The Sweet Tooth honored for 100-plus years of service

Owners Tracie and Ron Riebschleger. Photo courtesy of Dave Trumpie

The Sweet Tooth turns 100!

Actually, it is 110, but who’s counting! The Michigan Retailers Association has named Sweet Tooth of Rockford to its honor roll of Centennial Retailers, earning the business a commemorative brass plaque and certificate for 100-plus years of service. The plaque and certification was presented to owners Tracie and Dr. Ronald Riebschleger recently by Michigan Retailers Assn (MRA) representatives Barb Stein (From Great Northern Trading Co.) and Burke Sage.

The Sweet Tooth on Bridge Street is known by all local school children as an after school pit stop for a treat after those long days of studying. Many parents stop in for caramel corn or a hand scooped ice cream cone too. Tracing its roots back to late 1906 or early 1907, it was shortly after Riebschleger’s Grandfather George Koinis got off the boat from Greece. He started out small with only a popcorn push cart, but eventually grew to a fleet of Popcorn trucks. Pictures of the actual trucks can still be seen decorating the shop’s walls.

Upon George’s death in the late 1950’s, his daughter and her husband carried on the tradition. Earl and Mary renamed the business “Rips Popcorn” after Earl’s nickname and they became a fixture at events around their hometown of Saginaw for the next fifty years. Rip worked full time as a lineman for Michigan Bell Telephone and then “full time” for his wife prepping the popcorn trucks and trailers for business on most weekends throughout the summer. In exchange for room and board, their four sons were expected to work as needed. As it turned out, “as needed” meant almost every day of the summer—including weekends! Besides setting a great work example, it taught the kids the value of hard work. As a result, all four made it through college and went on to receive advanced degrees in engineering, architecture, law, and dentistry. With over 30 years of combined advanced education, I always enjoyed seeing the smile on my dad’s face during one of our “family reunions” in a popcorn trailer, says youngest son Ron. He would relax outside while all the boys and my mom would sweat our butts off repaying my parents hard work that put us all through college. Looking back, I really enjoyed those days! Since Dad ducked out of high school early to join the marines for WWII, I really understand now why he was so proud of his kids’ accomplishments.

Because it was fairly hard work, my father made us promise not to work the popcorn trucks and trailers after we received our educations. Unfortunately, he did not figure in the addictive quality of popcorn. Once it is in your blood, it is really difficult to get out. After his parents’ passing in the early 2000, son Ron brought the business to its current home on Bridge street. He figures he is still honoring his father’s wishes, by not working in the actual trucks and trailers. One of the original trucks can still be seen in the Greenfield Village museum. Instead of a mobile popcorn trailer, the memories, recipes, and some equipment now have a permanent home in Rockford. Youngest son Ron can still can be occasionally found in the kitchen reliving his childhood memories and stealing a bit of warm caramel corn as it comes out of the cooker. Since all of the corns are still made from scratch, it is easy to go back in time and remember the “good old days”—according to Ron. On a good day, the fourth generation also pitches in to help. When he is home from college on break, eldest son Zak helps make the caramel corn. We have a friendly competition on whose caramel corn is better. We use a recipe that has not changed in 100 years, and uses all natural ingredients, but every batch taste a little different. Don’t get me wrong, they are all great, but some are a bit better.

Running the cash register and learning to make popcorn is 16-year-old Delanie, while 18-year-old Brett fills in when needed. They’re doing it as being part of a family – which is occasionally against their will. But, in general, they know they are helping out the family cause and keeping the tradition alive,” Riebschleger said.

Busy Summers

Tourists keep the business rock’n in the summer, when seven or eight workers tend to customers’ needs. The store’s full time manager, Dawn Nelson, holds down the fort in the winter, and is as close to family as “almost family” gets. Many stores in Rockford that sell treats and Ice cream close their doors in the winter, but we keep ours open. We want to give the town a sweet “fix” year round. In the summer time, we are open 7 days per week. In the winter, we work Wednesdays through Saturday.

The store sells 25 flavors of homemade candied corns, as well as popcorn, Seafoam, chocolates, ice cream, shaved ice and retro candies, including many custom baskets of homemade treats.

As a health professional and well-known local dentist, Riebschleger hears a lot of teasing on providing candy to the town. When in the dental office, he preaches “moderation”. The same goes for life outside the dental office. Too much of anything is usually a bad thing. To my patients who tease me, I simply remind them that my family has been selling popcorn for over 110 years, but I have only been a dentist for 25. If it were not for the popcorn, I may have never become a dentist. I have a long way to go to make up for all of the cavities my ancestors may have helped form! Oh yea, I remind them all to brush their teeth too—in moderation.

“Popcorn is one of the better snacks around,” he said. “There’s actually not that much sugar. It’s fairly healthy and filling.”

It’s not always tooth-friendly, he acknowledges. People are cautious with hard candy, but not soft popcorn.

“It’s the old maid kernels,” he said. “They break more teeth than anything else.”

The best part of the business, he adds, is “seeing the faces of the kids and the smiles when they come in to get a treat, or seeing old people who remember doing the same thing when they were kids.”

He continues to resist franchise requests, but is carefully considering those opportunities, he said.

It’s not so easy when you’re guarding your heritage.

“It takes a lot of trust to put your family’s reputation in someone else’s hands.”

Owners Tracie and Ron Riebschleger. Photo courtesy of Dave Trumpie