Written by Ari Weinzweig, reprinted from the January-February 2010 Zingerman’s Newsletter
Beth Kimmerle is the author of the classic book Candy: A Sweet History. The woman knows her sugar. She’s probably written and taught more about candy in the last ten years than anyone else in America (that’s my feeling, at least–I have no real data to back it up, but she does have three books out on the subject, and she seems to know about every candy ever concocted). Anyway, from reading her books and talking to her a few times, and then putting all that together with what I’ve been learning of late about candy and with what I’ve long known about business in general, I’ve come up with what I’m thinking I’ll call “Kimmerle’s Classic Rules of Candy Land.” They may not help you play the board game, but in the real business world of candy–which we’re now in–I’m pretty convinced that these are the rules by which the candy game is played.
1. Everyone Loves Candy
Charlie Frank–the candymaker behind Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory–now gets to be a managing partner in a business he envisioned years ago. For us as an organization, that’s a great thing. I mean, here’s a guy who grew up in Romeo (that’s the town in Michigan with the “o” on the end, not the capital of Italy), who has been completely fascinated by candy and sugar and stuff like that for his entire life, and now, thirty years later, he gets to make candy for a living. Inc. magazine might have called us “The Coolest Small Company in America” a few years ago, but I think we’re a lot cooler now for having Charlie here living his dreams.
It was my mistake for not seeing the obvious strategic problem that was almost inevitably going to play out. See, if pretty much everyone loves candy, the thing that you could have easily predicted was that everyone was going to want us to make the kind of candy that they remembered loving as a kid! And sure enough, almost every day now, someone–a staff member, a customer, my cousin, my camp counselor, the cashier at the grocery store, you name it–tells us what kind of candy they’re totally sure we should make!
I suppose it’s probably going to be far harder for Charlie Frank, the man who makes the candy. He’s the one who’s going to have to ultimately field all these sweet requests. But of course, since Paul and I are the founding partners, majority owners and big title holders with our initials on the bios, everyone thinks they can just tell me what they want and I’m going to give Santa his marching orders and out will come their candy of choice by next Christmas at the latest. (If only it were that easy–that’s not a cut on Santa… I mean Charlie… it’s just that life doesn’t really work like that in any organization and definitely not around here. But in the moment, it’s not all that easy to explain–I mean… what do I say? Who wants to be the one to tell a kid that Santa doesn’t really exist? NOT ME BABY!)
2. Candy is about Memories
You can tell that people’s attachment to candy isn’t just a passing fad. It’s totally anchored in their childhood. Honestly, it’s amazing just how strong people’s reactions are to candy. Mind you, I expect this sort of enthusiasm about sweets from kids. And I expect it from Charlie too–he is the candy man, after all. But geez… everybody else–as in adults–acts just as excited. And everybody seems to have at least some candy fascination: Dots, Snickers, Mounds, Nut Clusters, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Whips, Necco Wafers, Nut Goodies, Turkish Delight, rock candy, maple sugar, malted milk balls.
While we sell loads of other items, I realize now that most people in the American Midwest just aren’t going to be anywhere near as emotionally attached to stuff like olive oil, goat cheese, crusty loaves of French country farm bread or really good coffee.
Just about everybody loves candy, and almost all of them have some seriously significant attachment to a particular candy, usually the one they grew up eating.
Charlie, not surprisingly, has more than his fair share of emotional attachments. “I’ve always loved candy,” he says unembarrassedly. “When I was a kid, I used to have to take piano lessons. They cost $3.50, but my mom would always give me $4.00. I had to walk from the house to the library for the lessons, and on the way back I’d always spend my fifty cents on candy. It was a great candy store, Fetig’s, in Romeo, which is where I grew up. They had all this penny candy. It was exactly what you think of as a great candy store. I guess I was learning finance as a kid. It wasn’t ‘til later that I realized that my mom never asked me for the extra money back.”
Unlike most people who love candy but don’t give any thought to doing anything with it for a living, Charlie seems to have hardly thought of anything else. “In my first job interview with Amy [Emberling, one of the managing partners at the Bakehouse], I talked about doing my own candy business. Candy bars were what got everyone excited, and that’s where we started to head.”
