The Squirrel’s Nest
Nancy Kemble first started making all-natural candy for her son, Jason, because he had a sensitivity to artificial colors and flavors. By 1980, she opened her own shop and was soon shipping candy to customers all over the country.
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By Steven Hoffman
The story of The Squirrel’s Nest, certainly one of Middletown’s sweetest—and most enduring—businesses begins in 1980 with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy named Jason Kemble.
Nancy Kemble recalls that her son was two and a half years old when she first learned that he had a sensitivity to artificial colors and flavors that are commonly found in many foods.
“It affected the way he felt about himself and the way he treated others,” she explained.
When Nancy and her husband, Jimmy, set out to try to eliminate products with artificial ingredients from Jason’s diet and environment, it took a lot of work. The first visit to the grocery store after the decision took three hours as they carefully studied labels.
The Kembles saw Jason show improvement. It might not have been evident from one day to the next, but after several months the gradual changes were obvious.
Nancy wanted her son to be able to enjoy candy like other children so she learned the art of candy-making from her Pennsylvania Dutch mother-in-law. Jason liked the sweets that his mother created, and she shared the all-natural treats with others. This was long before natural foods became popular. The Kembles decided to start selling the candy to others, and the Squirrel’s Nest was born. The business was initially based out of the Kemble family’s home in Townsend.
When Nancy received a book written by Dr. Benjamin Feingold for Christmas soon after that, she learned more about how common it is for people to have sensitivities to artificial flavors, fragrances, colors, and some preservatives.
“Parents whose children had been diagnosed with ADHD, ADD, autism, learning disabilities, and allergies were looking for natural alternatives,” Nancy explained. “The Feingold organization is just phenomenal. A lot of times, when people with ADD, ADHD, or bipolar disorder take the artificial products out of their lives, they don’t have some of the problems that they were having. That’s not always the case, but sometimes it is.”
The Feingold program seemed to help many people and the organization grew, becoming a valuable resource for people looking for natural foods. In those pre-Internet days, Nancy started selling her candy through mail-order catalogs to Feingold customers around the world.
In 1990, Jason Kemble was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Even with the illness, he felt strongly about the importance of an all-natural diet. By this time, Nancy had plans to open the store in Middletown at 1 North Broad Street. If officially opened on July 5, 1990.
Jason passed away in 1991, just one month short of his sixteenth birthday.
Nancy recalls that her son encouraged her to keep making her candy for the many customers who had come to rely on it.
“This is Jason’s store,” she said. “I started this for him. He did not want me to give up the store. He told me, ‘Thousands of kids depend on you.’”
She continued the story in Jason's memory. In fact, following his passing, she dedicated herself to the work.
“By helping thousands of other children, I realized that it was helping me to fill some of the huge void left in my life by his passing,” she explained.
Nancy said that she cherishes getting to know so many people through her work over the years. She has received many thank-you letters and cards over the years from people who tell her that the candy that she made was very important to them.
“What makes me feel good in my heart is that I’ve been able to touch other people’s lives in Jason’s memory,” she explained.
She’s also proud of the fact that she has been a part of the Middletown business community since 1990, making The Squirrel’s Nest one of the town’s oldest businesses. At various times, Nancy has relied heavily on friends and employees to help her produce the candy that has been sent from Middletown to points all over the world.
“I’ve been truly blessed with so many people who helped me over the years,” she explained.
Today, Kemble still makes candy for Feingold customers. She also wholesales to several stores, including Newark Natural Foods, The Delaware Store in Dover, Del., and the Lost and Found Again store in Middletown.
Nancy explained the difference between Feingold customers and the local residents in Middletown and the surrounding communities who have enjoyed her products.
“The Feingold customers are ordering the candy because they need it,” she said. “The locals order it because they like it. For the locals, it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s natural. They come in because they love the candy.”
Count Jody Chambers among those who love the candy. The Middletown resident has fond memories of treating herself to dark chocolate butter creams at the The Squirrel's Nest and enjoying chocolate-dipped peaches that Nancy offered during the annual Peach Festival.
“I've been going to her shop for so long,” Chambers explained. “She offers a lot of different products. I love the taste of the candy, and I also like to support local businesses.”
Chambers added that she often gives out Nancy's candy to friends and relatives during holidays.
“No matter who I give the candy to, they love it,” she explained.
Another longtime customer, Joyce Yaiser, a resident of Middletown, said that she places orders with The Squirrel's Nest regularly.
“I like the creaminess of the candy and she has an excellent selection of chocolates,” Yaiser explained. “It's like visiting a friend when I go there. It's a nice, friendly hometown store. I highly recommend it to everyone, whether they need the natural chocolate or just like chocolate.”
Nancy no longer keeps regular retail store hours at her own shop, though she’s often in there hard at work filling special orders and online requests from Feingold customers. She still takes orders for corporate events and for people who are placing orders for special occasions like weddings, anniversaries, or birthdays. During busy times of the year, like right before Easter, she will pour fifty pounds of chocolate at a time for use. She hopes to continue to make candy for several more years at least.
“I love what I do and this was for Jason,” she explained. “I have done well with the business. The ultimate thing is that, in Jason’s memory, I have helped other people, which is why we’re here. It’s been my path and I’ve enjoyed it.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email email@example.com.