This is literally a sweet story — with an even sweeter ending.
It’s a story about how a beloved institution — 75-year-old Preston’s Candy & Ice Cream in Burlingame — was rescued from the brink of closure with the unexpected, timely help of a new resident and others as well as the overwhelming support from the community, including BCA Sangha members, temples and churches.
It’s also a story that embodies the spirit, perseverance and resilience of Jodo Shinshu women — the candy store’s owner, 77-year-old Irene Preston, has lifelong ties with the BCA. The role of women in Pure Land Buddhism dates back generations to the time of Eshinni and Kakushinni, Shinran Shonin’s wife and youngest daughter, who were both instrumental in propagating Pure Land Buddhism as we know it.
“I am forever grateful,” said Preston, a cheery, energetic woman who is in constant motion in her store. “If it weren’t for all of these connections and all this concern, we would not survive.”
Preston and her family — dating back to her immigrant grandparents — grew up as members of the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple. She’s helped the Palo Alto and Alameda temples and the Buddhist Women’s Associations, and over the years, has donated her chocolates and candies to BCA temples and churches as well as a number of community nonprofits (such as J-Sei, the Japanese cultural and community care facility in Emeryville). She gave a chocolate demonstration at the 16th World Buddhist Women’s Convention in 2019 in San Francisco, and said that one of her highlights was meeting Monshu Kojun Ohtani.
Opened in 1946
Preston’s Candy & Ice Cream opened its doors on Columbus Day 1946 — Oct. 12, 1946 — under the ownership of Art Preston (no relation to Irene Preston) and the small store on Broadway in Burlingame soon became the go-to neighborhood place for handmade chocolates, truffles, peanut brittle, ice cream and hot fudge sundaes.
The store still retains much of the same old-fashioned look and feel from its checkered, black-and-white floor tiles to its vintage ice cream signs for milkshakes, root beer floats, hot fudge sundaes and banana splits. Its menu of ice cream flavors on the wall has a decidedly classic look. But scan the menu and you’ll find it’s truly contemporary. Along with the tried-and-true flavors of vanilla, chocolate and rocky road are ube, salt caramel and macapuno.
Preston, a self-described chocoholic, first became aware of Preston’s Candy & Ice Cream nearly 40 years ago and got to know Art Preston for “many, many years.” (In her previous career, she worked as an arts educator for teachers in the Santa Clara Valley schools.)
When Art Preston decided to retire in 1997, he sold the store to Irene Preston and her former husband. She trained with Art Preston for three years on the craft of candy making before teaching her own staff.
The candy store, which has always relied heavily on foot traffic and local support, suffered a severe blow like many food industry businesses when the pandemic hit. Preston’s Candy and Ice Cream was forced to temporarily close and reopened to find just a fraction of its customers. Preston fell behind in bills, dipped into her own savings, and reduced staff to keep the struggling business open.
One new customer was Ben Lambright, who moved from The Bronx in New York to Burlingame about six months ago with his fiancee and lives about two blocks away.
“I pretty quickly fell in love with Preston's chocolates and ice cream, but over the course of the next few months, I noticed that, with some regularity, Preston's was closing early,” Lambright said. “At the time, I had no idea why, but I just kept stopping by when they could be open. Then one day, a little before Christmas, I happened to be in there while Irene was telling an older gentleman that she ‘needed help so bad.’
“As a writer and nonprofit director (Lambright’s organization is called “We Read Together”), I had a pretty flexible schedule, so I offered to come in a few days a week and help out,” he continued. “I knew I had to do something. I just couldn't bear to watch another small business go under, especially not one with 75-plus years of history and the best chocolate in America.”
Lambright set up a website for Irene Preston to allow for online sales, and he came up with a plan for “Irene’s Rescue Box” — approximately one pound of assorted chocolates and candies priced at $36.40 — to generate sales. The rescue boxes went on sale March 30.
Lambright began volunteering about eight to 10 hours a week at the store, and ended up working three straight 70-plus hour weeks at the height of the sales — when a rescue box was being sold every 15 minutes. At first, Lambright thought it would generate about $500 in revenue — but, as of mid-June, between 800 to 900 rescue boxes have been sold.
The overwhelming response and support from the public has allowed Preston to extend her lease through the end of the year.
“The thing with Preston’s is that in 75 years, we served generations in Burlingame,” she said. “So when the word came out that Preston’s might close, all of these alumni, all of these families that came in and grew up with Preston’s said, ‘We can’t let Preston’s close.’ So the word got out, they used their social media, they used their alumni connections.
“The Buddhist temple members who knew me said, ‘We’ve got to help Irene’ because I’ve been donating and helping out for so many years.
“I had people coming through the door that I hadn’t seen for three years. They were saying, ‘I used to come when I was in high school’ or ‘I used to work here’ or ‘My mother worked here.’ And, ‘My grandmother worked here with Art.’ It goes back to all those generations. I met a lady who was here when Art opened the store. She was 3 years old and still remembers going to the candy store and getting her candy and ice cream.
“Burlingame is unique. We’re one of the oldest companies in town. We’re very, very much loved by everybody here. And that’s what gave me the idea that, OK, I can survive if I have enough support. If people come back, we can build it up again and that’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.”
Lambright said it’s important for Americans to support independent businesses like Preston’s Candy & Ice Cream.
“There are a lot of small businesses out there struggling in silence, just like Irene did,” he said. “If we don't want to see them closed forever, if we don’t want to see the American business landscape shift for the worse, we must get back out there and start patronizing them again. I think what I am most proud of is all the foot traffic we generated from supporters coming in from all over California. We didn't just help us, but hopefully all the businesses in our neighborhood. In the end, that might matter more than just what I did for Preston's.”
Preston paused, then reflected on Jodo Shinshu’s teachings.
“It’s hard to explain to people about Jodo Shinshu, but the core of it is that you do what you can, when you can, with gratitude, compassion and kindness,” she said. “And you have to do the best you can.”