Inside Candyland

In the two Hamilton factories that churn out much of the world's supply of Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, every day is Christmas - and Easter, and Valentine's

Published in National Post, March 9, 2002

On the second floor of a factory on a quiet street in Hamilton, Ont., it's always Christmas. Such is the demand for candy canes that 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year, men and women in smocks and hairnets operate the machines that help them produce 90% of Canada's candy cane supply and a not unsubstantial portion of the world's.

One floor above, it's Valentine's Day and Easter. Chocolate bunnies are carefully decorated and molten chocolate is tumbled inside foil-lined moulds to create hollow hearts that are then filled with candy.

This is the Emerald manufacturing site of Cadbury Trebor Allan, Canada's largest confectionery company, a subsidiary of British- based multinational Cadbury Schweppes. While Cadbury made its name on chocolate, Trebor Allan thrives in more specialized segments of the sweets market. The company's success led Cadbury to acquire it in 1995. The particular niche occupied by the turn-of-the-century building on Emerald Street is seasonal candy.

"We're experts on canes here," explains Chris Kydd, the plant's production manager. A large, soft-spoken man, Kydd hadn't intended to become the point man in charge of Canada's holiday treats, but he loves the job.

"I came out of Mohawk College 10 years ago with a business diploma and was looking for a job. They had this job posted, for a production supervisor. I was going for marketing, but thought, why not? And I fell in love with it. I love the production, the action, the interaction with the people."

As we put on smocks and prepare to tour the plant, I ask him if the job gets dull. He says it might if he were making widgets, but "you're making something that goes on the shelf one time a year, and everybody gets excited about it. It's not continuous repetition; every day's a little bit different."

The room that produces 150 million candy canes a year is long and narrow with hardwood floors and high ceilings, giving it the look of a high-school gymnasium. The air is humid and sweetly fragrant. This is where the canes have been made for more than 65 years, and the process hasn't changed much in that time. At one end of the room, molten sugar is cooked in large, open copper kettles that look like giant egg cups. A bell rings, and the sucrose-glucose mixture is deposited on to a steel tray. The candy cane machinery is currently operating at low capacity, so one or two men wearing gloves knead the big, pillow-sized slab of sugar, in order to avoid splintering in the finished product. When production picks up, more staff will work on the lines. The kneading is done on steel tables that are cooled by pipes of cold water running underneath them. When the Christmas rush is on, which it is from August up until the big day, the candy masses will come much faster, as quickly as one every five minutes.

The workers heave the slabs of sugar into a pulling machine. "The process that turns the slab from gold to a nice white colour is oxidation," Kydd shouts over the sound of the machinery. Indeed, as the machine pulverizes it, the cooling mass turns from honey-gold to a pure, milky white. The men then pull it out of the oxidizer and wrap a large ribbon of translucent red candy around it.

The red-and-white mass of sugar, sweet enough to rot the teeth of every child in Hamilton, is put into what Kydd calls the roller. Here, a long cylinder that seems to go on forever is spun from the still pliable candy. From this point on, women monitor the machines. (Of course, the company does not specify which gender should work on which parts of the line. Still, there is a clear divide between the sexes.)

The striped candy pole is spun to that day's diameter, and the hooking and bagging are done at machines down the line. Twenty minutes after the molten sugar was dumped, candy canes are packaged and ready to go.

The machinery has been updated, but the process of making the candy canes remains an art. Kydd fondly recalls the time some of the veterans of the cane floor tried to make a seven-foot-high candy cane, hoping to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.

"It was all done by hand. There was a gentleman who had been here for close to 35 years. He was the supervisor for hard candy. He was working with his guys, and he had the candy on the table, rolling it, getting it shaped up, putting it into a form. Then he had to use the cellophane and wrap it up by hand. It was amazing. Now we use it at trade shows and Christmas parties. It's over in the warehouse. It's a beautiful cane," Kydd says, visibly awed.

