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This Tucson candy store specializes in far-away treats that you grew up with
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This Tucson candy store specializes in far-away treats that you grew up with

Editor's note: This story was originally published in October 2019.

When Dino Volpi opened his Purple Penguin Candy Emporium on East 22nd Street earlier this year, he was hoping his independent sweets shop would bring back memories for Tucsonans.

The store specializes in selling the candies, chocolates and craft sodas from your youth, no matter what part of the country you hail from.

Grow up in the Pacific Northwest? Have an Idaho Spud with all of its cocoa-marshmallow, soft chew goodness.

Midwest residents can pick up a Cherry Mash, a chocolate shell with cherry-flavored filling, still made in the small Missouri town where it was created in 1918.

If you’re a transplant from Pennsylvania, a few bottles of Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer might satisfy your thirst for home.

The store works with 16 suppliers across the country for inventory.

Volpi encourages his customers to make requests.

“If you want it and they still make it, we’ll locate it,” said Volpi, who grew up in the Philadelphia area. “People come in here and see candies they have not seen since they were kids.”

Volpi says the extra effort is worth seeing the smiles on customers’ faces. It is why he got into the candy business in the first place.

Volpi, 69, has a long history in the food service industry.

He started his career in the early 1970s, opening Pizza Hut and Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips locations in cities around the U.S., and launching his own concepts.

“I brought the first Philly cheesesteaks to Casper, Wyoming,” said Volpi, referring to his restaurant Dino’s, which he owned and operated in the early 1980s.

Volpi also ran several antique shops, including a store that shared the Purple Penguin name in Casper.

Since moving to town seven years ago, Volpi has worked primarily as a sales representative for Peddler’s Son Produce & Provisions, a wholesale produce distributor.

The candy store, he said, is his first step to retirement. He splits his time between the shop and his sales job.

“What better thing to do when you retire than open a candy store?” Volpi asked. “It is a lot of fun, no stress.”

Part of the fun for Volpi is decorating the Penguin, which shares a small strip mall with a bike shop and a tattoo supply store at 3392 E. 22nd St.

Volpi makes the most of the 1,500 square feet.

Designed to look like an old-fashioned general store, customers are greeted by shelf after shelf of taffy, chocolates, sodas and other candies, interspersed with antiques from Volpi’s own collection.

A floor piano, like the FAO Schwarz piano featured in the 1988 Tom Hanks’ film “Big,” is positioned against the back wall.

A claw machine dubbed the Miniature Steam Shovel from 1920 awaits kids full of bubble gum and other treats.

Families are welcome to interact with many of the working antiques around the Purple Penguin.

“These kids are playing with a claw machine that their great-grandparents might have played with,” Volpi said.

Rebekah Holman, a cashier at the store and its only employee, was so entranced with the atmosphere of the place when she came in to apply over the summer that she almost forgot to hand in her résumé.

“I got lost with everything that’s in there,” Holman said. “There is so much to see. I walked around in amazement.”

Holman said people often come in out of sheer curiosity.

They see the figures set up outside of the shop — M&M characters, a Willy Wonka cardboard cutout and the like — and peek inside to see what’s happening.

Volpi said he chose the location because its proximity to the family friendly Reid Park and Reid Park Zoo.

“People always have this wide-eyed look when they come in for the first time,” Holman said. “Their jaws drop and they start asking questions.”

It’s all part of making the Purple Penguin a destination, Volpi said.

“As an independent candy store, it’s hard to compete with places like Walmart,” Volpi said. “We want people to come in here for the full experience. You are getting more than just candy when you walk through those doors.”

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@tucson.com or 573-4679.

Reporter

Gerald received his journalism degree from the University of Maryland. He has been with the Star for 16 years and has covered a variety of beats. Currently, he divides his time between the presentation desk and as a member of the digital team.

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