultant for non-profits for 30 years after she made her mark community development with YWCAs across the Midwest.
When the Flesor sisters bought the building they found everything still in its place: the beautiful mosaic tile floor that gives you a Stanley Hotel vibe (floor patterns pleasant for the gaze and available for interpretation); the soda fountain that Gus Flesor installed in 1947 with the wooden oak stools; the table that Devon Flesor Story wrote her thesis upon; and the wooden payphone booth that will likely eat your quarters if you tried to make a call to the outside. In the mix of the Flesor artifacts are some lovely contemporary furnishings that mesh well with the overall same-but-not, revived-and-thriving look of the place. One of my favorite new additions to Flesor’s is the lending library that lines the entire east wall in the dining room adjacent to the main dining/soda fountain/candy counter area. Bring a book or two, take a book or two: that’s the model of the lending library. Next time I may sit down for an afternoon at Flesor’s with a banana split in one and an a book in the other. What a luxurious experience that would be.
After letting the Flesor sisters get back to the kitchen, we parked our bottoms at a lovely, refurbished wooden table booth. We were then immediately greeted by a friendly server with two menus which displayed the Flesor family history on the front and followed with pages of items detailing breakfast, lunch, homemade ice cream, homemade pies, and traditional soda fountain treats.
We started off with a few phosphates. My friend got a strawberry phosphate; I got the cherry. What’s a phosphate, you ask? It’s a fruit flavored soda named for the use of phosphoric acid that is found in soda drinks. Before the syrup empires of Coke and Pepsi, phosphate sodas had a ph of about 2.0, about the same ph as lemon juice. Our phosphates weren’t tangy but were a tasty blend of carbonated water and sugary sweet versions of our fruit choices. I loved the dark ruby, be-jeweled colors of our drinks against the shiny onyx of our booth table top; so, I took a picture.
We then decided to order a few lunch items to share so that dessert would still be a desirable option at the end of our meal. Yes, we planned this in the car on the way to Tuscola like pros. The server came back. We pointed at various locations of the menu. The server walked away. Then we pretend we are wearing giant food critic scarves that we fiercely swoop around our necks which would, in turn, help us to be appropriately critical of the meals to be placed before us.
We ordered the Italian beef sandwich with sweet potato waffle fries and the chef’s special of the day: a baked cornish hen rubbed in herbs, butter, and honey and nuzzled by a golden brown dinner roll and a side of seasonal vegetable rice pilaf. My friend and I were both surprised to see the cornish hen dish on the chef’s special menu as we both did not associate this dish with a soda fountain/candy store that primarily served sandwiches and salads for lunch. The cornish hen I learned has a reputation in popular American food consciousness as a sort of exotic dinner: familiar for its species, strange for the small size of the breed and kind of expensive.
This dish, although surprising to see on the menu at Flesor’s was not expensive as I expected it to be priced higher than $10. The cornish hen was indeed small as cornish hens are in size, but deliciously sweet, savory, and herby which paired well with the pilaf. With all of the other food arranged on our table we did not try the dinner roll for concern of getting too full before dessert.
Then, we directed our attention to the Italian beef sandwich. Having only tried Italian beef once before in crowded, darkly lit bar and grill just outside of Starved Rock State Park, I have yet to form an opinion on the sandwich. (Note: I eat meat and I’m a Midwestern transplant.) Whereas the previously tasted Italian beef was thinly sliced, this Italian beef consisted of tender, slow cooked roast beef. All other expected items where there: the beef sandwiched by hoagie bread with a squat saucer of meat juice. This too was a delicious dish. I also enjoyed the experience of dunking my sandwich into savory liquid. I do, however, have a few opinions about fried sweet potato items; so, I'll just say that they were pretty okay.
I was determined to eat everything before me as I neither wanted to box anything up and take it back to Champaign nor waste it. I came from a “clean your dang plate” family and I frequently forget boxed food in other people’s cars if that tells you anything.
Thankfully, I wasn’t too full to scope out the dessert menu. The server came by and promptly took our plates away and gave us the rundown of the most popular dessert items: the homemade, seasonal ice creams and pie. Yes, we’d like two scoops of the persimmon ice cream and mixed berry pie with a single scoop of the lemon chiffon ice cream on the plate next to the pie where it belongs. Wow, what a lovely, complementary in color spread that lay before us.
The mixed berry pie and lemon chiffon ice cream was very pleasing to my pie and ice cream-loving palate. The tartness of the lemon was a welcomed acidic handshake for the mixed berry pie which was well sweetened and cradled delicately by a light butter crust. Next I tried the persimmon ice cream. I have only gazed upon persimmon fruit before, so I thought maybe this will taste like a peach or maybe a very sweet tomato? I took the first spoonful of homemade vanilla ice cream tasting small bites of the advertised persimmon fruit throughout. I took a second spoonful: creamy. Took a third: creamy and slightly tangy. Took a fourth: creamy, slightly tangy, and, hmmm, a little nutty? I looked up at my friend who hadn’t tried anything yet and apologized for hovering over the frozen treat. He put his spoon to it and tasted. We both agreed that the composition of the ice cream was lighter in sweetness than expected and complex in flavor. It was probably the highlight of our entire culinary experience at Flesor’s. After tasting the persimmon, I wish I would have tried the homemade pumpkin ice cream which was the other seasonal ice cream on the menu.
After dessert, Devon brought us back to the candy kitchen. Yes, there actually is a candy kitchen in addition to the making-of-the-meals kitchen. We walked back to find Ann rolling lemon flavored cream balls and dipping them into white chocolate. “I’m making lemon poppy seed white chocolates,” said Ann. “And over on the rack, we’ve got some coconut cream white chocolates setting.” As I was snapping a few photos, Devon told me that she was preparing caramel apples. “I’m making our seasonal apple pie caramel apples which are featured at the new Harvest Market grocery store in Champaign,” said Devon as she drizzled white chocolate over the apples and dusted them with cinnamon sugar.
At the table across Devon’s caramel apple station were about 100 pecans ready for their caramel and chocolate coats. They were to become Paul’s Favorite Chocolate Turtles, a recipe created by Paul Flesor and well-honed locals say by his daughters today. I also learned that Flesor’s lovely boxes of assorted chocolates can also be found on the shelves of Harvest Market too. What a wonderful gift a box of chocolate turtles would make on a special occasion, such as a weeknight watching of Evil Dead 2 and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 back-to-back in bed maybe accompanied by a glass of your favorite whatever drink. Treat yourself? Yeah, treat yourself.
If you’re looking to make an excursion in the county or have planned out your next ice cream road trip, you may want to put Flesor’s Candy Kitchen on your itinerary. The visit surely did not disappoint this road tripping duo.
Flesor’s Candy Kitchen is located at 101 W. Sale Street in Tuscola. They are open daily from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. They serve breakfast from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and lunch from 11 p.m. to 3 p.m. Learn more about Flesor’s and their story here.
All photos by Megan Flowers.