"But it's not an eating cane. For show only," adds the public relations representative accompanying us, in case I should be interested in consuming the one-time record-holder. (The cane with the current record is 36 feet high.)

On the third floor, women are decorating Cadbury Great Bunnies. The chocolate has a shelf life of more than a year, so these Easter preparations can be done well in advance. The majority of the Great Bunnies are produced toward the end of the previous year, so by the time the snow begins to melt, the plant has already moved on to other products.

"The bunnies are made around the Christmas season, so we have them ready to be in the stores right after Valentine's," Kydd explains. It's a slow period at the factory now, and multi-purpose, hard candies are its main product. Halloween production will begin in the next few months, and the busy period will start once more.

As the bunnies roll down the conveyor belt, they are adorned with eyes and buttons. The scene is remarkably similar to a print that hangs in several places in the factory, a painting showing an idealized assembly line of the 1950s, with women in blue Alice-in- Wonderland dresses garnishing the bunnies with roses. The uniforms and decorations are a little more practical now, but it's essentially the same as it ever was.

This isn't lost on Kydd, who sees me looking at the picture. "That's actually very real. It's how they used to do it. It's like in the shows, where you see Lucy eating up all the candy," he says.

Though the process of making candy hasn't changed much, the candy made here is very much a product of the times. As a multinational candy company, Cadbury owns a range of different brands. The current thinking is cross-branding; trying popular flavours of beverages in candy cane form, for instance, such as Orange Crush, Hawaiian Punch and Hires root beer, all owned by Cadbury.

We visit a small boardroom filled with the new lines of canes, many products of cross-branding strategies and all distant relatives of the classic peppermint confection. The wall-to-wall shelves are filled with plastic-wrapped candy sticks of every size and colour. Orange, cherry, watermelon, butterscotch and cinnamon canes line the walls, as well as the canes that duplicate the flavours of popular drinks and candies such as Sour Patch Kids. The latest innovation is Pep, which manifests itself in cane form as a chocolate-flavoured candy with a peppermint base.

Kydd explains that they typically make two or three new types of candy cane a year, but that number is increasing. It appears that the pace of innovation is matched only by the demand for more varieties.

The assimilation of the seasonal candy factory with Cadbury Trebor Allan's other operations is perhaps best seen in the chocolate Easter eggs that are being filled with chewy soft candies on the third floor. These candies, which include Fuzzy Peaches, Sour Cherry Blasters, Gummies, Orchard Pears, Tangy Wild Strawberries, Tropicandy Fish, Sour Patch Kids and a cornucopia of other treats, are much younger than the candy canes and bunnies. The cross of soft candies, especially the mouth-puckeringly sour ones, with traditional holiday chocolates gives the company an edge over other seasonal retailers. In fact, it is these sour candies that have overtaken candy canes as the company's main focus. In another of the company's factories on the other side of Hamilton, these candies are also being churned out for an ever-growing world market.

Five kilometres from the Emerald plant, Ashford Saith holds a red Swedish Fish up to the light and rotates it as if it were a precious jewel. "This is a starch-based candy, and it's the biggest part of our business," he says. We're sitting in his office, the nerve centre of the Ewen manufacturing site. This plant produces only soft candy, a whopping 37 million kilograms of it a year. Like the Emerald facility, it operates around the clock. Saith explains that the whole factory is being upgraded to further increase output, primarily for the American market.

Saith has been with Cadbury for 15 years, though he has worked in the food business all his adult life. He has only been at the Ewen facility since September, but he is clearly the sort of manager who makes it his business to know the facility inside and out. There are several bags of candy on his desk, and he uses them as visual aides.

"There are essentially three different types of products that we make here," he says. "One is licorice of all different kinds. We make black and red, in laces of all different sizes. The second type is a gelatin-based product."

Saith opens a bag of gummy worms. "It's very soft and it is prepared by refrigeration. It's essentially like Jell-O, but much firmer."

