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Family, fudge, and summer fun in Canastota

Cara Dolan Berry
Staff writer
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Posted 6/19/22

Oh my GAWWWDDD!   Or something like that is what you’re likely to utter after the first bite of a hunk of house-made fudge from Penny’s Candy Co. at ZEMS Ice Cream and Miniature Golf.

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Family, fudge, and summer fun in Canastota

Posted

Oh my GAWWWDDD!  

Or something like that is what you’re likely to utter after the first bite of a hunk of house-made fudge from Penny’s Candy Co. at ZEMS Ice Cream and Miniature Golf.

We indulged in the salted caramel fudge after considering the likes of cookies and cream, chocolate mint, and half a dozen other flavors.

Penny and her husband, Rick, opened ZEMS more than 23 years ago as a small business side hustle to teach their three children, Zack, Erik, and Meghan Stevens (first letter of each convened to name the place ZEMS) the basics of running a business and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

“It is a family business,” said Meghan Stevens Bonaventura, who currently minds the shop, with a little help from Mom and Dad when needed.  

“At the beginning, we were small and only open in the summer. Just chocolates and penny candy,” said Bonaventura. “Everyone helped!”

Now, 12 employees are part of the ZEMS family in their 23rd season and they are open all year.

The Stevens family added on to the building and the grounds over the years with the addition of candy, baked goods, an arcade, and a party room, which patrons can reserve to suit larger groups for birthdays, graduations, youth team celebrations and the like. 

“It’s kind of cool to be open year ‘round,” Bonaventura said. 

ZEM’S is set off Route 13 just a bit along a stretch of green grass. The easy-in-and-out driveway leading up to the two order windows is street-facing and, off to the side, is a cute and cozy mini-golf course, complete with a signature caboose.

Enter Penny’s Candy Co. around the corner from the lazy lines anticipating a cone covered with some cold, creamy, Hershey’s Ice Cream and, to your right is the bakery counter, tempting with Sunday Cinnamon Rolls (icing on the side so you can slather on as little or as much as your dare), cookies, muffins and more. Ice Cream by the tub or sandwiched between house-made cookies is also for sale.

A few steps further finds you in Candy Land.

Gourmet chocolates are featured and tempt you to create a custom box filled with your favorite flavors. Another step sees nothing but fudge, made on-site and scrumptious.  

Then there is the “penny” candy, sure to make the grown folks feel young again. Pop Rocks and Fun Dip and Smarties and Neccos and Spree. Sugar Daddies and lollipops and licorice sticks.

On to the glass dispensers with the silver lids stacked in rows and filled with Mary Janes and Fireballs … Gobstoppers, Laffy Taffy and Tootsie Rolls … Lemon Heads and Starbursts, and Bubble Gum. Shake open a paper bag, grab the scoop and start digging in. It’ll come to less than $2 a pound.

But neither the fun or the nostalgia stops there. A generous room rings with buzzers and bells and the bang of breaking billiard balls. It is an accumulation of generations of arcade games. A small pool table sets it all off from the center The eye darts from an air hockey table to a Ms. Pac Man … skee ball, speed basketball, and an array of other games.

The space is spotted with basic booths for spectators to take it all in over some saltwater taffy.

Bonaventura now has two children of her own, 6-year-old Mia and 2-year-old Maverick.

Mia, who is the same age as her mother was when her grandparents first opened ZEMS to teach them the rewards of running a business and the energy of entrepreneurship, loves to “go to work” with Mom, enthusiastically doing those “opening tasks” she is able, such as taking the covers off the cases, etc.  

“It’s kind of cool to see her run in and follow in my footsteps,” said Bonaventura.

ZEMS also hosts classic car shows. Every summer Saturday evening, collectors line up their classics on the field in front of the mini-golf course. An outdoor cookout with the quintessential fare - burgers, dogs, french fries, and other food truck fancy fills the air with the fragrance of summer food - as a live band to sets it all to music.

Folks from families to first dates to guys night out throw their blankets down on the grass, grab a burger, park their coolers and pitch their beach chairs. The waxy spitshine on the classic cars casts a glow as the sun sets on a community gathered on the grass; melodies wafting on a summer wind while ZEMS serves up milkshakes and memories on a warm, sweet Saturday night.

Meghan Bonaventura offers, “as we say at ZEMS, make the magic happen!”

ZEMS Ice Cream and Bakery and Penny’s Candy Co. is located at the corner of Main and Hickory Streets in Canastota. They are open for ice cream and mini-golf from April 1 through the weekend before Labor Day. The bakery, candy counter, arcade and party room are open from noon to at least 9 p.m. year round, seven days a week. For more information, call 315-697-8510. 

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