December 10, 2020
“There are a lot of things in the real-life candy industry that are like Willy Wonka,” says Michael Lahey, the filmmaker behind Shelf Life: The Story of Lanzi Candy. Brightly colored candies tumbling in drums, machines cranking out chocolates, vats of smooth caramel—it’s certainly fantastic stuff. “One of my earliest memories is my grandfather having me help him—help in quotes—put this 20-pound block of coating for the Cashew Nut and Rice Crunch into a melter, and then taking a gigantic wooden spoon and stirring the coating.”
Lahey’s grandfather was Elmo Lanzi, the founder of Lanzi Candy; Cashew Nut and Rice Crunch was the Chicago-based family company’s most popular product. At the peak of its popularity, Lanzi’s Cashew Nut and Rice Crunch was distributed nationally and in eight countries, as well as in first class on American Airlines flights. Legendary bandleader Guy Lombardo was a spokesman, holding events where he signed boxes of the confection.
Despite the wide availability, Lanzi’s treat continued to be made in a small factory on the ground floor of a Chicago Avenue building owned by Elmo Lanzi—he and other family members lived above the business—on machines that he had designed. The company never grew out of the factory. Elmo sold the business to two associates in 1973 and died in 1982. Lanzi was eventually sold to another company, and that was the end of it—until an Elmhurst entrepreneur named Jerry Ostermann decided to try to recreate and sell the Cashew Nut and Rice Crunch.
Shelf Life uses Ostermann’s quest as a jumping-off point, following him as he attempts to recreate and distribute the product. As Ostermann refines the candy, Lahey explores the history of his family’s business, trying to understand why Elmo didn’t hand Lanzi Candy down to one of his three children, two of whom helped out at various points in their lives. To better understand the candy business, he also examines two other Italian family-owned candy companies in Chicago that have survived into the 21st century: Primrose Candy Company and Ferrara Pan, now known as Ferrara Candy Company.
Primrose, Ferrara, and Lanzi aren’t the only candy companies that have called Chicago home. The city was once known as the “candy capital of the world,” with everything from Tootsie Rolls and Mars candies to Fannie May and Frango mints made here.
“Although I knew that there were lots of candy businesses here—every time we drove in on the Eisenhower we would see the Ferrara Candy Company; if you were taking 294 you would see the Butterfinger/Babe Ruth sign—but I did not know that Chicago was the candy capital, embarrassingly,” Lahey says.
In the process of making Shelf Life, however, he came to know Chicago’s—and Lanzi’s—candied history extremely well. From the time he began following Jerry Ostermann’s idea to recreate Cashew Nut and Rice Crunch, finishing the film took twelve years. (Lahey worked on the film in off-hours from his full-time job, and Ostermann worked on his candy for about nine years.)
“There was a film premiere last year, and somebody in the audience in the Q&A afterwards raised her hand and said, ‘You know so much about the candy industry now. You should write a book.’ And I leaned into the microphone and said, ‘I will never be writing a book about this. The film is it, this is the book.”
Lahey originally planned to make a historical documentary about Chicago’s candy industry, interweaving Ostermann’s story. But he became intrigued by his family’s own history, drawing on hours of family Super 8 film and taped interviews his mother had conducted with his grandparents.
“She was very forward-looking,” Lahey says of his mother’s decision to record his grandparents’ stories. “She always thought my grandfather was a great storyteller and had such an amazing life, coming from a village of 150 people in the mountains of Italy and then coming here not knowing English, with no education, and through hard work and ingenuity created this business.”
“The grit and the determination that those early immigrants to the US had was really amazing, and I wanted to celebrate it,” he says. “I think the film shows tremendous ingenuity and craft. For me, the beauty of candy-making is mesmerizing, everything from hand-dipping chocolates to the assembly line. There’s just something about it.”
Just like there’s something about candy itself, and its ability to call forth sweet childhood memories.