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Company Is Making More Than a Peep in the Candy Industry

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sugarcoated Marshmallow Peeps chicks and bunnies have proved a habit-forming treat for Easter candy buyers over four decades, but manufacturer Just Born Inc. still considers itself in a race for sugary survival.

So the company is hatching strategies to boost sales year-round.

The marshmallow goodies are being morphed into sweets for all seasons: white Peeps Ghosts are new this year in addition to orange Pumpkins and Spooky Cats for Halloween, green Christmas Trees and white Snowmen for Christmas and--new for Valentine’s Day 2000--red strawberry Peeps Hearts.

The company also is launching a different product this fall, jelly bean-like Zours intended to challenge Sour Patch Kids and Warheads in the sour candy category.

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Just Born has slapped Zours logos on the fiery red NASCAR racer it sponsors to tout its Hot Tamale cinnamon candy, and the Zours started showing up on shelves last month.

Other Just Born marketers are working to export Peeps, Zours, Mike and Ike jelly beans and Hot Tamales as far away as Australia, which is partial to Peeps, and China, where taste runs to Mike and Ikes.

To pump out the new products, three football fields’ worth of space--135,000 square feet--is being added to the Just Born plant 50 miles north of Philadelphia.

As a privately held company, Just Born does not divulge sales and income. But it is not a huge confectionary power like multinational Nestle, Mars and chocolate colossus Hershey, its eastern Pennsylvania neighbor just 70 miles away.

The company, started by Sam Born, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1910, employs 400 people in Bethlehem, an eastern Pennsylvania city of 70,000, some of them third-generation candy makers.

“This is Peep One. This is where all Peeps are made, right here,” said Taylor Birckhead, project engineer, waving at a production line where Peeps chicks plop from a tub of hot marshmallow, get dusted with yellow sugar, dotted with eyes and zipped into cellophane in six minutes from vat to pack.

A parallel line squirts out Ghosts, Pumpkins and Peeps for other seasons. “I had a hand in automating a lot of this,” Birckhead said. “There are not a lot of people who work with marshmallow. There is no one you can go to.”

He knows every inch of his candy factory domain, bustling with employees in white coats, hairnets and some headphone-style hearing protectors.

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Mixers, cookers and conveyors hiss and rumble, and the air is sharp with cinnamon and fruit scents. Bins, trays and conveyor belts are piled with candy.

“Actually, I’ve calculated this,” Birckhead said, pausing at a stopped conveyor heaped with the bright red Hot Tamales. “This belt holds just about a ton of Hot Tamales when it is full like this.”

Larger candy makers often approach Just Born with offers, wanting to make Peeps and hot-selling Hot Tamales part of their profit picture, said David N. Shaffer, nephew of the founder and co-president of the company with Sam Born’s grandson, Ross Born.

Shaffer won’t reveal details but said the company rejects the advances and wants to stay independent.

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“In our vision statement we are committed to continue as a family-owned confectionary business,” he said.

To remain a presence in an industry where thousands of new candy products are introduced every year means constant strategizing, Shaffer said. “Growth is critical in this business, if you are going to thrive as a privately held company.”

The company has been in Bethlehem since 1932, when Sam Born moved it to an empty factory there from New York at the height of the Depression. He didn’t start flooding the world with marshmallow chicks until the 1950s.

In 1953, Just Born acquired Rodda Candy Co. of Lancaster, best known for its jelly bean technology but also possessor of a patent for a small line of handmade sugary chicks called Peeps.

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Just Born mechanized pumping out the Peeps, which now stream along a production line at up to 2 million a day in lavender, white and blue as well as the original yellow and pink, and have been the top-selling non-chocolate Easter confection for the last five years.

The squishy sweets attract a special following, generating a slew of Web sites with collections of Peeps art and poetry and, stranger still, descriptions of the effects of drying, roasting and even boiling the gooey treats.

Americans eat about 25 pounds of candy per person per year, about evenly divided between chocolate and non-chocolate, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Which candy they eat has a lot to do with which they see first, so confectioners battle fiercely for prominence on candy counters, said Matthew J. Pye, product manager for the new Zours as well as Mike and Ike jelly beans and Hot Tamales, currently the No. 1 cinnamon candy.

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“It’s all about shelf space,” Pye said. “There were over 1,000 new products launched last year. The amount of shelf space did not expand to take care of that.

“We know Mars and Hershey are going to be spending millions of dollars in advertising. We don’t have the same amount of dollars, so we have to try to be innovative.”

That effort led to the NASCAR connection and its hoped-for allure among Just Born’s customers. They are in the 12-to-24 age group that encompasses 25% of NASCAR fans.

Just Born is sponsoring the fiery red Hot Tamale Chevrolet Monte Carlo--also carrying the new Zours logo--that finished 28th on Aug. 21 in the NAPA 200 at Michigan Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.

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The Zours appeared last month, “just in time for kids back to school,” in stores such as Target, Eckerds, Walgreens, Dollar stores and Winn Dixie as well as video stores and movie theaters, said Greg Barratt, Just Born’s head of marketing.

As part of the stock car arrangement, the candy packages carry the NASCAR logo, giving them an edge when store managers who know racing’s popularity stock their shelves.

“In the battle for display space it brings us to the top of the pile,” said Kevin Riveroll, a product manager shepherding the NASCAR deal. “Candy is an impulse buy. If you put it on display it will sell.”


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