Artisans In Action: Early and Often
In life and business, change is a constant. The skill set and vision honed by one generation may not be appropriate for the next. For family-owned companies, the typical life expectancy rate doesn’t go beyond three generations. After that, the descendants’ interests have usually diverged so significantly from the company’s founding vision and drive that they usually cash out and move on.
Thus, it is truly remarkable to discover a flourishing fifth-generation candy company. Equally remarkable, Allentown, Pa.-based Josh Early Candies continues to thrive amidst adverse local economic conditions, changing tastes, an aging workforce, and reliance on vintage equipment. In spite of these challenges, the company’s sales and reputation keep growing. Its confections recently have been featured by such popular “foodie” television hosts as Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart, and for the past ten years it has been voted best chocolate maker by a regional magazine, Lehigh Valley Magazine.
That’s quite a compliment for a mid-sized confectioner whose specialty remains handmade boxed chocolates, roasted nuts and assorted candies, albeit many from recipes passed down from generation to generation. With only two retail stores - located in Allentown and Bethlehem - the company has not only survived in the heart of historic Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, it’s flourished.
And that’s no small task considering the valley’s history. Settled in the 1700s primarily by Germans who had a reputation for being industrious, thrifty, and proud – “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much, was a common local saying,” explains Barry Dobil Sr., current president and son-in-law of the third-generation owner, Josh Early V – the discovery of supplies of anthracite, iron and limestone led to the rise of major steel and Portland cement industries. It also forged a certain “toughness” amongst the locals, people who weren’t afraid of hard work and valued honesty in everyday dealings, be it extracating ores from the ground or sampling sweets.
While the men worked in the factories, their wives - primarily middle-aged blue-collar women from empty-nester families - became the backbone of Josh Early’s labor force, beginning with its founding in the early 1900s until today.
Most of the people who work for Josh Early Candies today aren’t afraid to tout their AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) membership.
Although some employers might consider an aging workforce an albatross, this company is clearly proud of its older workers. It realizes that older workers often have a sense of dedication, focus on quality, and steady work habits - characteristics critical to supporting production and retail functions.
Consequently, it’s not surprising to find out that one of its employees retired at age 87 after 40 years of service. Moreover, the company’s employment efforts have received national recognition. In 2007 it received the Outstanding Employer of Older Workers award from Experience Works, a national charitable organization that provides training and employment assistance to older Americans so that they can find meaningful employment.
By appreciating experience, Josh Early Candies has weathered economic cycles that could have easily derailed a company. Indeed, the steadying hand of consistent family ownership has provided wise stewardship.
Consider that over the past 30 years, the Valley’s manufacturing base has dwindled, mirroring negative trends in many other parts of the country. Once the world’s largest steel maker, Bethlehem Steel closed down its operations. Mack Trucks has downsized and relocated out of the Valley. Additionally, many of the original core customers have become snowbirds, migrating to Florida and Arizona for half a year.
But within the demise of one industry lies the emergence of new opportunities. For Lehigh Valley, new opportunities surfaced when the newly built Interstate 78 corridor facilitated travel eastward to the Hudson River and across to New York City. The Interstate has brought in new people attracted by comparatively inexpensive property. Service jobs have replaced manufacturing jobs, with the biggest employer in the area now Lehigh Valley Hospital.
The new arrivals have demonstrated as keen an appreciation for confections as those early “Dutchman,” thereby ensuring Josh Early’s sweet treats satisfy as yet another new generation. Its showrooms now are filled in a multitude of accents and ethnicities.
Even the workforce continues to evolve. Replacing some of the empty-nester wives of factory workers are younger women with families. As recently as twenty years ago, the company had not employed any single moms. Now the company is tailoring schedules to accommodate the working needs of a younger workforce.
As fifth-generation members join the company, they bring with them contemporary ideas and trends. Barry Dobil Jr. who came on board in 2000, is leading the company’s web development efforts.
“Our website represents a way to reach customers like never before,” he says. “It facilitates our existing customer base by allowing them to browse and shop on their terms while extending the same customer service they’d expect over the phone or in our store. “It also positions us to reach a new customer base by presenting homemade style chocolates to a national audience,” Dobil Jr. adds.
The Internet highway has also enabled Josh Early Candies to reach their long-time loyal customers who have fled for the winter. As a result, Web sales have become the company’s fastest growing sales channel.
