Wayne's Candy Company keeps a family dream alive while satisfying Memphis' sweet tooth.

Approach this business via Carolina Street, and you may drive right by. The white metal building, with its loading docks and accompanying big rigs, blends right in with all the other warehouses in south downtown.

Take Second Street, however, and you can't miss the giant red letters spelling "Wayne's Candy Company" painted across the side of the building. It's those letters, according to Vice President Dave Wilkes, that draw customers into Wayne's massive showroom, where bulk candy is sold at discount prices.

Inside, there's enough candy to give all the kids in Memphis a sugar rush that would last well into the next year. If candy isn't enough, customers can also buy pickles, potato chips, beef jerky, frozen popsicles, and sno-cone syrup.

"Throughout the course of a year, we offer 2,000 to 3,000 products," says Wilkes. "We deal a lot in close-outs where the company we buy from may only have 20 cases of an item and then it's gone. Those close-out items are sold very cheap."

Wayne's Candy Company, founded in 1946, is a family business in the truest sense. Wilkes and his brother, Gary, inherited the business from their father, Wayne, who died in 1999. The brothers grew up helping out around the warehouse. When there was downtime, Wayne would allow the boys to build forts using the cardboard boxes the candy was shipped in.

Their father began selling neckties and watermelons at age 9 to support his family after his own father's death. As the oldest son, he had to play dad to his younger siblings, and he was forced to drop out of school.

"He hitchhiked to Memphis in the mid-1930s, and he only had a dime to his name," says Wilkes. "He bought the driver some coffee and pie with it."

Once he arrived, Wayne borrowed $60 from his brother who worked at a bakery. He put $40 down on a truck and bought cookies, peanuts, and snack foods with the remainder of the money. He sold the products, bought more, and eventually built a business that way.

"He was operating at a place across from where the Blue Monkey is now, and it was so tiny, they called it the piano box," Wilkes says. "He had to expand and move to this location in 1954, and my mom told him he'd never fill this place up." (The company has had to expand four times to make room for all their stock.)

"It's still an old-time family business," Wilkes says. "My nephew works here, and so does my sister and also my niece, my aunt, and my uncle. At one time, my wife and sister-in-law worked here."

The showroom, which was added in the 1970s, services mostly individual candy lovers and convenience-store owners who don't need to order large amounts of candy. Wilkes says many walk-in customers come in to buy candy to fill their kids' lunch boxes or the office candy dish.

But the real heart of the operation lies in distribution. Behind the showroom are four large warehouse rooms filled with towers of candy in cardboard boxes. Convenience stores, movie theaters, and candy shops throughout Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi get their sugar stash from Wayne's. Wilkes says most of their clients are located within a 200-mile radius of Memphis.

That's a lot of candy over a lot of miles, but the folks at Wayne's don't track inventory or do invoices with computers -- just ink pens, paper, and the occasional smidgen of Wite-Out. Their philosophy: "When the stack looks low, order more." •

Wayne's Candy Company is located at 164 E. Carolina (527-4370). Showroom hours are 6 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 to 9:45 a.m. Saturday.

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