Richard Wood, the longtime owner of Fernwood Candy and Ice Cream, which turned mint-and-chocolate treats into a Utah holiday tradition, has died.
Wood died Sunday, of natural causes, according to his son, Todd. He was 95.
Wood took over Fernwood Candy from his parents, George and Leah Wood, who started the company in 1947. The name combined the family name with Fern Street, near the Utah State Capitol, where the couple lived right after marrying.
During World War II, George and Leah Wood had a handful of grocery stores called Woods Goods & Goods, then sold those off to get into the ice cream and candy business, opening up the first Fernwood Ice Cream & Candy Store in 1947. When Richard returned from serving in the Army, he immediately started running the store. When George and Leah died, Richard and his wife, Lorraine, took over the business.
At its height, Fernwood Candy and Ice Cream had 13 stores — including locations in Salt Lake City, Bountiful and Orem — and employed hundreds of people.
Todd Wood said the ice cream shops were famous for a massive sundae called the Pig’s Dinner: Four scoops of ice cream, two bananas, toppings, whipped cream and a cherry. “It was served in a trough, like a pig’s trough,” Wood said, adding that it was a staple from the 1950s through the 1980s.
In the 1970s, as fast-food restaurants were expanding, Richard Wood started to rethink Fernwood’s business model. By the 1990s, Fernwood had closed its ice cream parlors, and pivoted toward selling candies during the holidays — including its most popular product, the chocolate mint sandwich, which George and Leah had started making in 1959, from a recipe a confectioner on the East Coast had given them when they visited once.
Waking up to find a box of Fernwood chocolate sandwich candies in your stocking is a tradition familiar to many Utahns, Todd Wood said.
Todd Wood said he spent his childhood watching those confections roll off the factory belt. His father asked Todd and his siblings to work in the family business during summer vacations and holidays, starting when Todd was 10. Fernwood Candy had two factories then, at 1300 South and 1700 East, Salt Lake City (the corner where Emigration Market now sits), and at 150 W. Commonwealth Ave., South Salt Lake (which now houses a skateboard company).
“My first job was to take the little candy eyes, dip it in the chocolate, and stick it on a chocolate Easter bunny,” he said. “When we were little kids, we would put one eye on the Easter bunny, and one candy eye in our mouth. It was really fun. Then we graduated, and started making ice cream. … And then when we were teenagers, we would work in the stores, and we would scoop ice cream cones, and make floats. …
“During the summer, and during holidays, we’d work six days a week, half-days, except on Sundays, which was the day we rest and go to church,” Todd Wood said. “Six days a week for my father meant six in the morning to six o’clock at night — that was half a day. He always grew up thinking everybody worked 80 to 90 hours a week. That’s just what you do. So half-days for my father were 12 hours.”
In 2016, Richard Wood retired, at age 89. He and Lorraine sold the business to Mike and Linda Staheli of TFI Holdings, based in Logan. The company still produces and sells Fernwood’s signature mint chocolate sandwich candies, sold through such large retailers as Costco.
Richard Wood said the day he sold his company was a sad day, because he loved making candy and chocolates and ice cream, because all those things make people happy, and he enjoyed making people happy.
“It’s nice to know the Fernwood mints are still around,” Todd Wood said. “And they have been around for 75 years. My father and his father founded the business back in 1947, and he worked there his entire life — one job, as a candy and ice cream maker.”
According to Todd, Richard Wood always said the secret to a long and healthy life was a daily piece of chocolate and some burnt almond fudge ice cream. “That’s what he’d always say, and he practiced it,” Todd Wood said.
A public memorial for Richard Wood is set for 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 4500 S. 2700 East, Holladay. Wood said Fernwood mint sandwiches will be served, and his father’s candy-making tools will be on display.