Identifying with candy bar can be a sticky business

Clark campaign treats voters to chocolate

January 27, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

What's in a Clark bar besides peanuts, chocolate, corn syrup?

More to the point, what's in a Clark bar's name?

The answer is probably a lot more than presidential hopeful Wesley Clark may have bargained for.

The candy bar, now manufactured at the New England Confectionery Co. (Necco), has become Clark's bite-sized calling card.

Perhaps so would-be voters will think sweetly of him, "We usually give them out with a little blurb about General Clark," says Dan Wachtell, a 24-year-old campaign staff member in New Hampshire, where Clark's first test takes place today. "I think it's catchy," Wachtell says.

The chocolate-coated Clark bar with the "woven" peanut butter crunch center is more than a warm and fuzzy token of one man's ambitions, though. Each morsel offers a mini lesson in labor history, politics and the double edge of nostalgia. When someone bites into a Clark bar, they bite into a past that for those who once worked in the D.L. Clark factory in Pittsburgh, is often more crunchy than sweet.

Those who bother to give the matter any thought may think that as a campaign symbol, even a lighthearted one, the Clark bar is flawed.

None of this is particularly pertinent for Rachel L. Albrecht, a Baltimore Clark supporter who is more focused on getting her candidate elected. The Clark Bar Jr. plays a tiny role in that objective. At events "we typically always have Clark bars," says Albrecht, 33, a structural engineer.

Like the Democrats, the candy bar is "definitely making a comeback," Albrecht says.

Maybe there's a connection. Clark bar "sales are up 20 percent beginning last quarter of last year," says Colleen Chapin, founder of Hometown Favorites (www.hometownfavorites.com), a Web site that sells hard-to-find candy. "As [Clark's] fortunes rise, so will ours."

The fortunes of the Clark bar company have risen and fallen often over the years. In 1886, Irish immigrant David L. Clark founded his candy company in what is now Pittsburgh's North Side. Clark bars were a popular treat among World War I soldiers. By 1920, the company was making about 150 kinds of candy, but later concentrated on candy bars, according to the Necco Web site.

The Clark bar became one of the nation's favorites. Then, like so many family-owned businesses, it was gobbled up by a succession of other companies.

When plans to move the candy operation were announced in 1983, Pittsburgh protested and D.L. Clark became part of the Pittsburgh Food and Beverage Co. The company moved its plant outside the city, but continued to pay to illuminate the giant Clark bar sign atop the original D.L. Clark building.

After Pittsburgh Food and Beverage went bankrupt in 1995, another savior arrived. Again, the company failed. In 1999, Necco purchased the assets of Clark Bar America and moved the operation to Massachusetts, where it remains.

Pittsburgh lost more than 100 jobs. Let go with no severance, Clark workers felt betrayed. Once a blazing emblem of civic pride, the red and blue neon display went dark.

Therein lies the risk of appropriating a popular culture icon as a campaign gimmick. Especially if you make the creation of jobs a campaign cornerstone, as Clark has.

In 1986, the candy factory was bought and restored as office space by Merrill Stabile, a local parking lot executive. Before the company moved, "They still had Laverne & Shirley types ... with hairnets, hanging over the conveyer belt with Clark bars [coming out]," Stabile says.

In 1999, the tangled Clark bar back story took another twist. The same year the Clark bar operation left town, the Clark building's third floor was occupied by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a daily newspaper owned by Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife, a conservative philanthropist, is known in part for his antipathy toward Bill Clinton, who, like Clark, is a former Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas.

When Scaife sought to replace the dark Clark bar sign with his own neon Trib-Review sign, those accustomed to the Clark sign's place on the Pittsburgh skyline rallied to keep it aloft.

A compromise was struck and advocates halted an effort to acquire historical landmark status for the sign. The Trib-Review sign went up, and the Clark bar sign was removed and restored for $30,000 at Stabile's expense. It is now displayed, minus the neon, in a nearby parking lot.

It was an equitable arrangement for all, says Angelique Bamberg, Pittsburgh historic-preservation planner. At public hearings on the sign's fate, "a lot of unemployed former Clark workers didn't really want to see the emblem of the company honored when it had failed them," Bamberg says.

The Clark bar sign is not invisible, but its decline in prominence may prompt those who delight in arcane political ironies to view it as a tired symbol, eroded by economic strife, opposing ideologies and financial clout.

Back at the Clark Bar & Grill in the D.L. Clark Building, manager Joe Lamatrice says local Clark supporters, clearly undeterred by the sign's demotion, plan to hold a fund raiser at the restaurant soon.

But the Clark bars, themselves, will have to be imported from Revere, Mass. There, a one-of-a-kind Clark bar machine cranks out a confection better known in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana than New Hampshire.

"It's funny," says Wachtell, the Wesley Clark staff member, who has distributed plenty of Clark bars in New Hampshire. "Some people don't even know it's a real candy bar ... they think we had [the wrapper] printed up specially."

The Clark bar - and its history - are all too real. And not something to bite into too deeply if you're a presidential candidate.

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