Chocolate Trendsetter: Living the legacy
September 19, 2008
In business for more than 75 years, Pease’s Candy epitomizes the family-owned sweet shop, albeit with plenty of mystery thrown in. One of those mysteries involves its origins. The truth is, the company may have been in business for more than 100 years, but that information has been lost over the years. What is known comes from the previous co-owner of Pease’s Fine Candies & Salted Nuts, Don Anderson.
Although the current owners don’t hold the Pease name, the family’s legacy lives on through their close association with the Peases and the business. A father of seven, Martin A. Pease, Sr. started making candy in Canton, Ohio while he was working as an executive for Eureka Vacuum. During the next few years, he wrote four cookbooks containing many of his candy-making secrets. Eureka transferred him to Elgin, Ill. some years later and again to Bloomington, Ill. in 1917. During the Depression, Pease’s youngest son, Martin A. Pease, Jr., also known as Noonie, started a Pease’s candy store in Illinois’ state capital-Springfield, a mere 64 miles from Bloomington. As expected, sugar was quite hard to come by at that time. Legend has it, however, that Noonie was able to keep the business afloat by buying black market sugar.
In 1948, Noonie hired his nephew, Bob Flesher, to help out with sales and production. Eleven years later, Noonie hired Don Anderson to aid in manufacturing.
“I delivered milk to the Pease’s for about three years,” says Don Anderson, previous co-owner of Pease’s. “I usually got there in the afternoon and Mr. Pease would be making candy so I’d stand around and watch him make candy. After a couple years or so, I walked in one day and he wanted to know if I would be interested in coming to work for him.”
Anderson worked under Noonie for the next 16 years until Flesher and Anderson took over the business in 1975. A decade later, Anderson’s son Doug joined the business and just one year after that, Flesher’s son Rob was hired as well. With Doug handling the manufacturing side and Rob working the retail and wholesale end of business, they eventually bought out their fathers and became the current co-owners of the company.
While the exact year the business was founded is unknown, it is likely that “it started in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s,” says Nancy Anderson, wife of Don and Pease’s retail employee. With over 100 years of candymaking experience, Doug and Rob still use most of the original recipes.
“When we bought [Noonie] out, he said to me, ‘One thing I want you to promise me: Don’t cheapen the recipes,’” says Don. Not only did all the owners of Pease’s keep true to Martin Pease, Sr.’s recipes, they kept the company’s signature pink packaging as well.
“One of the first years after my great uncle [Noonie] came to Springfield, he went to an RCI convention,” Rob explains. “At those conventions, everybody brings a box of their candy to put on display. He said the first thing he noticed was that there was no pink in that display, so he immediately decided pink would be the signature color so we would stand out from everybody else.”
Since that epiphany, pink has remained Pease’s signature color and appears not only on packaging, but also on the walls of every Pease’s retail shop. The company will add a new twist to the pink packaging when it introduces a new design this fall. As the old pink boxes are used up, the newly designed pink boxes will appear (packaging changeovers for all products should be finished by the fall).
Along with packaging changes, the company also made product changes and expanded its retail reach.
Beginning with the first location in a house on the corner of Third Street and South Grand Avenue in Springfield, Pease’s now has four different retail outlets in the city. Its newest location at Sixth and Washington opened in 2004 across from the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. And not only does the store have a prime location; it also has a candy kitchen, allowing the production of caramel, fudge and truffles. The candy kitchen features full glass windows so that customers can watch candy being made from inside and outside the store.
Although the store has the space and equipment to make candy, most confections are still produced in the company’s 10,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing space (3,500 of which is warehouse space). From roasted nuts to caramels and creams, employees at the manufacturing plant continue to use original Pease recipes, complementing the mix with some of their own as well.
“When I came into the business, we made basically everything that Mr. Pease had set up and we really weren’t trying any new products,” Doug says. “We were just trying to live off the legacy.”
Today, one of the fastest growing products are Lincoln Logs, which are pretzel rods dipped in caramel, then dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate.
“It’s a nice chocolate snack with a handle because you can hold onto that exposed part of the pretzel while you’re eating it,” Rob says.
Another bestseller is Pease’s Raggedy Ann. Because the name “turtle” was trademarked years ago, candy companies were forced to name their candies differently. Why the name “Raggedy Ann” was chosen is another Pease’s mystery.
“Some of those little things you can kind of put two and two together and come up with a reason, but nobody has a clue where Raggedy Ann came from,” Rob says.
Whether it’s called a turtle or a Raggedy Ann, the item remains a popular favorite.
