One of Rockford’s newest businesses may well be one of its oldest. The Sweet Tooth, run by Tracie Riebschleger with the help of her family, is born of a family business started by Greek immigrants in 1906.
The Koinis family began selling popcorn, hot peanuts-and cigarettes-from wagons shortly after they arrived in America, and members of the family have been doing it ever since (except for the cigarettes).
Tracie was drawn to the fascinating vending wagons when she was a child of three or four. The family across the street owned them, and when she saw the wagons coming in after a festival or carnival, she asked her mother if she could cross the street and get a closer look. Her mother always told her no.
She was allowed to play with the boy who lived there, though. They would catch bees together. Eventually Tracie’s family moved away. Years later, when both were working a summer job at a harness racing downs, she began to date the guy who worked the wagon and whose family owned the concessions there. She didn’t make the conection until he took her to his house-across the street from her old home.
Now Tracie is working the family trade, selling carmel popcorn and apples made in the shop at 53 E. Bridge by the original Koinis recipe. It’s not even written down. The neighbor she ended up marrying is local businessman Ron Riebschleger, and he holds the family recipe. Much of the equipment in the store is also handed down and dates to the 40s and 50s. For those who love old-fashioned, authentic treats, this store will be tops.
The Sweet Tooth offers a wide variety of popcorns, a Chicago-style that is better, some say, than the stuff you buy in Chicago. The cheese popcorn is also made completely by scratch. There is fountain pop, and Tracie’s favorite, shaved ice. With 26 varieties and two in sugar free, there are plenty of flavors to choose from. Kids like the Tiger’s Blood because of the deep color. Also popular is Crazy Eight, a mix of eight flavors that should not taste good together but do.
Remember Fizzies? You put the tablets in a glass or bottle of water and have carbonated, flavored water. They sell those at The Sweet Tooth. Other “retro” candies are available as well as gift baskets. Coming soon are balloons that you can stuff with any number of items, from lottery tickets to cash to Teddy bears.
Don’t forget the wagon. The vintage 1976 trailer can be rented out for parties of any occassion. You won’t have to work the equipment, it will come stocked with the good stuff, caramel corn or apples, taffy, cotton candy and sno cones, depending on your appetite.
“This is really helping the kids develop a good work ethic,” Tracie said. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to do it.” In addition to Ron’s recipes and hard work, children Zak, 13, Brett, 11, and Delanie can be found putting in hours at the shop. In addition to the family crew, The Sweet Tooth also hired a dozen youngsters for summer work.
“People may joke about the family working a candy wagon, but it put three boys through college,” Tracie said, referring to Ron and his two brothers. “It put them through college, and then one though architecture school, one through law school, and one through dental school.”
The Sweet Tooth is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 6 p.m.