SCHENECTADY – Bittersweet Candy isn’t your normal candy store.
Sure, the inflatable gummy bears in the windows tip you off to the candy; perhaps the wallpaper made from old-fashioned candy boxes lets on that they sell stuff you haven’t seen in 40 years.
The rest is bark. And snark.
“There aren’t a lot of candy stores in the area,” Heather Lent said. “I don’t want to be like everyone else.” And, “I don’t sell truffles.”
It all began when Lent made chocolate peppermint bark to give as holiday gifts back in her bartending days. The gifts went over big.
The next year, everyone wanted to “order” the bark to give as their own gifts. In the third year — 2005 — Lent said, “I made myself a business.”
And so she has.
Bittersweet Candy, on Jay Street in Schenectady, sells candy, mostly her own chocolate. She sells wholesale, does custom orders for corporate clients and regular folks, and collaborates with other small local businesses.
Business is good. So good in fact that Lent is looking forward to the end of the year when she can take her first day off since August.
“I’m on my feet 15 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. But she isn’t complaining, because business is so good.
Recently, in the space of two weeks, she filled an order for 1,000 bags of chocolate bark for one customer and handled side orders for other custom orders and corporate customers, all while keeping the store going.
What started out as an online venture turned into the first iteration of Bittersweet Candy in Poughkeepsie. Lent sold chocolate bark, old-fashioned candy, artisanal goods and unusual retail items.
It was “a funky and fun neighborhood store,” her website reads. It closed after three years.
Never one to give up, Lent returned to Schenectady, where she went to high school, and got busy selling her products online, wholesale and at local events.
The decision to return to Schenectady turned out to be a good one. Lent has “deep roots” in the area — her grandmother owned a 96-acre farm in Duanesburg and Lent has many relatives here.
Though she’s an only child, she said, “There are so many of us, when we get together we have to rent out Canali’s.”
The business continued to grow and the right location presented itself, even if Lent wasn’t quite ready for it.
When 173 Jay St. went up for sale in 2019, Lent jumped on it. The pedestrian block had become lively and viable, with myriad small businesses. Also, “I was after the kitchen. Whatever happens in the front of the store happens,” she said, of her thinking at the time. The store opened in November of that year.
“It was a really happy surprise,” she explained. “I’ve become part of people’s traditions.” Customers bought her products and have returned to Bittersweet Candy again and again to mark their celebrations.
“I feel so much happier here,” Lent explained. “I am so happy to be part of this renaissance or whatever it is,” she said, referring to the thriving Jay Street community and also the city of Schenectady. “It’s great to see.”
“When I was in high school, Jay Street had two businesses,” she said, referring to the Open Door Bookstore and the Orion Boutique. “It was a different place.”
Now, “There’s nothing you can’t get on this block,” Lent said, referring to the number and diversity of businesses. “I love the energy.”
“This neighborhood is like nowhere else,” added Lent. “Small businesses support each other.”
The Schenectady Greenmarket, held on Sundays, has expanded from the block in front of City Hall.
“Now we have vendors down the street,” from where Bittersweet Candy is located, Lent said.
Events such as the recent Dog-O-Ween Halloween costume contest and parade sponsored by the Greenmarket, and the ninth annual Wing Walk sponsored by the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation bring throngs of people to the neighborhood.
“I made chocolate chicken wings and they sold out in three hours,” Lent said.
Bittersweet Candy is collaborating with Bud’s on Jay, a nearby coffee shop. Lent is adding candied dried oranges and cherries to their Bourbon coffee to make Old Fashioned chocolate bark.
“We take their coffee and make custom bark,” she explained. “I really like to do collaborations [with other businesses],” she added.
That order for 1,000 bags of chocolate bark? That’s for the Iron Bean Coffee Company in Ohio. Lent met them through a “group of people obsessed with coffee.” The bark includes the company’s ground beans, peanut butter, pretzels and flaky sea salt in dark chocolate.
“They sell it on their website and at the retail location,” Lent said.
Saratoga Coffee Traders sells Lent’s bark, made using their Jockey Joe, Triple Crown and SPAC Attack flavors, among others.
Other collaborators with Bittersweet Candy include the Wolf Hollow Brewing Company, The Costumer, the Schenectady Trading Company and Death Wish Coffee.
You can find Lent’s chocolate for sale at their retail stores, as well as at the Ulster Performing Arts Center, the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie and Nature’s Pantry in New Windsor.
Look for the eye-catching pink-and-black custom labels on the clear bags. Almost all the packaging is made from recycled, 100% biodegradable materials, according to her website.
Bittersweet Candy sells old-fashioned candy you haven’t seen in ages — think Dots and Chuckles, Charleston Chew, Sky Bars, Mallo Cups and Teaberry gum.
In addition to their own chocolate, there’s stuff you won’t find anywhere else such as Asian candy that looks like sushi and gummy bears in unusual flavors.
“I love to see grown-ups get excited over something they haven’t seen in 40 years,” Lent said as a visitor reminisced over old favorite candy brands. “That happens every day,” she said, looking pleased.
In the red retro fridge you’ll find sodas in candy flavors like Bazooka Bubble Gum and Warheads candy. There’s also Toxic Waste soda, in addition to Coke.
Lent buys her funky merch from other small businesses. Bittersweet sells adorable gummy-bear jewelry made by Erin Eckler, owner of Jay Street Collective. “I mostly deal in snark,” she said, referencing the printed tote bags and cocktail napkins.
“I could make toffee,” she said, but Mel’s Toffee in Michigan makes excellent small-batch and handmade products. “But hers is excellent,” she said. And she likes using products from other small businesses.
Lent is lucky. She has made herself a successful business, and along the way she’s become part of the larger community in the city, part of the tight-knit Jay Street businesses and a part of her customers’ lives.
She has the kind of luck that comes from hard work and perseverance. The best kind of all.
All this, out of nothing but bark.