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(Illustration by Andrea Macias-Jimenez. Big Top logo by Brandon Hodge. Shop window art by Ken Manthei.)
Behind the sideshow curtain, the fruity mixture of taffy lingers in the air and the sounds of prewar music fill the room. All the while, customers experience fantastical moments upon realizing the candy of their childhood, indeed, still exists.
“We go for a total visual overstimulation, kind of like the circus really,” Brandon Hodge, 37-year-old owner of Big Top Candy Shop, said. “Everything is intentional.”
Hodge was inspired by a tiny bulk candy shop he visited in San Francisco to open a candy shop of his own on South Congress.
From painting the gold and red stripes on the walls, and converting the instruments on display, to hand-placing the posters, Hodge was deeply involved with the store’s creation. He said it was important to him that the store has a childlike innocence behind the “sideshow curtain.”
“I don’t feel I’ve matured much since about 17,” Hodge said. “I think there’s something about this city that keeps you young and just the fact that I’m surrounded by toys and candy all day.”
Prior to opening Big Top in 2007, Hodge worked at local toy store Lone Star Illusions while he attended UT. This opportunity, he said, helped him gain invaluable business experience and ignited his passion for the toys of his youth once again.
Hodge hoped that by opening a candy store in the same vicinity as Monkey See, Monkey Do, the neighboring toy store that opened in 2005, foot traffic would bring customers to both stores.
“We had a customer come in who was 82-years-old and he said, ‘I used to buy one Good News bar a week, every week; and I haven’t seen one of these in 20 years,’” Hodge said. “He told us he would be in here every week after that.”
Built around Hodge’s fascination with the circus and his childhood dream of running away to play in the circus band, Big Top has an undeniable three-ring ambiance. All of Big Top’s prices end in seven, for no particular reason. As far as hours are concerned, they’re open until they close.
Blakesley King, a 23-year-old employee who has worked at Big Top for four years, came to Austin without a job when she walked by Big Top to get some truffels.
“I instantly smelled like sugar for about a week,” King said as she scooped strawberry ice cream. “Sometimes my boyfriend will give me a hug and tell me I still smell like sugar.”
Despite being a shopkeeper at Big Top, Hodge insists he never really ate that much candy. However, he managed to keep up with the trends in the candy industry.
“I would buy a pack of baseball cards, not because I collected baseball cards, not that I cared one whit about baseball, but I knew that it had that really crappy, chalky gum in it,” Hodge said. “Even though you could buy a pack of Juicy Fruit or a pack of Big Red, there was something about the crumbly, odd texture. It was like chewing on linoleum tile or something, but I appreciated it.”
In addition to baseball card gum, Hodge has always liked Blow Pops, recalling how during his childhood he would take a hammer to the lollipop just to reach the bubblegum center.
Hodge also recalls Astro Pops and Sixlets being some of his favorite candies to enjoy, especially during the summer.
Luckily for Big Top, Hodge believes there has been a revival in the retro, nostalgic candy from his childhood and has made a conscious effort to have these sweets in his store.
“I always make the joke that it’s people’s childhoods at stake, because it’s true,” Hodge said. “These candy companies are just businesses, right? But when something is no longer available it’s messing with someone’s childhood, messing with their memories.”
During Big Top’s first year, Hodge noticed a renaissance of sorts of bacon being used in candy. This gave Hodge the encouragement to take the risk of coating strips of bacon in chocolate. Oddly, he said the fattiness of the bacon melds with the chocolate, creating a savory yet salty treat.
Hodge believes every candy Big Top sells has a place in someone’s heart, and for that reason, he always buys everything he can get his hands on. It’s important, he said, that the customers have everything they could want and continue to feel as young at heart as Hodge still feels.
“I see it everyday at Big Top, customers coming in, seeing the looks on their faces when they realize something they thought they had lost isn’t gone anymore,” Hodge said. “[Candy] is history.”