By: Timothy Kays
In between meeting sessions on the morning of January 27, the Williams County Commissioners were visited by Ohio Supreme Court Justice, Sharon Kennedy. Flushed with enthusiasm, Justice Kennedy said that she had just come from a tour of Bryan’s own Spangler Candy Company, and was awestruck by the production processes she had witnessed.
The mood was dampened somewhat when the candy conversation topic shifted to one of the most memorable edible traditions of Valentine’s Day, Sweethearts. When informed that Spangler had encountered serious production problems after they purchased the iconic brand from the defunct New England Confectionery Company (NECCO), the smile of Justice Kennedy was overtaken by a look of trepidation.
Wondering aloud if she was going to need to find another source for her ‘conversation hearts’, her concerns were assuaged with the report that although there were production issues, Spangler Candy Company is bringing a full scale return of the brand to retail shelves starting this year.
Ponder that for a moment. If a Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court is concerned about the availability of Sweethearts, what does that say about the rest of the general population? As it turns out, pardon the pun, it says a mouthful, and the rich history of the two candy manufacturers is the driving force.
Now in its 114th year of family-owned operation under different monikers, the Spangler Candy Company is the home of the iconic Dum-Dum lollipop. There is hardly anyone of candy-consuming age on the planet who has not enjoyed or at least seen a Dum-Dum. Spangler purchased the Dum-Dum brand in 1953, and in the 67 years since has made it into one of the most immediately recognizable brands in America. The Spangler name is synonymous with top quality confections, from chocolate creations to Circus Peanuts.
Three Boston-area confectionaries, Chase and Company, Ball and Fobes, and Bird, Wright and Company, combined their collective efforts to create the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO). Born in 1901, NECCO predated the Spangler Manufacturing Company (the first incarnation of the Spangler Candy Company) by five years. Much like Spangler Candy, NECCO became famous for a sweet concoction that was turned into an iconic brand…Necco Wafers.
By the time that the NECCO company came into existence, the product that we today know as the Necco Wafer had been in production under the same formula by the Chase Brothers for over a half century. Give that some thought. Fourteen years prior to the beginning of the American Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln was a only newly elected member of the United States House of Representatives under the Whig Party, ‘Chase Lozenges’ were being manufactured using the same formula that it would carry forward for the next 170-plus years as the Necco Wafer.
Over the last century, that same Necco Wafer has traveled the world with American soldiers, and has even garnered mention on an episode of the hit 90’s sitcom, ‘Night Court.’ Although the Necco Wafer was the most recognizable of the NECCO line, the company also acquired and manufactured other familiar products like the Clark Bar, Canada Mints, and with the purchase of the Stark Candy Company in 1990, Mary Jane candies and the iconic Valentine’s Day staple…Sweethearts.
Under the auspices of NECCO, the production of Sweethearts increased to eight billion hearts per year, a fitting outcome since the technology for printing messages on stamped out candies using food dyes was originally invented by the Chase Brothers…the same inventors of the Necco Wafer and one of the original partnering organizations that founded NECCO. NECCO ceased production of the original conversation hearts in the 1950s after a run of decades.
NECCO began experiencing a series of corporate and financial setbacks in the 1960s. In 1963, NECCO was purchased by New York holding company, UIS, who immediately streamlined the company by shedding some of its more unpopular brands. The production of conversation hearts began again in the 1970s, which provided a boost in corporate profits.
The financial problems continued to hound the company though, and in 2007, NECCO was sold to another investment firm. The downward spin continuing, Ares Management purchased NECCO in 2017, and after a declaration of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Round Hill Investments, the same company that resurrected the Hostess Twinkie, purchased NECCO in 2018.
The magic that Round Hill was able to turn with Hostess was not to be repeated with NECCO though, and the New England Confectionery Company, a firm whose roots went back to 1847, was no more. The Revere, Massachusetts factory was shuttered, and became an Amazon warehouse; the long running candy lines of the company were sold off to other manufacturers.
Enter Bryan’s own Spangler Candy Company. In 2018, Spangler expanded westward with the purchase of the adjacent 20-acre New Era campus. With that expansion came the announcement that Spangler and Round Hill Investments had reached a reported $17.3 million deal that saw the Spangler Candy Company acquiring the Necco Wafer and Canada Mint brands, as well as the Valentine’s Day favorite…Sweethearts.
