The Legacy of Marshall Field co Frango Mints

I feel the need to express myself about the “death” of Marshall Field & Company, but what can I say that hasn’t already been said? By now, we all know the fate of our beloved department store. Sometimes it helps to talk about it-like somehow it isn’t real until I verbalize it. There was even a Web site dedicated to saving Field’s from its impending doom at www.keepitfields.org. An elegant lunch “under” the Walnut Room Christmas tree has become a holiday ritual for scores of Field’s customers and visitors alike. The holiday window displays have always brought joy to many, eliciting squeals of excitement from children and memories of Christmas past for older generations.

In 1856, Marshall Field moved to Chicago at the age of 21. From his humble beginning as a retail clerk, Field became the pioneer of one of the most famous and recognized retail establishments in the world. A book first published in 1952 titled, “Give the Lady What She Wants: The Story of Marshall Field & Company,” touts his unique approach of catering to the needs and wishes of his upscale female clientele at that time. Field’s became more than just a department store. The branding of the store was that of genteel civility, encouraging their customers to linger and socialize. No high-pressure sales, courteous sales associates, liberal return and credit policies, plush lounges for men and women, and even home delivery in specially marked Marshall Field’s cabs-all of this endeared Field’s to its customers, many of who developed a life-long, multi-generational loyalty to the store.

The architecture of the State Street store is equally famous and is made up of several buildings. Daniel Burnham designed the two most familiar buildings, along State Street between Randolph and Washington. The north building was completed in 1902, and the south building was erected five years later. The Great Clocks (at State & Washington and State & Randolph) weigh over seven tons each. These massive yet graceful timepieces have kept Chicago time for more than a century. Norman Rockwell immortalized them in a painting used on a Saturday Evening Post cover (November 3, 1945) titled “Clock Repairman.” The Great Granite Pillars (part of the State Street Entrance portico), installed in 1902, are second in size only to those at the Temple of Karnack in Egypt. Marshall Field’s wealthiest and most elite customers would be greeted at this main entrance by doormen and politely escorted inside the store.

Inside, the Tiffany Ceiling, created in 1907, is the largest unbroken example of Tiffany Favrile glass in the world, containing over 1.6 million pieces. The store was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978. The Chicago Architecture Foundation hosts a tour that traces the construction, development, and renovation of the landmark buildings. Visit www.architecture.org for a list of upcoming tours.

The flagship store on State Street also boasts one of Chicago’s oldest and most famous restaurants. The Walnut Room opened in 1907. Located on the seventh floor, the two-story Chicago classic is adorned by crystal chandeliers and dark wood with natural light flooding through the windows. Waiters clad in black ties tend white-clothed tables. At holiday time, generations of Chicagoans have brought their families to see the Walnut Room’s 45-foot Great Tree decorated with over 1,200 themed ornaments and 25,000 dazzling lights. Diners nosh on such menu items as spinach salad or the signature dish, Mrs. Herring’s Chicken Pot Pie, and finish with a slice of Frango Mint Chocolate Ice Cream Pie. Afterward, a stroll by the holiday-decorated windows, each tells a story as you walk from one end to the other.

My mom called me the morning news hit the papers declaring Field’s lot. She told me about how her great aunt would take her and her sisters on the train to downtown Chicago to shop at Field’s before Christmas in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They would marvel at the spectacular holiday windows and have lunch in the Walnut Room. After we reminisced for a moment about the store, I was struck by a hideous thought: “But what about Frango Mints?” She, too, was unnerved by the horrific prospect.

Immediately, I went to the Field’s website (www.fields.com) and clicked on Frango. The mere sight of those mouth-watering specialties on the web page reduced my feelings of anxiety. To my pleasant surprise, Field’s Wine Buyer, Alan Gordon suggested “entertaining” ideas for Frango, pairing the chocolates with appropriate beverages. It also includes a few recipes. Like we need another reason to buy those chocolates. Can you imagine Frango Mint Cheesecake, Frango Mint Chocolate Mousse with Brandy, Frango Mint Chocolate-Chip Cookies, or Frango Brownies? My head was spinning! I ordered a box thinking if I could taste that smooth, creamy chocolate mint square, all would be right with the world.

Marshall Field’s acquired Frango in 1929 from a Seattle-based retail company and began selling it in their confectionery department. They quickly became popular and a hallmark of shopping at Field’s. The web page goes on to state: “Today, over a million pounds of Frango chocolates, made according to the secret recipe, sweet talk their way across time zones and international date lines each year. The Frango fan club is large, devout and very vocal.” I’m one of those fans. Every Christmas, my parents send me one of those lovely, instantly recognizable, green boxes of heaven. And, as is my standard practice, I don’t share even one chocolate from that box. It immediately goes in my desk drawer, hidden from view of the vultures in my office (a.k.a. co-workers). I know that isn’t really in the spirit of the holiday, but get real.

The architectural splendor has remained under the Macy’s imprint, but the spirit of Field’s isn’t gone forever. I’ll adjust to the fact that Field’s is now Macy’s. Over the years, we’ve all needed to adjust our loyalties to products and brands through the mergers and acquisitions of companies as they constantly change.

But, c’mon-messing with Frango would have been a travesty! As a former Chicagoan, every trip back to the city includes dropping by the State Street store to buy some of those delectable melt-in-your-mouth treats. While I have mourned the loss of that bastion of State Street, I’m relieved that Macy’s has continued the tradition of Frango. The old Web page concluded with, ” . . . open a box among friends and ask, “Would anyone care for a Frango chocolate?” I don’t think so. Get your own damn box!