A Sweet Legacy
Preserving a family's deep history
When the doors opened in 1910, the Wilton Candy Kitchen greeted men with a gift of cigars and women with red carnations along with a warm hello from its owner, Gus Nopoulos. The shop sold visitors homemade candy and soda mixtures as well as ice cream from a local creamery. Gus, an immigrant from Greece, ended his first day as a businessman in America with $17 in his pocket.
From there, the business grew to become a family staple that was eventually passed from father to son. George Nopoulos began working in the shop when he was just 7 years old, cranking the Victrola to play music for the Candy Kitchen's guests. His wife, Thelma, also grew up working in the shop, and the two eventually ran the soda fountain together for 87 years, selling it only after George's passing in 2015.
Today, this 110-year-old business has been taken on by Lynn Ochiltree, an eight generation Wilton native, and his wife Brenda, who continuously work to maintain the old-fashioned atmosphere and the Nopoulos' hospitality. The Wilton Candy Kitchen still welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every year from all over the world.
Though the Ochiltrees had been actively involved with the Candy Kitchen for several years and there was already talk of purchasing it, the thought of the shop leaving the Nopoulos family was a sad one.
"We asked Thelma, 'Are you sure you don't want to pass it on to a relative?'" Brenda recalled. "And she said, 'You and Lynn are the best people to have it because you will take care of it, you'll keep our legacy alive and make sure to make it what it needs to be.'"
Since officially purchasing the shop, the couple has done just that, but it wasn't an easy start. As the first building in Wilton, built in 1856, the structure was in disrepair. The wood foundation was crumbling and the building was leaning so much to one side that the front door could barely be opened.
With help from the Iowa Economic Development Authority's Downtown Revitalization Grant and investments from their own funds, the couple saved the building and everything in its historic interior. From the 1912 tin ceilings and 1920 booths to the original counter and pricing signs, a step inside is a step back in time.
"We want it to have that feeling of what it was 50, 60, 70 years ago," Brenda said. "We might be a little outdated, but it's that feeling of nostalgia and comfort that people can feel when they come in, to know that some things really can stay the same and that it's okay."
Not much has changed since the early 1900s. The shop still serves its old-fashioned soda fountain soda, including the popular Pink Lady mixture of cherry, strawberry and vanilla. Visitors can also create their own combination of flavors, all mixed right in front of you. The Candy Kitchen's other sweet treats include ice cream, malts, shakes and sundaes along with a wide selection of the shop's homemade chocolates, caramels and toffee or other packaged candy. Visitors can also enjoy grilled sandwiches.
As for carrying on the Nopoulos legacy, nothing has changed there either. Gus, George and Thelma are still very much a part of the Candy Kitchen experience -- their photos line the walls, standing beside famous visitors like actor Gregory Peck and Facebook owner Mark Zuckerburg, and many of their belongings are on display in the shop's small museum area.
"Right now, it isn't about us, maybe a hundred years from now it might be, but today it's just about continuing the 110-year legacy the Nopoulos' had in the business," Lynn said.
The museum's growing collection features one of Thelma's infamous red outfits, candy-making tools, a cigar box, Gus' checkerboard from around the 1930s and his 1951 ice cream machine along with Wilton memorabilia donated by community members, including an old baseball uniform and photos of Wilton's historic streets.
While the Ochiltrees have achieved one dream of maintaining the Candy Kitchen, they are continuously working toward another dream -- simply preserving Wilton's deep history and the things that have brought the community joy, a dream very close to Lynn's heart.
"Just knowing that I continue to be a part of this community that's been my family's home for 170 years, being able to contribute to what keeps Wilton going and having a business that people enjoy, it's amazing," Lynn said. "When people come to the Candy Kitchen, it's kind of refreshing to see them take a breath and disconnect for a moment. To create that is a great feeling."