It’s no shock that people are connecting with candy here; they want us, Charlie in particular, to know who they are. I mean, it’s almost like Charlie is Santa, and like years after they let go of their childhood belief in the big guy in the red suit, they have this chance to believe again as adults, to take back that warm feeling that if you believe… . well, it may not work in the stock market just yet. . . but hey, all of the sudden a really customer-focused local company is making candy and… if you believe… maybe this angelic-looking Charlie/Santa guy might come through and make you the candy of your dreams…
3. Really Good Candy Starts with Really Good Ingredients
While the passion level that surrounds candy is seemingly as high powered as the rings of Saturn, candy is no different from any other food: if you start with so-so stuff, you’ll end up with so-so stuff. You can stick it in a fancy package and make up a sweet slogan, but it’s still not going to taste all that great. The natural laws of the food universe very clearly say that really good candy has to start with really good raw materials.
Fortunately and not surprisingly, the Candy Manufactory’s list of ingredients backs up that notion. Start with the 65% dark chocolate from Ecuador. It’s made from old Nacional (aka Arriba) varietal beans, still hand-harvested in the rain forest–ecologically sound and more interesting from a flavor standpoint. Then there’s real vanilla. Organic muscovado brown sugar from Mauritius. Michigan honey. Virginia runner peanuts. Cashews from southern Honduras. Local butter. The Manufactory makes the fudge nougat and cashew brittle on site. Granted, we don’t make the actual boxes, but the labels were done by our design crew, who sit about five hundred yards up the road–close enough to be making their own candy memories.
4. People Totally Love Really Good Candy Even More When It’s Made by Really Good People!
Seriously, when I think about it… Charlie’s whole story is like a sweet fairy tale of success. It’s sort of the American dream come true. Kid loves candy. Slowly makes his way toward his dream. Does a lot of learning, a lot of hard work. Pays his dues by baking over a gazillion Magic Brownies, Sour Cream Coffeecakes, Ginger Jump-Ups, Big Os and all that other good stuff as manager of the Bakehouse pastry department for eight years. Throughout, he slowly but surely emerges from his shell of shyness and starts making his candy bars in really small quantities at the Bakehouse. Gradually, he gets a great local response, sticks with his long-standing plan to make candy for a living and becomes managing partner of Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory. If life were Candy Land, this guy would be one of the all-time winners!
And not only are the bars and the story good, but people also really like Charlie. And for darned good reasons. The man is incredibly sweet, but without being cloying or syrupy. He’s sincere about his candy making (and candy eating) without being solemn; the guy takes his candy seriously, but he ain’t a killjoy. When you get to know him, he’s really about as all-American as you can get. And he’s not just sweet. He’s actually a very interesting, thoughtful guy–complex but accessible, pleasant to be around, with a really high focus on the little things. A little nutty, it’s true, but I say that in the most affectionate sort of way. He’s pretty high-end, but not at all full of himself or in the least high-falutin’. Slightly salty–he likes to make a good joke now and then–but very nicely balanced.
Hmm… the more I describe the man, the more he’s starting to sound like a description of the candy bars he makes. I guess it’s reasonable that if people resemble their dogs and organizations start to look like their leaders, an artisan candy bar would kind of be like the man who crafted it. Heck, if I wasn’t so worried about this Candy Claus thing getting out of control, I’d say that when he smiles Charlie’s actually… well, it’s true, really, he’s sort of cherubic looking. At the least I can say with total confidence that after you’ve gotten a chance to experience both Charlie and a Zzang bar, you’re likely to go back for more. They’re both that good!
