Esther Price history: From a teenage fudge maker to Dayton Valentine’s Day savior

What started out as candy made on a Dayton woman’s kitchen counter has turned into one of Dayton’s most iconic businesses: Esther Price Fine Chocolates.

As a teenager in the early 1920s, Esther Rose Rohman had to make a tough decision — finish high school or take a job at Rike’s Department Store. She chose to go to work, and in her autobiography, “Chocolate Covered Cherries,” she wrote it was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

That decision put her on the path to founding her own business, which is now a Dayton institution.

“When I was transferred to the second floor at Rike’s, I took in fudge,” she wrote. “We went into the stockroom and I gave everybody a piece of candy. They all went crazy over it. Every time I got a chance, I made fudge because I loved the glory of everybody loving the fudge.”

Esther married Ralph Price in 1924, left her job at Rike’s and had twins. To help make ends meet for the young family, she made fudge to sell to former co-workers.

A head floorman at Rike’s caught sight of her fudge-stuffed shopping bags during one of her visits and told her she could only sell it from the store’s candy counter.

“All the girls that were waiting for me to come in with their pound of candy had to go down to the candy shop to get it,” Price wrote. “Rike’s doubled the price, and everybody had to pay that to get the pound of fudge that I had made for them. From that day on, Rike’s said they would buy candy from me.”

Esther started production in a two-bedroom house on Fauver Avenue. She made candy at night, cutting and wrapping it in wax paper.

To grow her business, she packed the candy in bags, opened the windows so her neighbor could hear her sleeping twins if they woke, and walked 12 blocks to the streetcar that took her downtown. There she went door to door selling candy to banks and doctors’ offices.

Esther’s skill and business grew. She began experimenting with dipping fudge in chocolate and making smaller bite-sized pieces. She cooked on six hot plates in her kitchen, cooled candy in her basement and decorated candy Easter eggs on makeshift tables in the attic.

It was time to find a bigger location when neighbors complained to the city about traffic congestion due to the number of people buying candy from her living room.

In 1952, crowds came to sample and watch candy as it was hand-dipped at her new store on Wayne Avenue. Today there are four stores in Dayton and three in Cincinnati.

After more than 50 years of candy making, Price retired and sold the business in 1976.

“It seemed as though it was something given to me that I had to use,” she wrote. “I was thrilled every time I stirred a pan of candy.”

Today the company makes 5,000 pounds of candy a day during its 30-week production period.

“We’ve kept her traditions,” said Doug Dressman, vice-president of Esther Price.

The community is as “proud of Esther Price as they are of Mikesell’s or Marion’s Piazza — because we’ve been around for the long haul,” Dressman said. “We’ve kept the same flavor profiles and same taste. It’s always a joy to get a good tasting candy.”

Faith Bollard, production manager for Esther Price, said she thinks people love the candy because “they can taste we don’t shortcut anything.”

She finds Price inspirational because she started a company when it was rare for a woman to be in business. “She had a dream and she made it come to fruition with the help of her community,” Bollard said.

“I work with candy every day. People would kill to have a job where you’re playing in chocolate, it’s like a dream job to a lot of people.”