Brandon Hodge

The Record

Brandon Hodge’s Big Top Candy Shop, located at 1706 South Congress Avenue, is heavily inspired by circus culture. In addition to innumerable varieties of candy,many of it regional, the walls of the shop are lined with vintage side-show posters and intricate Steampunk gadgets made by the owner. 

Photo Credit: Andrea Macias-Jimenez | Daily Texan Staff

Editors Note: The Record is a biweekly segment dedicated to featuring the people and traditions that make The University of Texas such a distinct place.

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(Illustration by Andrea Macias-Jimenez. Big Top logo by Brandon Hodge. Shop window art by Ken Manthei.)

Behind the sideshow curtain, the fruity mixture of taffy lingers in the air and the sounds of prewar music fill the room. All the while, customers experience fantastical moments upon realizing the candy of their childhood, indeed, still exists.

“We go for a total visual overstimulation, kind of like the circus really,” Brandon Hodge, 37-year-old owner of Big Top Candy Shop, said. “Everything is intentional.”

Hodge was inspired by a tiny bulk candy shop he visited in San Francisco to open a candy shop of his own on South Congress.

From painting the gold and red stripes on the walls, and converting the instruments on display, to hand-placing the posters, Hodge was deeply involved with the store’s creation. He said it was important to him that the store has a childlike innocence behind the “sideshow curtain.”

“I don’t feel I’ve matured much since about 17,” Hodge said. “I think there’s something about this city that keeps you young and just the fact that I’m surrounded by toys and candy all day.”

Prior to opening Big Top in 2007, Hodge worked at local toy store Lone Star Illusions while he attended UT. This opportunity, he said, helped him gain invaluable business experience and ignited his passion for the toys of his youth once again.

Hodge hoped that by opening a candy store in the same vicinity as Monkey See, Monkey Do, the neighboring toy store that opened in 2005, foot traffic would bring customers to both stores.

“We had a customer come in who was 82-years-old and he said, ‘I used to buy one Good News bar a week, every week; and I haven’t seen one of these in 20 years,’” Hodge said. “He told us he would be in here every week after that.”

Built around Hodge’s fascination with the circus and his childhood dream of running away to play in the circus band, Big Top has an undeniable three-ring ambiance. All of Big Top’s prices end in seven, for no particular reason. As far as hours are concerned, they’re open until they close.

Blakesley King, a 23-year-old employee who has worked at Big Top for four years, came to Austin without a job when she walked by Big Top to get some truffels.

“I instantly smelled like sugar for about a week,” King said as she scooped strawberry ice cream. “Sometimes my boyfriend will give me a hug and tell me I still smell like sugar.”

Despite being a shopkeeper at Big Top, Hodge insists he never really ate that much candy. However, he managed to keep up with the trends in the candy industry.

“I would buy a pack of baseball cards, not because I collected baseball cards, not that I cared one whit about baseball, but I knew that it had that really crappy, chalky gum in it,” Hodge said. “Even though you could buy a pack of Juicy Fruit or a pack of Big Red, there was something about the crumbly, odd texture. It was like chewing on linoleum tile or something, but I appreciated it.”

In addition to baseball card gum, Hodge has always liked Blow Pops, recalling how during his childhood he would take a hammer to the lollipop just to reach the bubblegum center. 

Hodge also recalls Astro Pops and Sixlets being some of his favorite candies to enjoy, especially during the summer.

Luckily for Big Top, Hodge believes there has been a revival in the retro, nostalgic candy from his childhood and has made a conscious effort to have these sweets in his store.

“I always make the joke that it’s people’s childhoods at stake, because it’s true,” Hodge said. “These candy companies are just businesses, right? But when something is no longer available it’s messing with someone’s childhood, messing with their memories.”

During Big Top’s first year, Hodge noticed a renaissance of sorts of bacon being used in candy. This gave Hodge the encouragement to take the risk of coating strips of bacon in chocolate. Oddly, he said the fattiness of the bacon melds with the chocolate, creating a savory yet salty treat.

