Utah Candy Makers Keep Working Despite Unique COVID Challenges

Jan 24, 2021, 9:30 PM | Updated: Jan 4, 2023, 5:37 pm

MILLCREEK, Utah — COVID-19 has impacted many Utah businesses, including a small Millcreek chocolate factory. But despite some unique challenges, C. Kay Cummings Candies has been doing its best to keep up with demand.

Working in a candy factory may look like the most fun you could ever have — but it certainly isn’t easy.

“I basically had to learn this from scratch,” said Marilyn Oakey, general manager of C. Kay Cummings Candies.

Despite working in a place where she’s surrounded by waterfalls of chocolate, getting started in the candy business was anything but sweet.

“It was hard to even get them to talk to you, or teach you, or train you,” Oakey said.  “I mean, some of my staff were in their 70s, 80s.”

The general manager said they’ve traced the business back, in some form or another, to the 1920s — and when Oakey became the boss in the ’90s, she wanted to learn how to do everything herself.

“I said to the candymaker, ‘OK, I’ve done everything now, except make a batch of candy, so today’s my day, you’re teaching me,'” Oakey said. “So we made a batch of candy from start to finish, and a couple of days later, he died.”

All of those secrets were nearly gone for good.

“That’s my husband that you’ve got making the mint,” Oakey said, gesturing toward two long tables where he was spreading and cutting chocolate mint candies. “So I talked him into leaving his job, coming to be the candymaker.”

Business has gone well, even right through COVID-19 — but that doesn’t mean life hasn’t been a struggle.

“I’ve had some health issues for a long time, so I’m on what they call immune suppressant drugs,” Oakey said.

That means she’s especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“COVID’s really scary,” said Oakey. “So we’ve tried really hard to keep me away from people. I don’t work out front as much as I used to.”

Candies are attended to on a conveyor belt at C. Kay Cummings. Marilyn Oakey's husband spreads mint along a table. Oakey does her best to work on making product apart from others. Oakey believes C. Kay Cummings has been around Utah in some form, going back to the 1920's. Oakey's husband cuts through a fresh batch of chocolate mints. An employee works in front of a vat of chocolate.

Masks go without saying and social distancing is a must. Oakey even put a stoplight outside of the front door to let customers know when the front part of the shop was at capacity.

But life outside of work has changed even more.

“I just found out today that my daughter, her husband and my grandchildren all have it,” Oakey said. “It’s terrifying me. We didn’t spend Christmas with them, or Thanksgiving. We made the choice not to.”

And even in the shop, among Oakey’s small staff, she isn’t the only one with COVID-19 on her mind.

“This lady Ana that works for me, she’s lost four family members in the last four weeks to COVID,” Oakey said. “That’s a lot of people in a family.”

Due to the nature of this business — the specialized knowledge and the fact that she’s had trouble finding enough employees to meet demand — for Oakey and her husband, staying home isn’t an option.

“We stay home, this business shuts down,” she said. “That’s all there is to it. There will be no one else that can run it, or make the candy, or keep it operating if we have to stay home.”

While it may not always be fun, and while staying safe may be a struggle every day, Oakey is doing whatever she can to make sure the chocolate keeps flowing.

“All I know is I like going to work every day, and I can’t imagine not going to work,” she said.

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Utah Candy Makers Keep Working Despite Unique COVID Challenges