Despite what you might believe, the art of candy making is not as easy as you might think. With the purchase of the NECCO brands, Spangler also gained title to the candy formulations, manufacturing techniques and all associated machinery. When you are belting out eight billion tiny imprinted edible hearts per year, everything required for meeting that quota is not going to fall into place overnight.
Spangler made the purchase too late in 2018 to bring Sweethearts back for Valentine’s Day 2019, and the company began to get an earful as to just how much people were going to miss them. “It was truly overwhelming,” said Ms. Diana Moore Eschhofen, Spangler Director of Corporate Communications. “We received hundreds of inquiries from media and fans across the country, and we continued to hear from fans all year; it was very clear that everyone wanted Sweethearts back in 2020.”
“Based on that consumer response and the technical challenges of moving and resetting the equipment, we already knew we were not going to be able to meet ALL the consumer demand for 2020, but we committed to move forward with limited production to serve as many as we could.”
Yes, despite some production problems, Sweethearts made a long-awaited return in 2020. Those production problems crimped the supply line, but with a major transfer such as this, problems will occur. “You might not realize it,” said Ms. Eschhofen, “…but a lot goes into making these tiny hearts, and we faced some big challenges.”
“The first big challenge was finding the original recipe for Sweethearts. The recipe had changed several times over the years and we wanted to bring back the original version – the one consumers remember. Since the company was closed, it took some searching, but we found it, buried in paperwork.”
Getting the original 118-year old formula right was probably the easy part. Remember, the machines that produced the Necco Wafers and Sweethearts are specialized, and rather old. They’re not your run-of-the-mill industrial candy making machines. To get the brands off the bench and back into the game, Spangler needed to transfer the machinery from Revere, Massachusetts, to Bryan, Ohio.
Piece of cake…right? Hardly. Spangler had to have skilled people go into the shut down NECCO plant, dismantle the equipment, and move it out of the shuttered factory. “Some of the equipment was so large,” Ms. Eschhofen said, “…we had to take it out through the roof by crane.”
Once disassembled and extricated from the old factory, it required 60 truckloads (yes…60) to transport everything back to Bryan. After arriving at Spangler, the trucks had to be unloaded and the machinery reassembled in order to re-start production.
To review…machines, some of which were so big that they had to be extricated via crane, had to be torn down, loaded into 60 trucks and transported 800 miles, then unloaded, reassembled and installed. The whole process took a little more than a year, which gives a pretty good indicator as to why there were no Sweethearts available in 2019.
The next challenge was the printing, and according to CandyStore.com, the printing issues were a major lamentation in 2020. They sampled ten boxes of the 2020 production run and found 65 percent completely blank, and only 3 percent properly printed.
Ms. Eschhofen explained, “The old equipment we pulled out of the shuttered factory was not reliable, so we invested in new printing equipment. But we hit a big bump in the road when the new printer was accidentally damaged during production. There have always been hearts without printing on them, and that is the case this year as well. We weren’t able to completely fix the printer before production ended.”
“Unfortunately, this means that consumers will receive more unprinted hearts this year than in the past. We know this is disappointing for fans – it’s disappointing for us, too, and we are sorry that it happened. However, we are really pleased that we found the original recipe, and that we have been able to get some Sweethearts out for consumers to try again this year.”
When you consider all that has gone into the production, from the formulation, to the transfer of the equipment, to the equipment damage, it’s a wonder that anything was produced at all. “As a century-old candy maker, Spangler certainly knew how important this brand is,” Ms. Eschhofen said. “Consumers loved Sweethearts. WE loved Sweethearts, and as a candy company, we were excited to take on the challenge of getting Sweethearts back in consumers’ hands.”
With every bump in the road has come valuable knowledge and experience for the future. Spangler Candy Company listens to and learns from their consumers. The company that produces the #1 candy giveaway brand, Dum Dums, is now the company that owns and produces the most popular Valentine’s Day product on the planet.
Aficionados will find Sweethearts available by the box, with approximately 24 candy hearts inside each, and are available in six-count packs or as single boxes. Sweethearts come in lemon-lime, orange, banana, cherry, grape, blueberry and wintergreen flavors. Said Ms. Eschhofen, “We think they’ll find that the taste is great, and just like the taste they remember.”
Sweethearts are BACK!
Timothy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org