The final member of the triumvirate is the key, the candy on which the original Allan company's fortunes were made. Other businesses make licorice whips and gummy bears, but no one can make starch-based candies like Allan. Saith holds up the Swedish Fish again.

"There are companies that make similar starch candies, but they differ in consistency and mouth-feel. We believe that we make the best candy. That's a bit of a proprietary thing that we have. It has a bit of a crust on the outside. When you continue biting into it, there's a soft chewy inside. Normally, what you'll find with a lot of competitive products is that you'll bite into it and it's hard and very sticky and chewy. Ours is different. Once you get through the crust, there's a nice, chewy, soft feel to it. It's difficult to capture. You'll get candy that looks the same, but no one can capture the kind of mouth-feel that we have," he says confidently.

Unlike the gummy bears, worms and other creatures, the starch- based candies are baked, just enough to provide the crust but leave the centres soft. I'll be allowed to see the machines, but the secrets to achieving the consistency are closely guarded.

We leave Saith's office and head to the factory floor. We walk past bags of red licorice Twirls speeding down conveyor belts.

Our destination is the mogul depositors, the machines that make the starch-based candies. Nozzles squirt warm syrup into large, white mould boards. The boards then go into ovens, where they are baked for anywhere from a day to a week, depending on the size of the candy piece.

Saith points to a vat of what I recognize as Sour Patch Fruits, minus the tart sugar coating. The purple grapes, red cherries and orange, green and yellow citrus wedges shine under the lights like jewels.

"To add the sour, we blend sugar and acid together," he shouts over the sound of the machine. "The main process turns out a product like what you see there. A Fuzzy Peach will look like that. Then we steam it and put it into the tumbling bin with a sugar-acid solution. You empty it out, cool the candies for a few hours so they don't stick to each other in the package, and then you've got it."

I ask him about the sharp detail on the individual pieces of fruit, which is lost when they're covered with sugar. Each grape on the bunch is visible, as is the stem on the cherry. "Those are sculpted by hand," Saith says. "It's all done right in this plant. I'll show you the lab."

We enter a room where the moulds for every soft-candy product Allan has ever made reside. It's sort of like a tomb in an Egyptian pyramid, or a soft-candy hall of fame. There's an entire orchard represented in the light blue moulds that hang on the wall: pears, peaches, watermelons, oranges, grapefruit, cherries, lemons and limes. There are all manner of animals as well, including rabbits, butterflies, tropical fish, geckos, bats, whales and worms. And there are witches, candy canes, pacifiers, feet, thumbs, stars and maple leaves. Saith is excited about gummy cobras, which he explains can be made in different colours in a process that is "cool to watch." There's even a mall rat, no doubt a product of the early Nineties slang that produced the eponymous film starring Shannen Doherty.

"Some of the ladies on the line don't like working with that one," says Saith. There's a market for the gross-out candies, he says, but, thankfully, it remains small.

A new mould can be made and ready to go in a week -- a turnaround time, Saith says, their competitors just can't match. The Hawaiian Punch character is the latest innovation, and one that is primed to shake up the U.S. soft- candy market.

The next moulds that this room will turn out, and thus the next selection that will greet children at their local convenience store, are decided upon by the company's marketing team. No matter how tasty the candy, consumers have to be sufficiently intrigued to spend a quarter on it. When the target market is pre-adolescent boys (and customers who think like them), special tactics are required. These are planned by the marketing team at its headquarters in Toronto.

Before Fuzzy Peaches, Sour Fruit Salad or Orchard Pears, there were Sour Patch Kids. But before there were Sour Patch Kids, there was a doomed spaceman.

The process that creates the sour-coated soft candy was developed in the late 1970s, and the first candy to be tested with it used what marketing manager Carol Mushing calls a "moonman approach." The attempt to cash in on Star Wars mania didn't take off, but the team was undeterred.

"We were sitting around a table about 16 or 17 years ago saying, OK, what are we going to do with this? We came up with the Sour Patch Kids name," says Mushing. "The little guy on the front was actually the son of one of our salespeople. He became the icon on the package."

