Chris Reid has worked at Piedmont Candy Co. for almost three decades now.
As a teenager, his dad Doug owned the company, and Chris would go to the factory after school to unload 100-lb. bags of sugar — the main ingredient in the company’s famous Red Bird brand peppermint puffs.
Then, in college, he only ever stayed at school for the weekend twice, coming home to help out at the candy factory every single weekend aside from those two.
“I came back every weekend to help because it's what I had to do,” he recalls.
And when he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1993, he went to the commencement ceremony on a Saturday, and was already working at the family business Monday morning. In the years since, he’s gotten first-hand experience in every aspect of the company.
“I did it all. I designed equipment, fixed equipment, ran equipment and made sales calls,” he says.
It’s a background that helps him immensely now that he’s taken over for his dad as the ceo of the famous peppermint puffs company.
“It’s so much easier to supervise the people that are under you because you can tell them first-hand what to do,” Reid says. “They know you know how to run it or how it's done, so anytime you can know every aspect of your business, it's easier to manage and easier to run.”
Officially taking the helm three years ago, he’s always known he would take the path to ceo and was happy to be on it.
“Between when we bought the company and ‘93 [when I graduated college], we had numerous companies that looked at buying us, and my dad always said, 'Ok, you're sure this is what you want to do? Because if not, we may get out of it,'” Reid says. “And I reassured him numerous times this is what I wanted to do. So, here we are.”
But Reid hasn’t just given blood, sweat and tears to Piedmont Candy Co. He also revolutionized the way they make those famous peppermint puffs. It was his idea to build what’s become Piedmont’s proprietary curing method, which gives the mints their famous soft texture.
Prior to Reid’s system it would take a full 24 hours to cure a peppermint. But his new method cut that down to just one hour.
He came up with the idea right after college, and then had to convince his dad to transform what was essentially just a theory into a real-life piece of equipment.
“It was a gamble. I said, 'We’ve got a 50/50 shot it's going to work.’ And it was relief that it worked,” he says with a laugh.
Luckily, it was successful. Along with other automations, the machine has helped Piedmont go from making 1,500 lbs. of candy a day in 1985 to the nearly 6,000 lbs. an hour it produces now.
“The whole plant is [now] designed around being able to make it and cure it rapidly,” Reid says. “When you're making roughly 6,000 lbs./hour, which is 500,000 pieces, you better be able to cure it. I mean, the logistics of handling it and storing would be a nightmare. It had to work.”
Indeed the company has seen a lot of changes since it was founded 125 years ago, back in 1890, as the NC Candy Co. in Lexington, N.C. by Edward F. Ebelein.
While it’s still headquartered in the same central North Carolina city, the name was changed to Piedmont Candy Co. in the early 1900s. And Piedmont stayed with the Ebelein family until Doug Reid bought it in 1987.
“It was just family-owned. They hadn't really tried to grow, they didn't wrap any candy. It was just a family-style operation,” Chris Reid says. “And that's sort of how we kept it until a couple years ago.”
Indeed, over the last few years, they've added two new buildings, redesigned the logo and updated packaging, created a v.p. of sales and marketing position, which was filled by Mary Llewellyn Cox, created new flavors, launched new chocolate products and a new all-natural line, and pushed into international markets.
The company also built a new plant on the grounds from scratch, which they moved into in 2009 and now features nearly 200,000 sq.-ft. under one roof.
“Every year for the first 15 years, however much we wanted to grow, we just made that much more candy,” Reid says. “So it was to the point, in 2000 we were running seven days a week, 14 hours a day. We realized we had to go to the next level and we built our new plant, where we can make 110,000 lbs. a day [at full capacity].”
And all that new capacity has helped propel Piedmont forward.
“When you've got the capacity, you want to use it. So we've been trying to fill that ever since,” Reid says.
Making the peppermints
Right now, the new plant runs 10 hours a day, 5-7 days a week.
When you walk in, the fresh smell of peppermint is so strong that it’ll clear out your sinuses. To the left is the packaging area, to the right is where those delicious soft peppermints the company is known for are created, and in between is the room that holds the proprietary curing system Reid designed.
It all starts with the sweetest ingredient — sugar. Dry sugar is combined with invert sugar and heated to 315 degrees in a continuous cooking system, which Reid also designed. Before that, the company had to rely on the same style of copper kettles they had been using since the 1800’s.
"When we started, we would mix and heat the sugar in copper kettles. We would then pour and cool by hand before moving the sugar to the pulling machine," Reid says. "These days we use a process that automatically batches, cooks and cools the sugar on the cooling drum. It is much more consistent."