The company’s products, too, have evolved over the decades. Back in the 19th century, the Valley was home not only to heavy industry, but to small, family-run candy and cough drop businesses that catered to the needs of the hard working factory workers. In 1879, William H. Luden opened his candy shop in nearby Reading. His success encouraged Joshua R. Early III - the forbearer of the company - in 1904 to make cough drops and several years later to wholesale confections.
In 1938, his son Josh Early IV opened Early’s Old fashioned Chocolates (See sidebar). Having studied commercial art in college, Josh IV created all his own packaging and designs, some of which are still used today. When sales increased, Josh IV hired a Greek immigrant to help make candy.
“The Greek’s hands were so sensitive that when boiling caramel, instead of using a thermometer, he would run his hand under cold water, and then scoop up some caramel to tell whether it was at the right stage,” recalled Dobil Sr.
While Josh Early Candies has long since adopted thermometers, this story reinforces the “hands-on touch” of its staff at the time. A company ledger book from around this time records sugar purchased at 4.7¢ a pound and peanut butter at 11¢ a pound.
Ever mindful of their customers’ health needs, the company released the Health Bar after World War II. The bar got its name because it contained molasses, considered at the time more wholesome than refined sugar. It was one of the most popular selling products.
Today, the company sponsors the Women’s 5K Classic benefiting cancer research. It donates all the sales of a special dark chocolate nonpareil with pink seeds.
Additionally, it will be offering a 72% cocoa solid chocolate product at the Cedar Crest College health expo this fall.
“If you are going to indulge, it has to be worth the calories,” says Dobil Jr. Expect more health/nutrition-related products in the future.
True to its old fashioned, handmade philosophy, the company relies upon old copper kettles for boiling caramel and marble-topped tables for spreading and cutting confections. A classic 1930s era hand-cranked Harry L. Friend machine punches out bite-sized centers. The machine uses piano wire held in place with bicycle spoke holders. For small batches of such products as peanut clusters, raisin clusters, and nonpareils, the company uses a 75-year-old Racine depositor. Fortunately, the existence of a large base of local industry allows the company to have replacement specialty machine parts manufactured on short order.
Nevertheless, not all of the company’s equipment shouts vintage. Several years ago, Josh Early Candies purchased and installed a W.C. Smith 16-inch enrober that doubled its production.
Despite all the changes to the local economy, workforce, and customer base, one element has remained constant at Josh Early Candies: the commitment to using high quality ingredients and staying as close as possible to the original recipes. Remaining faithful to original recipes that are made by hand does not allow a lot of opportunity for automation. And besides, “we don’t want to sacrifice quality for quantity; especially when the company’s reputation could be compromised,” says Dobil Jr.
In some ways, the world has caught up with the Josh Early Candies. Consumers have rediscovered the joy of eating handmade confections made from fresh and local sources. With such a recipe for success, one can expect many more generations of descendants to continue the company tradition.
Josh Early Candies' history begins in the early 1900's, which was when J. Mark Early, also known as Josh Early III, and a partner, sold wholesale candy under the business name of Richardson and Early. Several decades later, J. Mark's son, Josh Early IV and his wife, Millie, started their own retail business in Reading, Pa.
Early IV named his store Early's Old Fashioned Chocolates and, in 1938, made his first batch of butter creams under the curious eye of his young son, Josh Early V.
Father and son worked together in Reading for many years developing the freshest, highest quality chocolates available. Defining the company's fundamental philosophy, they never sacrificed quality for convenience. Over the years, they perfected this philosophy, and in 1956 Josh V began making and selling candy wholesale in nearby Baumstown. Josh V and his wife Marge worked there for five years before opening their own retail store on Hamilton Boulevard in Allentown.
The new business thrived and Josh and Marge's son-in-law, Barry Dobil, joined them in 1972. With his new partner, Josh now fulfilled a long-time wish to open a second retail store. After much searching and planning, a second location on Bethlehem's Nazareth Pike was opened in 1982. Four years later, construction of Interstate 78 forced the partners to relocate their original Hamilton Boulevard store to its current location at 4640 Tilghman Street in Allentown.
To date, the company’s master candy makers continue to use the same batch recipes developed in the early 1900s. There are currently four other family members continuing the tradition of Josh Early Candies.