If you can relate to that well-known expression ‘like a kid in a candy store’, then you will certainly enjoy a visit to ‘Sweeties’ – Norfolk Island’s very own old-fashioned confectionery and chocolate shop, operated by Raewyn and Andrew Maxwell.
When you step through the doors of Sweeties, you will realise that you’ve embarked on a wonderful trip down memory lane, as you discover jars of old-fashioned sweets with names that you remember from your childhood such as Chocolate bullets, Choo-Choo Bars, Aniseed Balls, Frosted Caramels, and Freckles. In addition, the Maxwells produce a beautiful range of chocolates that are handmade right there in Sweeties’ own kitchen.
Producing sweet treats and culinary delights runs in the Maxwell family as Andrew comes from a long line of bakers and pastry cooks. His family first came to the island in 1966 and his parents, Connie and Arthur, set up a ‘Home Cookery’shop in a building right next door to Sweeties, before moving to the other end of town. Andrew remembers that in those days, it was his job to collect the lunch orders in the mornings when he arrived at school, and he helped out in the business during the holidays. When the children grew up, the whole Maxwell family, including brother Stephen and sister Sarah, operated a popular island restaurant for many years. Arthur has now retired from the Bakery but continues to bake goodies for the Sunday markets with Connie, who produces great quantities of guava jelly for their market stall. Sarah operates a café, Latitude 29 in the Norfolk Mall and a catering business, and after moving to Brisbane, Stephen operated a Sandwich and Roast outlet for a time.
After the family restaurant was sold, Andrew and Raewyn decided to look for a business or enterprise that they could run as a couple. They purchased Sweeties in 2002 from the late Karl Davies, who had established it a year or two before. Karl had wanted to create a special stopping-off place that would provide a pleasurable and nostalgic experience for visitors to the island. The Maxwells embraced this vision and in the ensuing years they have developed the venture into a ‘must-do’ event on the itinerary for everyone who visits Norfolk Island.
The initial months presented a steep learning experience, especially as Andrew worked to master the skilled art of chocolate making. One day a visitor from Christchurch, who was a fellow chocolatier, offered to help iron out some difficulties. It was only then that Andrew discovered that he had been painstakingly carrying out processes manually which his existing equipment could actually perform automatically. After that, they did not look back!
Nevertheless, says Andrew, producing a batch of couverture chocolate is still a very time consuming task, requiring careful attention to detail. The raw product must be tempered, a process which takes several hours, spread over a couple of days. The result is a chocolate which is firm, glossy and aesthetically appealing. From there the creative stage begins, as the chocolate is transformed into a range of traditional chocolates with a great variety of shapes and fillings.
Chocolates are sold in attractive boxes and packages, but you can also put together your own little collection from all the different varieties beautifully displayed under the glass counter. The Maxwells also produce a range of chocolate-based items which have great appeal to visitors looking for a special Norfolk Island souvenir, or for a unique gift to take home to family and friends. Several of these are a humorous reflection on the island’s iconic road cattle, with names like ‘Cow Patties’, or even ‘Steaming Hot Cow Patties’(with chilli), and packs labelled ‘Have You Herd About Norfolk Island?’There are bags of ‘pothole filler’, a reference to the island’s rough roads. Specially labelled ‘Thank You’ bags are popular with visitors looking for a gift for neighbours who have fed their cat or collected their mail while they have been on holiday. When asked what is the best-selling line, Andrew declares that anything with ginger is by far the favourite, followed by his special Norfolk guava jelly chocolates.
Now, if you’re a chocolate lover, you may assume it is just because it pleases your taste buds. But if you think about it, what many refer to as ‘food of the gods’, appeals to several other senses as well. It is said that the delectable ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ characteristic is a result of the fact that it is the only food that melts just below body temperature. Just like wine, good chocolate has an aroma as well, and the Maxwells say that visitors often comment on this when they enter the doors at Sweeties, especially when Andrew is working his magic in his Chocolate Factory kitchen. Finally there is the enormous visual appeal of all those different varieties, with their individual and unique decorations, set out on pretty dishes and in sparkling glass jars. If you are serious about justifying your chocolate craving or addiction, the scientists will tell you that it triggers ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain, and it may even be sexier than kissing!