"They're now Sour Patch teenagers," laughs Luisa Girotto, the company's public relations manager.

Both Mushing and Girotto are women who laugh easily and love what they do. Both are also visibly pregnant. We're sitting in a corporate boardroom on a quiet street in Toronto's west end. Mushing says the kids in the neighbourhood call her the Gummy Queen because of the quantity and quality of candy her house is known to have on Halloween.

I note that the name for Sour Patch Kids was chosen when

Cabbage Patch Kids were flying off the shelves in toy stores, and Mushing ably deflects suspicions

that the company's innovation was riding the coattails of a larger fad.

"Well, it's certainly all about kids," she says, elaborating on how children of all ages enjoy the products. But it's clear the candy marketers are finely attuned to popular culture in their search for the next big thing. In fact, that's how Fuzzy Peaches, the company's chief innovation and most popular candy (second only to Maynard's Wine Gums) came about in the early 1990s. They're sugar- crusted peach-shaped soft candies that can be found all over North America.

"What we try to do is take things that are trendy in the marketplace," Mushing says. "We're always going through grocery stores and looking at what's new and popular. At the time, peach schnapps was very popular. We aren't averse to looking at trends in the liquor store, so we brought that in."

The process was a new twist on Odgen Nash's aphorism about candy being dandy but liquor being quicker, in this case, to the marketplace. But what the confectioners produced was better able to capture the real peach flavour, Mushing argues.

"We brought the best part of the peach flavour to the market," she says. "If you close your eyes and bite into a peach, you can imagine the fuzz on the outside. We delivered on that by giving that nice tartness to the candies."

In most industries, the failure rate of new products is quite high, and at least 70% of new products don't last in the marketplace. Mushing estimates that the failure rate for new candies is only around 30%, though some are closely attached to passing trends and thus have a built-in obsolescence.

"We saw the trend in hot products, like jalapenos and salsas about five years ago," she says. "We came out with Hot Fries, which were french-fry-shaped and hot to the mouth. We also did Hot Pizza. They did not do as well as anticipated." Occasional failure is expected, though, in a market that thrives on innovation.

Girotto says candy consumers are like other consumers in some ways. "People don't want their toothpaste to change, and they're not always looking for a new detergent," she says. So the company isn't about to launch a new recipe for Fuzzy Peaches. In 1985, Coca-Cola taught every marketer in the world an important lesson when it replaced its signature beverage with the wildly unpopular New Coke.

"At the end of the day," says Mushing, "if you walk into a grocery store, you'll see Fuzzy Peach. It's a staple and it won't change every month." You can buy the candies in different size bags and, at this time of year, they also come inside Easter eggs, but the candy is still the same Fuzzy Peach.

It's in the corner store that you'll see the more experimental candies, the gummy tarantulas and sour grapefruit wedges, offering a plethora of choice to the 10-year-old with a loonie burning a hole in his pocket.

Products like the Sour Patch Kids and candy canes made in Hamilton are only a small part of the company's Canadian focus, which is, in turn, a small part of Cadbury Schweppes's global operations. But it is in these particular fields that the company leads the industry. Sour candies are the fastest-growing segment of the North American candy market, largely because of Cadbury Trebor Allan's products. The men and women responsible for these products work in factories nestled among smokestacks and strip malls in the industrial heartland of southern Ontario. It's certainly not as idyllic as the fantasy candy factory in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the goal of providing children with pleasure is the same.

"This is really a fun place to work," says Girotto. "You know that when you can introduce someone by saying, 'This is Peter, and he does Wonderbar.' "

An employee who's setting up a VCR to show me the company's assembly lines can't help but chime in. "Last night, I was on the phone with a friend who's a pharmacist, and she was saying how she has to deal with drugs and stuff all day," he says, then adds, "When she asked what I was up to, I was able to say that I spend my day talking about lollipops."