Russell Sifers has recited the history of the Valomilk thousands of times. Sifers is an entertaining storyteller, and thanks to years of rehearsing, he knows just when to pause for effect, giving his audience a wink or a conspiratorial look over his gold wire-rimmed glasses. He has a shock of white frizz above his ears—from a distance, he resembles Bernie Sanders—and as he talks he leans back in his office chair at his family-owned candy company’s headquarters and factory in Merriam.
The story of Valomilk is good material, too, full of oddness and perseverance. The one-of-a-kind Kansas City candy was invented by accident ninety years ago and continues to carry on thanks to loyal fans, even as it lost its prized spot by the register at QuikTrip. (Sutherlands Hardware is a good bet.)
For the uninitiated, Valomilks are, as the name implies, milky. They’re Reese’s-shaped chocolate cups with a thick shell that offers a satisfying crunch. The filling is less like a marshmallow and more like a runny meringue.
Sifers’ story starts ninety years ago in Iola, Kansas where, according to legend, an employee named Tommy snuck too many nips of the alcohol used to dilute candy flavorings in those days (getting drunk at work was a time-honored tradition for most of this nation’s history). Tommy’s “bad batch” of marshmallow would not set when cool. Harry Sifers, grandfather to Russell, decided to experiment, dipping scoops of the runny marshmallow into chocolate cups. The resulting candy was messy to eat—“You know it’s a Valomilk when it runs down your chin!”—but an instant success. During its heyday, Sifers Candy Co. made three versions of Valomilk: regular marshmallow, chocolate-flavored marshmallow and crunchy (studded with crushed peanuts).
After some twists and turns—more on that in a minute—today the Sifers candy empire has shrunk to a small factory and office in Merriam. Officially, Russell has been retired for two years, but he still comes to the office once a week, just to check the pulse.
His son, Dave Sifers, runs the show now. Dave gives me a brief tour of the manufacturing space: Here is where the marshmallow is cooked up, here is where the chocolate is tempered, here is where racks of freshly dipped Valomilk cups are laid out to dry. He is wearing a chocolate-smudged white coat and a hairnet. Dave is the fifth generation of the family in the business, but he says “none of the kids or grandkids have shown an interest” in taking over yet.
At the factory, a narrow hallway leading to Russell’s office has the look of a budget museum: Yellowing newspaper clips and hand-written memos are thumbtacked to the wall, interspersed with plaques, framed photos and Valomilk relics. He is seated behind a heavy oak desk as large as a twin bed, which once belonged to his grandfather, Harry. He remembers growing up with it, along with the raggedy oriental rug beneath it—one of several that his grandfather bought from the formerly wealthy during the Great Depression.
“It’s very threadbare, but it’s a remnant of the past,” Russell Sifers says. There’s a sort of Santa-like twinkle in his eye, and you get the sense he’s talking about more than just a carpet. And as he revisits the curios around his office, they become props for his oration.
He points to a black and white photo of Samuel Mitchel Sifers, his great-grandfather who founded the company in 1903 in Iola. Back then, the business was in bulk penny hard candy. In 1916, Samuel’s son, Harry Sifers, moved to Kansas City and began producing the first nickel candy bars made in the Midwest. (Harry was a natural marketer, often naming these bars after events of the day: When Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922, he christened a caramel, nougat, peanut and chocolate creation as the Old King Tut bar.) Harry also introduced hand-dipped chocolates to the company’s portfolio. At one point, this held a delicious assortment. During World War II, facing chocolate rations and shortages, Sifers Candy Co. opted to focus production solely on Valomilks, the company’s bestseller. Following the war, the company reintroduced their boxed chocolates, but by that time, another Kansas chocolatier—Russell Stover—was running that corner of the market. Production on Sifers boxed chocolates ceased around 1960.
There is a mountain of memorabilia, including something that looks a bit like a bingo card from around 1940.
“What you would do is buy a Valomilk and you punch a hole out, and [you could] get a free Valomilk or a whole box,” Russell Sifers says. The state deemed this promotion gambling, and he points to a picture of Missouri state troopers confiscating the cards.
In 1971, Hoffman Candy Co., a Los Angeles-based corporation, took over Sifers Candy Co. In 1980, Russell left the company, frustrated with management. A year later, Hoffman halted production.
When the Hoffman deal busted, so did the family business. Until—at this point, Russell gestures to a copper kettle and iron scissors on the wall—he himself dug into the artifacts at the former factory in downtown Kansas City.
“I thought if I could remember how they did it by hand in the old days, I could bring Valomilks back,” Russell says. “My dad knew what I was doing. He told me, ‘If you bring Valomilks back, bring them back the best way you know how and don’t worry about the cost.’”
That was 1985. Two years later, the Sifers family relaunched the candy.
I ask Russell how business is doing today. He grins and, with a theatrical flair, pulls a paper accounting ledger from a file cabinet and opens it to the most recent entry. He runs a finger down a column and gives me the numbers: Like most, sales nosedived in 2020. (Many of the mom-and-pop candy shops that stocked Valomilks went out of business, and that was hard for Russell to watch.) But this year, he says, it looks like they’re going to pull ahead of the 2019 profit. Cracker Barrel is the Sifers’ largest account, along with a handful of online novelty candy retailers (candyfavorites.com, oldtimecandy.com). And now and then, you’ll find Valomilks at a small-town pharmacy or some independent shop. The package always contains two one-ounce cups, and it’s usually priced between two and three dollars.
Of course, you could inquire about picking up a box of Valomilks directly from the source. The factory, which is not open to the public for tours due to regulations, is just steps from Russell’s office. Entering it feels like crossing the threshold into another realm—or, rather, it smells like it. I take in gulps of warm milk chocolate air and tell Russell this is what heaven must smell like, and he smiles, setting aside his showmanship.
“This is what work smells like.”