24 November 2023

Riverina Rewind: Back when Wagga couldn't get enough of Darrell Lea

| Michelle Maddison
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Darrell Lea, Huthwaites, on their opening day in 1969. Photo: Museum of the Riverina.

If I had to pick one business of the 20th century that had a unique smell, it would have to be Darrell Lea.

Having lived in Sydney for a number of years, I can still remember passing the Willy Wonka-esque George Street store and inhaling the ever-present scent of licorice, a smell that still today, makes me think of Darrell Lea and their wondrous sweet creations.

From the tiny bottles of Little Bo Peep sweets that were sometimes bought as a treat, to their nougat Easter eggs that are still popular today.

By the 1970s there were 500 Darrell Lea retail stores across Australia, including one in Wagga.

There, it was a large and colourful counter, situated at the front of Huthwaites – ‘the Friendly Store’.

Darrell Lea opened in 1969, with Shirley Coleman as manager. Previously employed in Huthwaites in the grocery section, from 1967 until 1969 Shirley had worked at the top grocery counter with the cakes, biscuits and pastries. When Shirley moved to the Darrell Lea counter, she attended a two-week conference in Sydney where she learned how to bag the goodies in tantalising ways – curling ribbons, adding stickers and sealing each bag individually. She found her work enjoyable and exciting.

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One Easter weekend, Wagga’s store broke the NSW record for selling stock. The most popular items were rocky road, ‘cocoanut’ bars and the big boxes of handmade chocolates that Darrel Lea was famous for.

In 2020, when local historians Sherry Morris and Danielle Gamble were researching for their Huthwaites book, some locals reminisced about their memories of Darrell Lea.

Amanda Starfield remembered the lolly counter with great fondness and said the chocolate roughs were a big hit in her house.

As a child in the 1970s, Beck Jones thought Huthwaites was ‘glamorous and exciting’, but the thing she enjoyed most was the Darrell Lea counter.

One of Michele Warren’s first jobs at Huthwaites was working at Darrell Lea.

“My favourite part of the job was cutting up the huge blocks of rocky road and putting it in bags with labels, etc. All the lollies and chocolates came in big boxes and all individually bagged,” she recalled.

“I used to have a box under the front counter with ‘offcuts’ or ‘leftovers’ of chocolates and lollies … great way to get to know the staff from other departments when they came looking for a sugar fix! Although I must say I wasn’t a fan of the Darrell Lea uniform and that big bow!”

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Lee Robinson said not only was the display beautiful, “but the smell of the licorice and chocolate used to float through the store. It was wonderful.”

Sadly, today all of us who were lucky enough to grow up experiencing Darrell Lea stores only have the memories. Eighty-five years after they were founded Darrell Lea went into receivership (2012). Their retail stores were sold, and hundreds of staff were sacked.

Today, Darrell Lea exists in the small selection of products that are still produced, but not by the original family. Their iconic products sit on supermarket shelves with countless other confectionary items – a long way from their previous place in dazzling shop windows.

But every time I smell licorice, I am transported back to my childhood, and to my memories of the splendour that was Darrell Lea.

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