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Back in 1953, a little candy company in Lancaster, Pa., was making marshmallow candies for Easter. The Rodda Candy Co., was “laboriously hand-squeezing marshmallow through pastry tubes” to create what is now the famous Easter Peep.
That year, Just Born acquired Rodda, which at the time was better known for its jelly beans. But owners Jack Shaffer, Irv Shaffer, Sam Born and his son Bob saw the potential of the Peep. They also realized the difference automation could make in the whole process.
Within the next year Bob had created a Peep depositor that could spit out six rows of five Peeps at a time, and since then Just Born has become the world’s largest manufacturer of novelty marshmallow treats.
Now though, over a half century later, Just Born is finally retiring that first mechanical Peeps depositor that Bob Born created all those years ago. The equipment is being replaced as part of a seven-figure renovation taking place at the company’s manufacturing facility in Bethlehem, Pa.
“It’s a little sad,” says Matthew Pye, v.p. of corporate affairs. “Bob Born made it from scratch in 1954 and it allowed us to distribute and grow the brand nationally.”
Upgrading marshmallow production
As part of replacing the original Peeps depositor, Just Born is installing a whole new cooking system for the marshmallow side of the business, which spans two floors of the manufacturing facility in Bethlehem.
“The investment in our marshmallow making process will allow for more efficiency, more consistency, improved quality and additional innovation capabilities” says Ross Born, co-ceo.
The new depositor, in addition to another one the company already has, can do a wider variety of Peeps products, including individual marshmallows as well as various size clusters, and various size marshmallows.
“The [old] Peeps line did one thing and one thing very well — cranking out chicks day in and day out. Five clusters, just in different colors,” Born explains.
The renovation also includes two new Penn Houses elevators — one upstairs and one downstairs — which allows the Peeps to dry on multiple levels and cuts down on the long drying belt that would otherwise be needed to dry each Peep.
“That saves a lot of space,” Born says.
The Peep-making process starts with the marshmallow being deposited on to a line. It’s the only candy Just Born makes that’s not kosher because of the marshmallow. (The irony of the fact their most iconic candy has turned out to be an Easter candy is not lost on them).
The Peeps are then run through a wind tunnel and sprayed with colored sugar, i.e. yellow for the famous Yellow Peeps Chick. After that, the sugar has to adhere to the marshmallow, and then it’s run though a de-duster, which allows for any excess sugar to fall off. Finally, the Peeps are decorated.
Up until 1983, all the Peeps were decorated by hand, but now a machine with an automated glue gun does that. Even so, there’s still an associate standing there, watching to make sure the Peeps turn out correctly.
With the new equipment, the company also plans on “taking it up a notch with chocolate and flavors.”
“The company’s new chocolate enrober will have a big impact on that.” Born explains. “As soon as we put chocolate on marshmallow, it’s grown our business and brought new users into the fold.”
The Sollich enrober was installed from Germany last year and Ross Born said it was the first of its kind in the United States. And now, Just Born offers a wide range of chocolate-covered Peeps products. For example, the Valentine’s Day collection features Chocolate Dipped Strawberry Crème Flavored Marshmallow Chicks; Chocolate Dipped Cherry Flavored Marshmallow Cherries Drizzled in Chocolate; Chocolate Covered Raspberry Flavored Marshmallow Hearts; and Chocolate Mousse Flavored Marshmallow Bears.
“You want a product with a nice chocolate shine to it. This machine does that,” Born says. “We have a lot of things that we’re going to be experimenting with.”
Expanding the brand with ‘Peepsonality’
So, it makes sense that the chocolate doesn’t stop with Valentine’s Day. Other chocolate items include a variety of Chocolate Dipped Marshmallow Chicks for all seasons, a variety of Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Shapes for all Seasons and Peepsters — bite-sized, foil wrapped pieces of chocolate with a marshmallow crème flavored center.
