‘Candy Men’ Tells The Story Of St. Louis’ Own Switzer’s Licorice
This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” over the noon hour Monday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.
In 1888, Patrick Murphy’s great-grandfather started a candy company. Joseph Murphy went into business with his brother-in-law, and the company bore the other man’s name: the Switzer Licorice Co.
As a boy growing up in St. Louis, Patrick Murphy grew accustomed to his father smelling of licorice. Frank Murphy had followed his father and grandfather into the family business; for years, he was Switzer’s production manager.
“In our life, growing up, it was like the center of everything, everybody worked there,” Murphy recalled Monday on St. Louis on the Air. “In fact, when we were kids, my brother and I, we’d roam around the factory like factory rats and grab half-baked Switzer licorice off the drying racks and go up to the roof and eat it and, in fact, watch them build the Arch, eating Switzer’s licorice. And if that isn’t a St. Louis memory, wow.”
Change, though, was coming, and not just to the Arch grounds. In 1966, Chicago-based Beatrice Foods bought Switzer’s Licorice. And in 1972, its managers fired Frank Murphy — the end of Switzer’s time as a family company. A series of mergers and sales ended with Hershey buying the Switzer Licorice Co. in 1996 and swiftly shutting down the St. Louis plant.
Decades later, Patrick Murphy later tracked down the executive who fired his father, who bore the unlikely name of Bob Kill, and interviewed him for what would become “Candy Men: The Story of Switzer’s Licorice.”
The book tells the Switzer’s story, from great-grandfather Joseph Murphy’s days as a would-be revolutionary in 1870s Ireland to the company’s reemergence in 2004. Today, Switzer’s candies are again for sale — and the Switzer Licorice Co. is again run by members of the Switzer family based in St. Louis.
Throughout his research, Murphy said, he was surprised by just how many family stories proved true. And in others, he gained new perspectives on old situations.
Talking to Kill, for example, proved therapeutic. The former Beatrice Foods executive is in his 80s now.
“He was a little surprised to hear from Frank Murphy’s son,” Patrick Murphy recalled. “But I told him that it was cool. ‘I’m not writing the book to get even.’ And the funny thing is, this almost says something about life and closure and cycles and things: We got to like each other. We’re sending each other emails back and forth now. He read the book, he loves it, he thinks I got the story right.
“It’s kind of a closure thing. When I was 18 years old and somebody fired my dad, I wanted to kill the guy,” he said. “But all these years later, I find out he was just doing his job too. Everybody’s just doing the best that they can.”
What: “Candy Men” book reading
When: Noon to 2 p.m. Oct. 17
Where: Christopher’s, 127 E. Argonne Drive, Kirkwood, MO 63122
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.