What happens when your friend's grandma is Esther Price? You get a stomachache
Maybe on Valentine's Day, if you are really lucky and your sweetheart has good taste, you'll get a box of chocolate wrapped in gold foil with a hand-tied red ribbon and the name Esther Price stamped on the front.
Deliciousness lies within.
You may look at the name on the front of the box and assume that Esther Price is some trade name made up by marketing wizards at some multi-national corporation that happens to make chocolate-covered candies on the side.
But not so.
Esther was a real, living and delightful human being — a gracious, round-faced lady with a constant smile who discovered as a young mother 96 years ago that she was really good at making chocolate candy.
I know this for a fact, because as a kid growing up on the east side of Dayton, Ohio, I knew Mrs. Price. Her home, which had the candy factory attached, was a little over a mile from my house on Pursell Avenue; and her grandson, Donnie Otto, lived on Taggart, a narrow street of modest but well-kept homes that jutted off Pursell right in front of my house.
One of my all-time best buddies, Mike Wehmeyer, lived right across from Donnie on Taggart Street; and the three of us were almost constantly together, especially during the summer, when there were adventures to be had and streets to be roamed.
Donnie was a couple of years younger than us. I think he liked hanging out with the "big kids" and we liked having him on board our Pursell-Taggart posse. And, believe me, it was not lost on us that his grandma owned a chocolate factory.
The chocolate business began in 1926 when Esther Price started making fudge in her kitchen late at night while her kids were asleep. Esther took her fudge to her fellow employees at Rike's, the big department store in downtown Dayton. They loved it and told her she ought to make more candy and sell it.
Which is exactly what she did. For years, she turned the kitchen of her parents' home on Fauver Avenue into a mini-chocolate factory.
By 1952 — the year I was born — Esther's business had grown to the point where she needed a real factory and employees to help her meet the demand for her chocolates.
She built the factory around her home on Wayne Avenue and opened the first of what would eventually become a chocolate empire, covering 87 locations in five states. And every single piece of Esther Price Candy that is made today is made in that same factory on Wayne Avenue in Dayton that she opened in 1952 — using many of the same recipes that Esther concocted in her parents' kitchen.
Mrs. Price ran the operation until 1976 when she retired and sold the company to friends, although family members have always stayed involved. I guess she decided that 50 years of candy-making was enough and it was time for her to rest. She lived until January 1994, passing away at the age of 89.
When I was a kid, it seemed that everyone in the east side Dayton neighborhoods of Ohmer Park (where Mike, Donnie and I lived) and the adjacent Walnut Hills (where Mrs. Price and company made the candy) knew Mrs. Price. She was, by the 1960s, the most famous person in east Dayton and already a legend.
And I was her grandson's pal.
Donnie's famous grandma was not a topic of daily conversation, but, being the dopey kids we were, chocolate was never far from our consciousness. Sometimes, it was hard to resist leaning on Donnie's connection to chocolaty goodness.
Not often, but every once in a while, Mike and I would sidle up to Donnie and say something along these lines: Hey, buddy, how's your grandma Price? Wanna take a walk down the hill to see her?
If Donnie was agreeable, we’d be off. It was an easy walk, a little over a mile. Pursell Avenue dead-ended into Wayne Avenue; we would take a right down Wayne and pass all the streets in our neighborhood — Arbor, Carlisle, Creighton, Holly, Phillips, Highland (the street where my dad grew up) and then on past Walnut Hills Park and the massive old state mental hospital at the corner of Wayne and Watervliet.
After that, Wayne Avenue went sharply downhill and several blocks later, we'd come to 1709 Wayne Avenue — the address both of Mrs. Price's home and the chocolate factory.
She always greeted us warmly — especially her grandson, of course. Mike and I were just along for the ride.
Nonetheless, in the presence of the queen of chocolate, Mike and I instantly turned into the Eddie Haskell character from Leave it to Beaver, the obsequious teen who was always sucking up to Mrs. Cleaver.
Gee, Mrs. Price, you sure look nice today! Did you buy a new sofa? Sure looks comfy. Then, my favorite goofball line, delivered after taking an exaggerated, deep breath: Gosh, everything smells so chocolaty here!
After buttering her up, we'd get to peek inside the factory and watch the employees in their hairnets — mostly women — catching the chocolates off the production line and placing them gently into the gold boxes. Other workers did nothing but tie the Esther Price signature red ribbon bow around each box.
Then, before it was time to leave, Mrs. Price would hand us each a white paper bag full of "imperfects" — slightly damaged in production and not looking good enough to be boxed and sold.
But still very tasty.
You think I wasn't going to eat an Esther Price opera cream just because of little crack in the chocolate shell? Think again.
We'd thank her profusely and take our bags for the more strenuous hike up the Wayne Avenue hill. Walnut Hills Park, a city park where I often played softball and baseball as a kid, was a convenient place to stop and dig into our bags of chocolate treats.
We'd sit under a tree and gorge ourselves until we touched the sky on a sugar high and then waddled back to the Pursell-Taggart headquarters.
I'd be sick as a dog when I got back to my house and my mom would get the Pepto Bismol out.
What were you eating? Where have you been?
I’d just moan and say, Went to see Donnie's grandma.
Nothing more need be said.
But I had no regrets. It was well worth a little tummy ache.