Hodge believes every candy Big Top sells has a place in someone’s heart, and for that reason, he always buys everything he can get his hands on. It’s important, he said, that the customers have everything they could want and continue to feel as young at heart as Hodge still feels.

“I see it everyday at Big Top, customers coming in, seeing the looks on their faces when they realize something they thought they had lost isn’t gone anymore,” Hodge said. “[Candy] is history.”

IV pouches of red syrup blood, plastic bags of gummy brains and paper boxes of dried crickets covered in chocolate are just a few of the horrifying sugary candies South Congress’ Big Top Candy Shop has to offer for Halloween.

While this wicked holiday has become a drunken night of preposterous costumes for college students, the childhood appeal — and how we all probably first remember it — is trick-or-treating for candy. Candy is as ubiquitous to Halloween as witches, ghosts, scarecrows and pumpkins.

Every inch of this little sideshow freaks-themed candy shop is overloaded with sugar — the store swells with the scent of sweet licorice and chocolate. From 48 gold containers of saltwater taffy in flavors such as caramel apple, buttered popcorn and maple, to a glass display holding the store’s famous chocolate covered bacon, Big Top Candy Shop has nearly every kind of candy imagined. After all, there are nearly 400 bins of bulk candy.

Despite the shop’s abundance of candy, owner Brandon Hodge said they only carry a limited amount of Halloween candy, an arm’s length of a section to be exact. As a small business, Big Top Candy Shop can’t afford to go overboard and end up with a lot of leftovers, he said.

“We’re not a big supermarket chain so we can’t just toss that stuff out,” Hodge said.

Luckily, there’s a lot of local support that comes in and buys Big Top’s candy for Halloween, Hodge said, and not a lot of them come in and get just Halloween candy.

“If they want to get a certain color combination of taffy, they can do that,” Hodge said. “If they are [an] atomic fireballs lover and they decide they want all the kids in the neighborhood to burn their tongues off, they can do that.”

Specially for Halloween, Hodge ordered candy corn saltwater taffy from the candy’s manufacturer in St. Louis. Among the stomach-turning real insect candies and sugar replicas of rats and body parts are normal Halloween festive candies, which include chocolate-covered pumpkin seeds, Mello Cream Pumpkins and candy corn-flavored Dots. As Halloween draws closer, though, more Halloween candy is disappearing. As of Wednesday afternoon, only a handful of candy corn and candy corn-flavored saltwater taffy were left.

While Big Top Candy Shop is the ideal candy store to turn to for Halloween, it is a lot more than that. Its quirky, small business concept echoes what Austin — specifically South Congress — is all about.

Three years before Hodge opened Big Top Candy Shop, he was managing his toy store, Monkey See, Monkey Do, which is a few doors down from the candy store. One day, he thought about what kind of business would really benefit South Congress.

“I did a lot of traveling around other areas and just had a conception that a candy store and a place to get a nice cold drink and a scoop [of] ice cream would be really popular for South Congress, locals and tourists,” Hodge said. “So we did it and here we are.”

Embracing the over the top, flamboyant yet freakish nature of the circus, the front-to-back, floor-to-ceiling decorations, all put together by Hodge, consist of reproduced cloth posters of circus freaks such as Snake Boy, Gorilla Girl, Fee Gee Mermaid and bizarre instruments such as a one-man-band tuba and a pneumatic guitar hung on a wall. A lot of the decorations were found at flea markets or given to him, he said.

Despite owning a candy store, Hodge surprisingly does not eat a lot of candy. But he does have his favorite, Sixlets, which are small, round chocolate-covered candy, like M&M’s. For Hodge, eating Sixlets takes him back to his childhood summer days in Southeast Texas. There was a “shack of a convenient store” near the neighborhood swimming pool, where Hodge would go and buy two tubes of Sixlets and a Big Red soda. He would eat one tube, drink the soda, eat the second, get back into the water and swim the rest of the day.

“Everybody’s favorite is always going to be something that’s more than just flavor and taste. It’s nostalgia and memory,” he said. “I’m really a kid at heart. I swear I’ll never grow up.”