Reid turned his idea for a more automated cooking system into a reality with help from Rodger Hohberger. He says he often works with companies to design custom equipment, and sometimes he even has an in-house machinist design his ideas.
Once the sugar is cooked, it cools and they are divided into 100-lb. batches. At this point, 5 lbs. is pulled off so that they can add coloring to it, such as red for the peppermints.
The rest is sent to the pulling machine, which pulls the mixture apart and turns it from amber-colored to a bright crystal white as the puller adds air into the sugar. This is also where the famous peppermint oil, which is all-natural, is added. Or, if the company is making one of its other flavors, like birthday cake or cinnamon, that flavor is added instead. This process runs contrary to most customers’ assumptions, who assume the flavor is in the colored parts.
And the peppermint, which is actual peppermint oil and not an artificial flavor, is the most expensive part of the formula, Cox says.
“The peppermint we use is the same flavor profile we've always used,” Reid says. “And it's one of the most expensive peppermints. I mean, we use the premium peppermint. When that's what your whole company is based on, you don't want to short change and use an artificial flavor. So it's the real deal.”
After the puller is finished, a worker rolls the white candy and applies the red stripes by hand.
“Since everything is done by hand, they’re not ever going to be identical,” Cox explains. “This is how we want them to look, just like they did in 1890.”
The mixture is then sent to either a machine that turns it all into little mints or to a machine that forms it into candy sticks.
After that, the puffs are sent to the curing room, where they go through the 60-minute process that gives the peppermints their signature soft texture.
Once that’s done, the mints are sent to the packaging side of the factory. While some of the mints are packaged as unwrapped bulk, others are individually wrapped.
There metal detectors made by Loma, and the wrapping machine by Bosch handle primary packaging.
Then they go through baggers by Matrix, and bagger code date printers by Markem. There are also the scales for baggers and the tub machine, both by Yamato, as well as the tub code date printers and the case labelers, both made by Domino.
Eventually they are boxed and stacked for the warehouse by a pallet wrapper by Lantech.
But the real highlight on the packaging side of things these days is Piedmont’s newest piece of the equipment, a tub machine by Control GMC. Installed just three weeks before Candy Industry Magazine's visit, it was already making things more efficient.
Overall, Reid is happy with where things are on the factory floor these days.
“We're to the point where, to make the candy the way we want it made and to look the way we want it to look, we really can't automate it anymore,” Reid says. “We took the pieces that could be automated, that wouldn't change the taste, the flavor, the look, and automated it."
And while new technology is available, like newer pulling machines, it just doesn’t work for the company.
“There's new types of pulling machines, but it doesn't give it the same taste, the same texture, and the same softness,” he says. “So we've had to keep certain aspects of it to make it remain consistent with our past.”
As the company continues to innovate on the factory floor, it’s also innovating in product development and packaging.
Recently, Piedmont introduced a new all-natural line. Since the base candy is made almost entirely of sugar, it’s not hard to turn core offerings into all-natural candies. So, for example, the peppermint puffs are simply made without the red stripes, and just like that they’re all-natural.
The all-natural lineup also includes lemon minis and dark chocolate-covered peppermint minis.
“We've just launched our line of the natural minis in the specialty market this year and we plan to launch in more traditional markets in 2016,” Cox says. “We will also be expanding this line, with seasonal flavors, and gift-able packaging going forward.”
They’re also expanding their flavor offerings over all, with a lineup of puffs that includes:
- An assorted mix of: strawberry, cream penny (vanilla), lemon, orange, green apple, watermelon, passion fruit, cotton candy, pink grapefruit, and key lime
- A citrus mix of lemon and orange
- Birthday cake
- Cotton candy
- Cinnamon puffs
“We work with great flavor houses [Wild Flavors and Mother Murphy’s] and they have been wonderful,” Cox says. “Sometimes we give them a specific flavor that we want, sometimes we give them an idea of what we want, and then they bring us flavors that match that concept.”
And, the company is also planning to launch baking products, which they hope will stand out because of their peppermint’s softer-than-normal consistency.
“Most peppermint that is used on bark or in ice cream or milk shakes, is crushed candy cane, and it's hard,” Reid explains. “Our product is a lot easier to eat than hard candy, plus it doesn’t have any corn syrup in it.”
Overall, they’re just hoping to better market the brand. Part of that strategy included hiring Cox a year and a half ago, and freshening up the Red Bird logo as well as the packaging.
