It’s Sept. 23 and the owners of Minonk Chocolate Co. are awaiting a shipment of Jonathan apples, due today from Michigan.
The owners of the Minonk-based firm are picky about apples. It’s Jonathan apples or nothing. And this year, they’ve gone to great lengths to make sure Central Illinois caramel apple fans won’t be disappointed.
Around here, caramel apple time starts the first Friday night of high school football season.
“There’s an unwritten rule you have to have a caramel apple in your hand during the kickoff,” says Christie Ruestman, one of the two sisters who own the operation.
High school football starts in late August, but Jonathan apples aren’t ready for picking in Michigan until mid-September.
What’s a caramel apple maker to do?
Christie and her sister, Cindy Meyer, have been at this business long enough — 25 years, in fact — to know how to find apples. They have an apple broker in Sparta, Mich., who searches the Midwest for the best crops available.
“She found a crop in Cobden, Illinois,” said Christie. Is it a good omen that the mascot of Cobden High School is the Appleknocker? The delicious, red apples came all the way from the southern tip of the state to Minonk in time for kickoff.
The original founders, a Greek family named Paloumpis, started the business in 1915. A local family named Cunningham later took ownership, and in 1993, Christie and Cindy purchased the business.
In 2015, the sisters moved the 13-person operation to a larger building across the street. They decided it was the right time for a new name: Minonk Chocolate Co.
“There’s only one Minonk, and we want to honor it,” said Christie.
To the best of her knowledge, the 102-year-old recipe has not changed over time.
“We firmly believe in the combination of the Jonathan apple and the caramel. It is the perfect mix.”
For 10 weeks each year, from the end of August until Halloween, the company produces around 150,000 caramel apples. Four women dip the apples by hand, some days as many as 4,000 apples.
You can tell it’s a Minonk apple by the name on the stick. For years, address labels were used to advertise the name, but when Christie’s children asked for pencils with their names printed on them, she thought, why not personalized sticks?
The apples are delivered to 250 outlets, all within 150 miles of Minonk.
“The apples are good for seven days,” says Christie. Shipments are delivered weekly to high schools, hospital cafeterias, gas stations, grocery stores and gift shops. “Our drivers deliver to the same places at the same time on the same day each week.”
That means if the gas station near my house gets an apple delivery on Tuesday, I can fill up my car (with gasoline and caramel apples …) on Tuesday.
The size of the original factory, 3,200 square feet, limits production during the fall to just caramel apples. From November to Easter, production switches to chocolate candies. With a larger building of 18,000 square feet, chocolates can also be made during the fall. The factory closes during the summer.
The process to make caramel apples is pretty labor intensive … filling the kettles, mixing the caramel, unloading boxes and dipping the apples by hand. For several years, the wood stick was also inserted into the apple by hand.
“We complained about our shoulders hurting, so finally one day Cindy said let’s see if there’s something online,” said Christie. “She typed in the words ‘apple stick machine,’ and up popped a model. It was the best money we ever spent.”
For my money, Minonk caramel apples can’t be beat. And for a business to celebrate its 100th anniversary, many others must think so, too.
“We’re thankful to have so many customers and to be in business,” said Christie. “It’s really great to be part of Minonk history and Central Illinois tradition.”