David Shaffer, co-ceo, says if a buyer has an idea for a flavor, they’ll work to create it. In fact, candy cane flavored marshmallow chicks dipped in chocolate were created because Walmart wanted it for the holidays in 2012. It launched nationally in 2013.
Just Born also offers Chocolate Mousse Flavored Marshmallow Cats, Reindeer & Bunnies; Sugar-Free Marshmallow Pumpkins, Stars, Hearts, & Chicks; and traditional Marshmallow Pumpkins, Ghosts, Trees, Snowmen & Hearts.
Even with all the new shapes though, the original Peeps Chick is still the most prominent shape — and for good reason.
“That’s our icon. That’s our Mickey Mouse,” Shaffer explains.
Indeed, the company hasn’t just expanded its Peeps infrastructure; it’s also expanded its marketing efforts for the iconic brand.
In Easter of 2013, the company ran the first TV commercial for Peeps in more than 10 years.
The “Brothers” commercial opens with two brothers discovering Peeps in their Easter baskets. During the course of the holiday, the older brother explains all the different things one can do with Peeps to his younger brother. The process is a day-long affair that continues long after the boys are supposed to be asleep.
Just Born gives back
There’s a sort of running joke in Bethlehem, Pa., that Just Born is such an amazing corporate neighbor, that people are nearly at the verge of overdosing on its candy because they give so much of it away for free at various functions.
People say it with a laugh, because in their hearts they know how lucky they are to live near a real-life candy factory.
And it’s not just free treats that Just Born gives out to the community. The company also organizes volunteer events, and then allows their associates to volunteer on company time at those events. Just Born also has adopted a park across the street from its office, and makes annual community grants to more than 130 non-profits.
“We’ve been [in Bethlehem] for 82 years; doing good things in the community is doing good business,” says David Shaffer, co-ceo. “It’s good for our brand.”
It also helps morale.
“We want our people to feel good about where they work,” he adds.
Who knows, if they’re really happy, they just might have an idea that revolutionizes the way the company makes Peeps. And then, anything’s possible.
“The ‘Brothers’ commercial was inspired by the endless ways in which fans interact with Peeps and brings many of the possibilities to center stage,” says Terri Meyer, co-founder of The Terri & Sandy Solution, creators of the commercial. “This commercial reminds us why this quirky marshmallow treat is among the most beloved Easter candy.”
Then, during the 2013 Christmas season, Just Born ran its first ever Christmas commercial, “Santa Hop.” The ad features a traditional night-before-Christmas scene, but with a quirky twist.
Santa arrives to deliver gifts, but he has a bit more spring in his step. He hops through the house, mimicking the Easter Bunny’s role of delivering Peeps. The spot ends with Santa out of breath on a cozy chair, eating Chocolate Dipped Candy Cane Flavored Marshmallow Peeps, as he says, “I don’t know how that Easter Bunny does it!” Then he’s seen hopping some more as Bunny Hop music plays in the background.
Christmas is their second biggest Peeps season.
Although the iconic Peeps Chick has a long history with Easter, Shaffer says it hasn’t been hard to convince consumers to eat them during other holidays. Rather, it’s the retailers they have a hard time convincing to stock the product throughout the year.
Like in the summer, when Vanilla Crème Peeps with red and blue sprinkles make the perfect treat for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
Peepscan even be used to make a delicious S‘More, but Shaffer warns to use caution when putting a flame to a Peep — the fire can caramelize the sugar, but it can also burn them pretty quick. Microwaved Peep S‘mores are safer, and of course, nothing can beat the taste of a warm Peep just off the line at the plant — although, of course, that’s not something everyone has access to.
About 15 years ago the company decided to start branding everything under the Peeps brand. Before that, there were Marshmallow Peeps Chicks, Marshmallow Bunnies, Marshmallow Pumpkins, etc... Now though, “every marshmallow shape we make is branded Peeps” Shaffer explains.
“It’s the brand that consumers love,” he adds. “Peeps has a phenomenal following.”