“We want people to really understand and appreciate Red Bird with that sort of simple, classic candy style, but also with new flavors and formats,” Cox explains. “We do all kinds of interesting things. So we'll be doing a lot more on the packaging side.”
That also includes a focus on gifting, which Piedmont hopes to expand more and more in the next couple years. Since the company does 30 percent of its sales the week before Christmas, it makes sense for it to create more items for that segment.
Then there are the international markets. Cox says they’ve already had interest at ISM from companies in Europe, where the candy is unlike anything else on the market.
And, the company actually had its first major international order — a shipment bound for Mexico — go out at noon on the day Candy Industry Magazine was at the plant in late August.
Even as they look to sell Red Bird in other countries, Reid says they have no intention of ever moving production out of the United States Lexington, which used to be home to a lot of furniture companies before they moved overseas, has been good to Piedmont.
“It's been great. There’s plenty of workers. Lexington used to be furniture, and then all the furniture moved to China so there's tons of people that need jobs,” he says. “And it's really a good spot for sugar because we're centrally located. When your product's 100 percent sugar, you need as many sugar suppliers as you can get to receive a competitive price. Plus, consumers prefer soft mints made in the U.S.A .”
Overall, it’s an exciting time for the Piedmont Candy Co. While most candy makers would be tempted to rest on their laurels after 125 years in the business, the milestone has spurred Piedmont to expand further, create more, be better.
Considering how the current ceo basically grew up at the factory, it’s no wonder he wants to see the company succeed in new ways.
He credits his dad with instilling in him a strong work ethic, with lessons like, “Doing whatever it takes to make it happen,” and “Never put anything off until tomorrow that you could do today,” as well as, “It's not going to fix itself.”
“He's one of the hardest workers that I know,” Reid says of his dad.
It’s a foundation that’s helped Piedmont become the candy company it is today, and will no doubt lead to bright, minty fresh future.
At-a-Glance: Piedmont Candy Co.
Headquarters: Lexington, N.C.
Sales: Less than $30 Million
Minis:Mini Puffs are tiny and tasty, all-natural puffed soft treats.
Puffs:Regular Puffs are Piedmont's traditional soft puffed candy. They come in a variety of flavors, including: An assorted mix of strawberry, cream penny (vanilla), lemon, orange, green apple, watermelon, passion fruit, cotton candy, pink grapefruit and key lime, as well as cinnamon puffs, and citrus mix of lemon and orange, as well as birthday cake and cotton candy.
Sticks:Old-fashioned 4-in. and 2-in. candy sticks made from 100 percent pure cane sugar. They're available in peppermint, cream penny (vanilla), lemon and cinnamon.
Brands: Red Bird
Management: Chris Reid, ceo; Mary Llewellyn Cox, v.p. of sales and marketing; and Heath Cagle, cfo
Founded in 1890 as the NC Candy Co. in Lexington N.C., the name was changed to Piedmont Candy Co. in the early 1900s.
In 1919, Edward Ebelein, the son of German immigrants, moved to Lexington to work at the NC Candy Co. Edward was born in 1873 and became a candy apprentice at 15. He later became the sole owner of the company and ran it as a family business.
Red Bird candies were made using open copper kettles to heat pure cane sugar to 300 degrees. On average, about 500 lbs. of candy puffs and sticks were made each day.
In 1987 the Ebeleins sold the company to another local North Carolina family, the Reids. Doug Reid had spent his career working in textiles, but much of that industry was moving overseas.
Piedmont Candy Co. continued to grow, and in 2000 expanded again to help meet demand. While modern production processes were added, the basic process stayed the same. Each candy stripe is still molded and applied by hand, making each finished stick or puff a little unique.
Red Bird peppermint puffs and sticks are still crafted with just a few simple ingredients, like pure cane sugar and natural peppermint oil. And today, even more flavors have been added to the lineup, including: cotton candy, key lime and dark-chocolate covered peppermint.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of Red Bird mints consumed every second.
The size of the small batches that Red Bird candies are divided in. They’re then striped and shaped by hand, making each puff and stick unique.
Amount of candy the Piedmont Candy Co. produces per shift.
Number of pieces made per shift
Red Bird bags, tubs, and sticks sold the week leading up to Christmas
Number of years the company has been in business.
Weekends Chris Reid took off from work during his entire 4 years while attending UNC-Chapel Hill. He has worked full time at Piedmont since the Monday after graduation in 1993.
Number of individual 100-lb. bags that Chris Reid, ceo, and Heath Cagle, cfo, would have to unload after class their junior and senior years of high school on sugar delivery days.