Every year right after Thanksgiving, the downtown section of North First Street is magically transformed into the North Pole, with Christmas lights and sounds and, of course, Santa’s Workshop. That may not be the official name of the store at 1201 North First Street, but anyone who has shopped at Candies by Vletas during the holidays will tell you that’s exactly what it is. It’s a place of Christmas memories, Christmas aromas, and the very magic of Christmas.
It’s all made possible by Pamala McCombs, who bought the business in 2000 from George “Pete” Vletas, the youngest son of one of the co-founders. She had worked in the store for 10 years prior to that when it was located on South 14th Street. For McCombs, it’s like Christmas year-round in the candy store because of the effect on customers.
“If they’re not happy when they get here,” she said, “they’re happy when they leave.”
Holiday Candy Magic
The happiness actually starts before customers enter the store, which is located inside the renovated baggage depot in Abilene’s historic district. Customers are greeted by a charming Duck on a Bike sculpture in a landscaped area near the parking lot. A train frequently rumbles by on the tracks behind Vletas, bringing a reminder of Abilene’s history.
Once inside, customers can feel the happiness meter spiking. Shelves are filled with more than 150 varieties of beautifully packaged treats – white, dark, sugar-free, and milk chocolate, truffles, pralines, brittles, divinity, fudge, and popcorn coated in white chocolate. The store also carries Abilene Gold coffee and Texas wines. Nothing is wasted at Candies by Vletas.
“We just don’t make very much at a time,” McCombs said. “It all sells, then we make more. We’ve never had to throw anything away.”
McCombs is semi-retired from the store, helping out during busy times like Christmas and Valentine’s. A daughter, Paatan Gailey, is the manager. She has been involved with the business nearly all her life. She started working at the store when she was in high school and has been there ever since.
Gailey does all the hand dipping and takes care of the business end of the store. A nephew of McCombs, Waylan Bolin, is a fulltime employee. Molly Rake, a longtime friend, helps after hours and on Saturdays, and other friends and family help during the busiest seasons. Customers can always count on seeing McCombs during the busy stretches.
“I’m always here on Christmas Eve,” she said.
Candies by Vletas is an extremely popular place for individuals, businesses, and institutions to buy Christmas presents. Besides the local community, the store ships to anyplace in the continental United States. In order to guarantee delivery by Christmastime, orders should be placed at least two weeks before Christmas. Large quantity orders are appreciated as early in December as possible, McCombs said. The Christmas season at Vletas kicks into high gear at Thanksgiving.
“It’s non-stop every day, from then on,” McCombs said.
The front of the store has ample space to display all the yummy creations that are produced in the back section of the building. That area is surprisingly small, with not a lot of equipment. Tempering machines heat the various types of chocolates, a large copper pot is used to make the pralines and brittles.
A small area in the cold room, where the temperature is always 60 to 65 degrees, holds a plastic wrap dispenser, sealer, and heating tool for packaging. Shelves are filled with packaging materials.
The kitchen contains three marble-topped tables that were in the original Vletas store. The historic shop opened in 1912 on Pine Street where The Majestic Coffee House now is located. When the praline mixture is ready in the pot, pralines are scooped out one at a time, for a total of 325 in each batch. When the pecan or peanut brittle is ready, it is poured onto one of the original marble topped tables –a tempting sight, for sure.
“The brittle will cover the entire table,” said Gailey, the store manager.
An antique stove, no longer in use, is a reminder of days gone by when two young immigrants from Greece, Nick and George Vletas, moved to Abilene and opened a candy business. They were passengers on the Lusitania that docked at Ellis Island in 1909. The brothers lived with relatives for a while and then decided to head west. They had enough money for train tickets to Eastland, where they found employment at a confectionary owned by another Greek immigrant.
The brothers saved their money, bought two vending carts and went to El Paso to sell their pralines, peanut patties, and peanut brittle. Eventually, they moved to Abilene and opened the first candy store in town. The business trickled down to George Jr. “Pete” Vletas. A photo in the store shows young Pete at age 9 or 10 with a soldier who was stationed at Camp Barkeley during World War II. Miraculously, Vletas candy store never closed through two world wars, the Great Depression, and other historical ups and downs.
A major change came in 2000 when McCombs bought the business, marking the first time it wasn’t owned by a member of the Vletas family. But Pete Vletas thought so highly of McCombs that he sold the business to her with a blessing and the highest of compliments. He allowed her to keep the “Vletas” name for the store.
“I would never have let anyone else keep my name,” he told her.
McCombs had to do some convincing before Vletas agreed to sell the store to her. When he decided he wanted to sell, she knew the business inside and out and wanted to become the next owner. McCombs had polio as a child. She was the single mother of two young daughters, and Vletas thought that the work would be physically too much for McCombs to handle in addition to owning the business. She kept asking him to let her try. Eventually, he conceded. With the help of the Small Business Administration, Vletas, and First Financial Bank, McCombs was able to buy the business.
“Everything just fell into place,” she said. “It was obviously meant to be.”
A Downtown Gem
In 1999, before McCombs bought the store, an employee of the city planning department, Elizabeth Grindstaff, kept asking Vletas to move the candy store from South 14th Street to the current location on North First Street. Every time he threw up a barrier, Grindstaff would ask him,” If we can make that change for you, would you consider it?” Vletas balked but McCombs could see the possibilities and convinced Vletas to consider it.
“It’s not going to hurt for us to just go down there and look at it,” she said.
Vletas eventually agreed and they made the move in October 1999. The following year, he sold the business to McCombs and later bragged on how she had rearranged the store to make it more appealing to customers.
“Everything looks so good,” he told her. “I am so proud of you.”
Candies by Vletas obviously is very appealing to customers, from the attractiveness of the store to the delicious confections that are prized by customers locally and from coast to coast. McCombs still considers the day the papers were signed making her the owner of Candies by Vletas to be one of the most joyous of her life.
“How much more could you ask for than to own a candy store?” she asks, bringing a smile to all.
By Loretta Fulton
Photos by Shayli Anne Photography