We were leaving the Wilbur Chocolate retail store in December, a bag (for us) and a box (for my parents) of Wilbur Buds in tow, when a sign near the checkout prompted my double take.
It noted that Wilbur Buds date to 1894, which I suspected to be earlier than the similarly shaped, significantly more famous Hershey’s Kiss. Sure enough, the Kiss didn’t arrive on the scene until 1907.
In terms of popular appeal, there’s absolutely no doubt which product gets most of the love from consumers. Last year, a headline in Time magazine read: “How the Hershey’s Kiss conquered Valentine’s Day.”
But in this amorous season, I have to go with my heart: Buds are better.
They are creamy where the Kiss tends to the chalky. To be sure, I have been known to eat Kisses with reckless abandon. But the paper plumes and foil can leave messy bits and pieces, not to mention the little Kiss tips that tend to fall off. (Life is hard.)
Enter Wilbur Buds: unwrapped, alluring, vulnerable, so easily popped in my mouth.
The Time article noted that “most consumers would never imagine the little chocolate drops were created by someone other than candy tycoon Milton Hershey.”
In fact, it was H.O. Wilbur and Sons in Philadelphia, which in 1894 deposited blended chocolates in molds that looked like flower buds. Wilbur Buds were born, complete with W-I-L-B-U-R spelled out on the bottom. (I came across a Buds ad from a 1940s issue of Life Magazine that put the inception at 1892, but I assume that was in error.)
Samira Kawash, on her website CandyProfessor.com, notes that when it came to bite-sized chocolate, “Hershey was the copy cat. And Hershey wasn’t the only one. H.O. Wilbur even went to court in 1909 to try to stop the imitators.”
In contrast to Wilbur’s design, Kawash says, “the Hershey’s Kiss then as now isn’t much to look at. It is just a plain cone, its bottom flat and unadorned.
“While this perhaps was less lovely to behold, it did mean the Kiss could be manufactured by dropping the chocolate on a flat belt, rather than needing special molds. This would eventually matter quite a lot, but in 1907 the Kiss’s plain-Jane looks would have been a distinct disadvantage.”
But by 1921, Hershey’s had automated the foil wrapping, which enabled inclusion of what came to be the iconic paper plume. As the Muncey’s Magazine ad above notes, Wilbur Buds were individually wrapped in the early days. It is not clear when that practice was discontinued.
Wilbur arrived in Lititz, Lancaster County, in 1902 when it merged with Kendig Chocolate, according to Lancasteronline.com. Although long ago overtaken by the Kiss in terms of market share, Wilbur Buds continued to be made in Lititz, available in milk chocolate or semi-sweet (dark) chocolate varieties.
Wilbur’s ownership changed four times from 1980 until 1992, when its current parent company, Minneapolis-based Cargill, took over. Wilbur is mainly a supplier of chocolate paste to industrial manufacturers, Wilbur Buds representing a small part of the company’s business.
However, Buds continue to be sold at the Lititz retail store, online and across North America through specialty retailers. Unlike the ubiquitous Kiss, Buds take some effort to find.
“That’s what keeps the mystique,” Amy Weik, general manager of Wilbur retail, told me in January.
At the Lititz store, the 1-pound mixed bag of milk chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate is “by far the top seller,” Weik said.
As of Feb. 1, however, Buds no longer are made in Lititz: the factory has closed, eliminating 100 salaried and hourly positions.
If there’s a silver foil lining, it’s that Buds will continue to be made — using the original recipe — at more modern Cargill factories in Lititz, Mount Joy, or Hazleton, Pa.
“We will be manufacturing the Bud as it has been,” Weik said.