Forest Park gets props for its candy empire, Ferrara Pan, visibly perched next to the expressway just west of Harlem. But little do some locals know that Oak Park has its very own candy empire, headquartered on Madison Street.
For more than 30 years, Sahagian Candy Company has been dealing in confectionaries, with their main draw being yard-long tubes of bubblegum or licorice. From a small business that Linda Sahagian started out of her Oak Park home, the company has swelled in size, distributing nationwide and internationally.
While they’re still dwarfed by the Hershey’s and Nestle’s of the world, last month Sahagian stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the giants, as she was inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame, at a ceremony in Tampa, Fla.
“I was shocked. I really didn’t think they’d pick me because I’m not a big business,”
Sahagian said during an interview at her Oak Park office, adding, “I think the confectionary industry is a very sweet industry to be in.”
Her son, Greg Stewart — who started by packaging candy but is currently the director of sales and marketing — thinks Sahagian’s work ethic has something to do with the recognition. Where some company leaders are content sitting at a desk, she often drives off to their warehouse in Melrose Park and lugs back carsful of candy to be packaged in Oak Park.
“Every once in a while, she’ll come in and be driving her Lexus SUV — and it’ll be packed to the brim with licorice and candy from the main warehouse — over to our facility because we need to fulfill those small orders,” Stewart said with a chuckle. “It’s not like we’re going to get a truck for just that, so she puts it all in the car. She makes runs.”
The candy company, under the umbrella of Sahagian & Associates, actually dates back to 1971, when Sahagian moved to Oak Park from the east coast with her husband, Douglas Stewart. It started as an ad agency out of her home, as she helped major companies like Marshall Field’s with packaging their products — everything from liquor-flavored toothpaste to teas and coffees.
After years of helping with packaging and branding, Sahagian said she thought it made more sense to start manufacturing their own candy and capitalizing on the market.
Their breakthrough came around the mid-1980s, she said, when she came across a long skinny tube, and she pictured it filled with colorful gumballs. Nowadays, they pack the signature tubes with everything from caramel corn to taffy.
Sahagian said there have been a few failed experiments over the years, such as a pasta-shaped rock candy, packaged to look like a box of noodles. She has stacks of old products in her second-floor office at 124 Madison St., a former funeral home they’ve occupied since the late 1980s. She holds onto the old products because she never knows when yesterday’s failure might become tomorrow’s hit.
Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association, said Sahagian has built a name for herself in the candy industry. She’s served on the organization’s board of directors for years, and is constantly pushing the industry forward and trying to help it grow.
“When people get involved with us, they’re not here to promote their own company,” Graham said. “They’re here to promote the industry, and she’s just been great at that.”
As if running a candy company, with products found everywhere from Target to South America, wasn’t enough, Sahagian is involved in numerous local organizations. She’s the current vice president of the Madison Street Business Association, sings as a cantor at St. Giles Parish and has long been involved in the Village Manager Association political party. And before she moved to Oak Park, she was involved in television and radio.
Her husband, who married her just three days after they met, said his wife’s greatest passion is her singing. Locals might know the voice if they hear it, as she frequently sings “America the Beautiful” or the national anthem at local ceremonies.
“She would give up the candy business to do singing, she really would,” Stewart said.