Mike and Ike’s new flow
Peepsmay be the brand that consumers love, but it’s not Just Born’s highest selling brand. That’s Mike and Ike, which has seen its own changes over the last couple years.
The candies were reformulated and the packaging has also been updated.
But not until after Mike and Ike “parted ways” — Mike to pursue his passion in the music industry, and Ike in art. After they “reunited”, the candy was reformulated to include real fruit juice, and an “amped” up flavor.
As part of the re-launch, a new “Strawberry reunion” variety was also released, which included five flavors: Strawberry, Strawberry Banana Smoothie, Strawberry Watermelon, Strawberry Tangerine and Strawberry Pineapple. Originally it was going to be a limited edition flavor, but it did so well, that it’s now being released as a permanent part of the Mike and Ike flavor collection.
Meanwhile, the new look features more vibrant packaging, targeted toward teens and kids. It has a more slick and techy feel.
“We spent a lot of money on upgrading the formula, the new packaging and the consumer support plan,” Pye explains. “ Current and new consumers prefer the new Mike and Ike and everyone was talking about the breakup.”
Just Born also tied in a multi-media campaign to the re-launch, including social media tie-ins and a sleek movie trailer-style ad, Coming Soon: The Return of Mike and Ike, which played in theaters and told consumers about Mike and Ike’s reunion.
As for whether or not there’s an actual movie in the works, Pye says anything’s possible.
For those in the confectionery industry, Mike’s friend Nelly, the famous entertainer, even made an appearance at the National Confectioner’s Association’s Sweets and Snacks Expo in 2013.
GOLDENBERG’S PEANUT CHEWS and HOT TAMALES
Just Born has two other brands that, although they aren’t as well-known or as iconic as Peeps and Mike and Ike, they still have a very loyal following.
First off, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, which Just Born acquired in 2003, are huge in the Northeast.
“The brand is going through a resurgence,” Pye says. “It’s a wonderful product.”
When Just Born first acquired the brand, they tried to take it national, but have since realized that the best thing to do is focus on its core consumers in the Northeast, if only because of how incredibly difficult it proved to get the Peanut Chews name out there to people who may have never heard of it.
“People don’t want to take chances on their treats,” Pye explains. “Building a brand takes time, takes effort, takes investment and takes a certain amount of luck. It’s hard launching a brand and sustaining a brand.”
Meanwhile, the company’s Hot Tamales brand has recently added two new flavors to its lineup: a 3 Alarm pack that includes hot, hotter and hottest flavors; as well as Tropical Heat, a variety of sweet spicy fruit flavors that’s being targeted toward Hispanics.
However, Pye says the cinnamon flavor is still the most popular by far.
The core of the Hot Tamales candies are actually made the exact same way as the Mike and Ike candies, and then all the various flavors are just separated into various metal bowls and coated with flavor.
It makes for a beautiful rainbow manufacturing mix at the Just Born factory in Bethlehem.
In fact, the entire factory is one vibrant shot of color after another. The yellow Peeps, the green and blue Mike and Ike candies and the red Hot Tamales. With colors like that, it’s no wonder consumers can’t resist all the candies Just Born’s has to offer the world.
Candy Industry would like to thank the The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for the media tour of Pennsylvania’s innovative food and beverage manufacturing industry.
Brands: Peeps, Mike & and Ike, Hot Tamales, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews
Headquarters: Bethlehem, Pa.
Retail stores: 3 under the name of PEEPS & Co.
Estimated sales:$222 million (Candy Industry estimate)
Number of Employees: 600
Management Team: Ross Born, co-ceo; David Shaffer, co-ceo; David Yale, president and coo; Matt Pye, v.p. of corp. affairs ; Rob Sweatman, v.p. of operations; Ron Arnold, v.p. of human resources; Joané Hockenbury, sr. manager – human resources; Lorraine Wettlaufer, sr. executive administrator Lawrance Fineburg, VP of Sales; Kathy Parker, VP of Marketing; Rich Milker, VP of Technical Services & Marvin Cooper, v.p. of PEEPS & Co.