“Every candy company makes a turtle of some sort, but the caramel recipe that we’ve got and have been using for nearly 100 years is fantastic,” Rob says. “That’s the one thing that makes one company’s turtle different from the next.”
Pease’s even put a twist on the candy by creating a Naked Raggedy Ann, which is a turtle without chocolate. The treat is also much larger than a standard Raggedy Ann.
“It’s big enough that it’s comparable to a candy bar,” Rob explains.
While the Naked Raggedy Ann is only four or five years old, it’s gained in popularity very quickly, with thousands of them sold monthly.
Another favorite of Pease’s comes around just once every year. The company’s notorious Easter eggs are fun for children and adults alike because of their hollow shells. The treats come in various sizes from standard-sized to football-sized hollow chocolate eggs.
“[To make the eggs,] we use a mould plaque and make a hollow egg,” Doug says. “Then we fill them with our assorted chocolates or mixed nuts.” Once the eggs are filled, they are glued shut with chocolate. The best part about the eggs, though, is what people have specially put inside them. From T-shirts to car keys to diamond engagement rings, consumers have gotten very creative with the eggs, Doug says.
“We have a grandmother with three grandchildren, that every year gives them $100 in an egg,” Rob says. “It’s not a surprise anymore, but it’s still fun.”
“We keep a pretty close eye on those three eggs,” he laughs.
Pease’s dark chocolate products have also come on strong lately. As previously mentioned, one of the company’s best sellers, Lincoln Logs, are available in dark chocolate. When Peter’s Chocolate, owned by Cargill, came out with a 72% dark chocolate, the company decided to try it out. As the dark chocolate trend grew in popularity, fueled by positive news regarding potential health benefits, it grew in Pease’s chocolate portfolio.
“We make more dark chocolate products now than we used to, but our milk is still probably 65% of our candy,” Doug says.
Pease’s Candy has also taken advantage of the advances in sweeteners for making sugar-free chocolate.
“It’s only been in the last 20-25 years that we’ve even had a decent sugar-free chocolate available to us, so the product mix has changed a bunch,” Rob says. “We have a very nice assortment of sugar free,” Rob says.
The company also offers a quality assortment of nuts including cashews, pecans, almonds and peanuts from all over the world. But what gives the nuts their sweet flavor is the company’s secret coating. Although Martin Pease, Sr. gave away many of his recipes through his four candy-making books, the nut coating remains a secret, one that Pease’s employees will never reveal.
To round out its selection of original and new confectionery products, the company plans to introduce some fancy food items at its retail stores this month, such as jams, jellies and salsas.
“We’re going to try to find a new market niche,” Doug says.
Experimenting with new concepts reflects Pease’s entrepreneurial philosophy. For example, it offers several programs aimed at consumers that are fun, while simultaneously designed to drive business.
The first is their chocolate party. Pease’s provides Oreos, edible decorations, pretzels, Rice Krispies, Mini M&M’s and ten pounds of chocolate to participants ages five and up. The beginner candy makers can first decorate their paper hats before moulding and hand dipping their own creations.
“We originally directed it toward kids, but the more we talked to people the more we heard, ‘everybody loves chocolate,’” Doug says. Now, children older than five and adults of all ages can join in on the candy-making fun.
“It gives them a chance to be creative and see really how difficult it is to make a piece of candy from scratch,” Rob says.
Another interesting program is Pease’s Candy Club. The program is ideal for those looking to buy gifts for friends or family because it provides either six or 12 months of candy to its subscribers. This way, instead of receiving one gift for a holiday, people can receive a gift every month, or every other month. Because the chocolates are sent throughout the year, the seasons and holidays play a role in which chocolate will be sent out which month. For example, in February, consumers can receive a chocolate heart-shaped box filled with Raggedy Anns; and in November consumers will receive six chocolate turkeys in light of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We’ve gotten a lot of notes and e-mails from people that used to live here saying how great it is to get that sample of something every month,” Rob says. “You send them a little bit of home.”
In addition to making its consumers happy, Pease’s helps out the community every year in August. Rob and Doug choose four charities, one per week, to give a portion of sales to. “Customers who come in and purchase our products receive a 20% discount and then 5% of the total weekly sales go to whichever charity is chosen that week,” Doug explains.
Given its long-standing presence in Springfield, giving back to the community reaffirms local loyalties.
“At least once a day I have somebody come into the store and say, ‘I grew up in this neighborhood’ or ‘I went to school in this neighborhood,’” Rob says. “They are telling the clerk their memories of Pease’s and I get to hear all of that. And that’s part of the responsibility that Doug and I have to keep this going. We’ve got the whole community counting on us to keep those memories alive.”
At the same time, co-owners Doug and Rob are adamant about creating new memories in the community.