CHICAGO — When the leaves start to turn to color of caramel, and the air is as crisp as an apple, you know it’s fall in Chicago.
But to some, the season has another name: “It’s caramel apple season – it’s Affy Tapple season,” said Wendy Bettinger, the customer service manager Affy Tapple, the beloved Chicago company that creates the indulgent snack that has become a fall tradition.
Along with brands like Lou Malnati’s, Vienna Beef and Garrett Popcorn, Affy Tapple is one of the city’s favorite foods.
“It is definitely one of the iconic Chicago brands,” said Affy Tapple’s owner, Josephine Beavers.
This year the caramel apple company is celebrating 75 years in business. In 1948, Affy Tapple opened its first factory on Clark Street in Rogers Park and soon it became a staple of school fundraisers in the city and suburbs.
“It’s a nostalgic brand, obviously, and I think it goes back to a lot of our childhoods,” said Brandon Beavers, the company’s president and CEO.
The unmistakable blend of flavors creates a strong link between taste and memory.
‘’You’ve got the crunchy peanuts, the chewy caramel, the sour apple, and it’s quite an experience,” Brandon Beavers said.
Nearly 350,000 Jonathan apples – known for their sweet taste and firm texture – are used a day during production. The apples come directly from Michigan orchards to the Niles plant. The company uses 20 tons of caramel and 9 million peanuts a day, according to plant manager Abe Esquivel.
The apples are sorted and washed to remove all stems, leaves, dirt and germs. They glisten as they roll on a conveyor belt, where workers grab them one at a time. They use specially designed punch presses, to insert the sticks into the core of the apple.
“I won’t give away all the secrets on that process, but we’ve got it down to a science,” Brandon Beavers said.
Once the sticks are inserted, the apples move along the conveyor and tumble into soft padding that sends them up an “escalator” to the caramel dipping stations.
Workers place each one by hand into special stick holders on a conveyor.
In the background the caramel is cooking in copper kettles – the originals from 1948. The caramel is churned in 80-pound batches at 239 degrees. The recipe is a closely held secret.
“You can see it right there, but we’re not going to tell you exactly how it’s done,” said Josephine Beavers.
Once the caramel is ready, the apples on sticks go for a ride, seemingly inspired by another Chicago invention – the Ferris Wheel — and gets dipped in hot caramel.
The caramel coating stays gooey over open flames that keep it perfectly heated at 200 degrees – that’s hot enough to stick to the apple.
The next step is a twirl to eliminate excess caramel, leaving a smooth and coating.
The machines then then tip the apples sideways and spin them. They roll on round tables piled with peanuts.
Next workers set them on strays and send them into a cooling area for 20 minutes, so they can be packaged in the familiar plastic containers.
From there the cases are wrapped, and shipped to stores in 25 states. The biggest buyer is Walmart.
Affy Tapple has about 50 year-round employees, but in the busy production season (roughly Labor Day to Christmas) the staff swells to about 350.
On the factory floor, some employees are making hand-crafted gourmet apples for the company’s upscale label called Mrs. Prindables.
Customers can find Affy Tapple products at local grocery stores, online or at the factory store located located at 7425 N. Croname Rd in Niles.
As part of its 75th Anniversary celebration, the company is holding a Family Fun Day open to the public, which will include apple dipping, games, a magician and other fun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday October 7.
The company is also holding a sweepstakes with various prizes.
“I think it’s fun,” Josephine Beavers said. “It’s just fun.”