There is something in Sweeties to appeal to every taste for young and old. Alongside the chocolates, there are fudges, pralines, nougats, brittles, truffles, honeycomb, marzipans, coffees, liquorice and gourmet preserves and sauces. There are lines imported from places like Spain, England, France, Belgium and Switzerland, and also a range of the iconic Australian Darrell Lea items. A large centre area has a vast assortment of ‘Pick and Mix’ lolly favourites brought in from both Australia and New Zealand, and there is even a corner with an array of sugar free, gluten free and dairy free chocolates, sweets and snack foods for people with special dietary needs or the health conscious. However, after a few minutes exploring the wonderful range of tempting delights here, resistance and feelings of guilt usually go out of the window, and diets are postponed to a later day!
Daughter Siobhan has grown up with the experience of being envied by her peers because they think she has access to unlimited lollies and chocolates, but she knows the reality of running a business like Sweeties can mean working long hours for her parents. Nowadays she likes helping out in the shop after school or on the weekends. She enjoys the title of ‘Quality Controller,’ while her mother, whose sweet tooth has never diminished even after all those years around sugary confections, claims the title of ‘Taste-Tester!’
Raewyn is the one who has brought a creative and artistic flair to the business. She helps Andrew design new lines, and is responsible for much of the attractive packaging, labelling and shop displays. She is also the maker of Sweeties’ very own ice cream, which is much enjoyed by visitors. As you drive by the shop, you will often spot someone sitting outside on the benches provided, eating their purchase before it melts. The most popular variety is the ginger and local passionfruit. In the cooler months, they will make you a delicious hot chocolate, made to Sweeties’ own exclusive recipe.
The nostalgia evoked by a visit to Sweeties is not limited to the confectionery. The store has a large number of vintage posters, chocolate boxes, and other historic memorabilia. An adjoining room is lined with patchwork quilts produced by Andrew’s mother Connie and others. A local quilt group, to which Raewyn belongs, meets here in this wonderful setting on Saturday afternoons.
For locals, memories may be evoked in a different way, for they will remember this same shop from their childhoods. In the fifties and sixties, a small cluster of buildings was constructed here on land belonging to a Mr Arthur Yeaman. One of them was occupied by his niece, and was known as Miss Rigby’s General Store. Miss Rigby sold many useful household items, including a large range of hardware, but she also sold sweets for the children. In the sixties the shop was purchased by Karl Davies, who continued the hardware section, along with a small Milk Bar and Convenience Store. Over the years, it has been an Aquarium/Hamburger Bar, a restaurant called The Gables, a Music Hall, and a theatre for the local Amateur Theatrical Society. The Maxwells have preserved the rustic character and atmosphere of the historic building in an admirable way creating a feast for the eyes as well as the palate!.
Sweeties is located quite close to the island’s school. In the old days, children walking home used to take their pennies into Miss Rigby’s store to spend on sweets to eat as they continued their journey. Now, half a century later, their grandchildren do the same. After Sweeties first opened, great diplomacy was needed when children tried to pay for their purchases with an envelope of money clearly labelled ‘One cheese and tomato sandwich’. Yet, who could blame the young ones for being unable to resist the wonderful assortment of confectionery on display?
“Even if a child only has five cents,” says Raewyn, “we make sure they leave with something sweet to enjoy.” They will also supply party packs and take-home bags of lollies for those important birthday celebrations.
The business is always evolving and the Maxwells continue to develop new lines and fillings, often inspired by suggestions from their customers. They seek to use local ingredients where possible, and in addition to the guava jelly, local macadamias and feijoa jelly often feature in their creations.
Andrew and Raewyn say that the experience of running Sweeties has always been a satisfying one. They are fortunate to be dealing with a product that people associate with celebration, romance and reward. Customers find themselves in a happy and nostalgic mood as soon as they enter the store, and love to chat about their memories of childhood and times past. There are many giggles as they come across items such as ‘Norfolk Island’s Traffic Controller’ (a chocolate cow) or ‘Caught out on Norfolk’ (chocolate fish). The Maxwells are always happy to chat, give directions, and share local knowledge about the island. Sweeties is a popular stop for tour groups, and is often the last port of call so visitors can linger while they make important decisions about which chocolates or sweets to choose. This is not easy – there are at least seven varieties of Rocky Road alone!
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 03 Issue 02, 2013. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.