A faded sign inside this Darke County institution proudly proclaims the store motto: “A balanced diet is chocolate in both hands.” Sweetness certainly comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors at Birt’s Store in the village of New Weston.
The rustic shop typically stocks 350 varieties of candy as Valentine’s Day approaches. Decisions are even tougher at Christmastime, as the shelves get stocked with more than 525 varieties, according to third-generation owner Brad Birt.
Double-dipped chocolate peanuts, maple-filled chocolate peanut clusters, chocolate-covered caramels, and chocolate drops top the list of favorites. After all, the love of chocolate spans all seasons.
Birt’s grandfather, Harry Birt Sr., unwittingly started a family tradition in the 1920s when he added five cases of white peppermint lozenges, orange slices, and chocolate drops to his general store shelves. The candy arrived via caboose at a nearby train depot, but it was evident that crew members had sampled plenty along the way.
Harry Birt Jr., who came on board after World War II, recognized the importance of establishing a niche market in the form of more candy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and deli meats and cheeses. He initially used the family station wagon to pick up orders directly from suppliers. Trucks came later.
“My dad believed people would come if you offered a great product at a reasonable price,” Brad Birt says. “We have built a reputation over decades, and you don’t try to fix something that isn’t broke.”
The store deals with dozens of suppliers who share a commitment to quality, requiring regular trips covering Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.
Holiday shoppers grab silver scoops and white paper sacks to make their bulk selections — though chocolates and other specialties are prepackaged at other times of the year.
“Tastes change with age,” Birt says. “Kids are into sour candies and gummy anything these days. Everybody else wants chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, or the candy they grew up with. Folks do a lot of reminiscing up and down the aisles.”
Tiered shelves offer a smorgasbord of chocolates: flavored creams, assorted fruits, nuts, fudge clusters, and even coated animal crackers and sandwich cookies. Ten-pound slabs of chocolate and 5-pound chunks of caramel are popular with at-home candymakers.
Individually wrapped candies like Tootsie Rolls, taffy, and Bit-O-Honey vie for space with flavored jelly beans, jumbo malted milk balls, divinity, old-fashioned hard tack candy, and 1-pound jawbreakers.
“My grandfather dealt with candy by the pound,” Birt says. “We deal with candy by the ton. Candy is our niche. It’s what keeps the doors open.”