When Rite Aid pharmacies first opened in New Orleans in 1997 the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania company already faced a hostile crowd. The chain had bought out locally owned Katz & Besthoff drug stores, affectionally known as “K&B.” The hurt began when Rite Aid’s red, white and blue signs replaced those of K&B. Now, there was nothing wrong with the Rite Aid colors, especially on flags, but they were not K&B purple, a shade that had become as much a part of the city’s spectrum as green streetcars and azalea purple. Probably no other city in the world could feel nostalgic about its local drug store’s color choice.
Then came the next indignity and it was one oversight too far. With the approach of Easter, the word spread that Rite Aid did not sell Elmers candy. There were no Gold Bricks, Heavenly Hashes or pecan eggs. As industries shifted from local production to big global manufacturers New Orleans at least held its own as a producer of local Easter candy. In a word controlled by Russell-Stover and Brach’s, Elmers dominated the local Easter market from East Texas to the Florida panhandle. Elmers would be heading for trouble if its products were no longer on shelves once stocked by clerks wearing purple vests. Plus, there was another indignity. Amazingly, New Orleans was home to two Easter candy manufacturers, not just Elmers but Merlins, a company that specialized in one product, chocolate Easter bunnies. Like its namesake magician, Merlins disappeared, but it wasn’t Rite Aid’s fault. Quietly, the company had been bought out by another bunny maker, Palmer’s, a national brand out of Reading, Pennsylvania. (As I write this, I realize that that is the same state where Rite Aid is located, but I assume no collusion.)
Elmers was founded in New Orleans but moved to Ponchatoula in 1970. Nevertheless, we still consider that local. If you believe in shopping locally then you should look for the Gold Brick eggs, which contain specks of Louisiana grown pecans or the classic Heavenly Hash, one of the greatest confections ever. The egg-shaped candy has a marshmallow interior, a chocolate coating and two almonds. It is made from a recipe long ago purchased from a New Orleans department store’s candy department. If you want no chocolate and more nuts there is the pecan egg, which has a nougat center with caramel and is sprinkled with pecan pieces. In recent years, Elmers has added two new flavors to its products, strawberry and dark chocolate, which makes the Heavenly Hash even more celestial.
(I won’t mention names, but I know of one household in which some Gold Bricks and Heavenly Hash are placed in the freezer to provide crunchy post-Easter snacking.)
Merlins began in 1947. That was the same year as the creation of another only-in-New Orleans seasonal icon, Mr. Bingle. Both were conceived at the peak of the post-war baby boom.
Rite Aid quickly realized its error and by its second local Easter was carrying Elmers too. Since then, the chain has sold most of its local stores to Walgreens, which never made the same candy mistake.
Rite Aid still exists throughout the rest of the country and, like most pharmacies, has been preoccupied lately by that virus that everyone is talking about. Still there are other needs to be filled. The drug chain’s website boasts of Easter assortments from Russell-Stover, Cadbury and Brach’s. Most of the world will never know about the interplay of Louisiana pecans with chocolate or nougat. That’s is yet another reason why there always has to be a New Orleans.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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