5. The Best Candy Is Made by People for Whom Candy-Making Is a Calling
Beth didn’t exactly deliver this rule to me on a silver candy platter, so to speak. But when I reread her book and blended its insights with all my own years of business knowledge, one of the things that struck me was that pretty much every great candy–even the brands that are now super big, like Snickers and Mars bars and whatever–was created by people who loved candy and loved making it. Some of them tried making candy as a way to earn a bit of money on the side; some gambled their family’s future to go after their dreams. I’m sure I’m missing something, but it seems like every great candy started with a caring, passionate person for whom candy was a calling, not just a quick way to make some money. Charlie, in all smiling seriousness, is no exception. You don’t need to do a case study or run any computer personality profile to test this. You can see it if you spend more than about six minutes with the guy.
The truth is that most people’s love for candy is about consuming it, not about all the work that goes into making it. And mind you, this definitely is work, and it’s not very glamorous.
Being a candy maker mostly repetitive, challenging, not really all that exciting work.
So what’s different about Charlie? I’m telling you–when you see Charlie in action, he’s got that feeling all the way down to his soul!
6. Candy Has Positive Connotations
There’s no question about the good memories and all that… makes perfect sense. But here’s a direct quote from Beth’s book: “Candy has positive connotations.” She’s right (as she always seems to be about this sweet stuff): back in the day, candy was regularly marketed as being nutritious. Yep, forget what you might think about lecturing kids to stay away from the stuff. To the contrary, candy was good, and candy was particularly good for healthy grown-ups!
This “candy is good for you” business was seriously… serious. No joke, candy was sold to people who were short of funds during the Depression as a low-cost way to eat well. I quote directly from the Divine Ms. Kimmerle: “Candy products helped feed the masses during the Depression. Candy was often peddled as a satisfying and healthy meal substitute and bars called Chicken Dinner, Tummy Full, and Denver Sandwich lined shelves and had a square meal ring to them.” Not only that, but candy bars became a big part of the American soldier’s healthy diet during the two world wars, until it actually came to be considered downright all-American to eat the stuff. And after World War II–in the spirit of supporting our troops (I’m serious here)–candy’s popularity really boomed.
7. No Special Event, Occasion or Celebration Is Complete without Candy
When I think of occasions, I envision cakes, Champagne, foie gras, truffles… but there it is, right in Beth’s book. Every occasion you can imagine seems to somehow be spelled C-A-N-D-Y! Even if I doubted Ms. Kimmerle (and there’s clearly no reason I should), Charlie has pointed out the same thing, telling me the other day that he loves how people will cut up a Zzang bar and put it out on a plate for an after-dinner treat. In hindsight, I feel bad–Frank, Paul, Amy and I (the four senior and non-managing partners in the Candy Manufactory) took Charlie out to dinner to celebrate the inception of his partnership, and it never dawned on me that I was doing him (and us) a dishonor by not bringing candy! It’s a good thing the guy doesn’t seem to hold grudges!
I like this thing about candy as the ultimate end to a big evening. It’s less of a big dessert that way… more of what I like to call the “dessert after the dessert” course (which a lot more people should be serving and enjoying). Funny thing is, flipping through Beth’s book, I found ads from decades ago that show plates of candy bars all cut up and looking as cute as a Zzang does today when you cut it into five or six or eight slices and slide the plate onto the table among your coffee- (or tea-) drinking friends. Formal or informal, full-out party or just a few friends, close family or visitors just arrived from far away… the fact that everyone loves candy and that this is our local offering makes for a really high likelihood that you or I as a host can score serious points with our guests here.
8. Candy Is Best Factory Fresh
I got so carried away with all this other stuff, I almost forgot this one. And THAT would have been a really BIG mistake, because I’ve come to realize that freshness is almost as important in deciding what kind of candy you want to eat as ingredients are. Sure enough, though, this rule is right there in Beth’s book. And not surprisingly, Charlie says the same blasted thing (seems to be a pattern here): “The candy bars are particularly great when they’re really super fresh,” he told me while I was watching him and Sara at work. To prove his point, he cut me a piece of one that had barely been on the cooling rack for more than a few minutes. And sure enough, he was right on. The bars are always good, but damn if they’re not just a notch and a half better when they’re really fresh.
“What happens when they’re not so fresh?” I asked him. “Well,” he said seriously, “we’ve tested them a lot, and we put a 60-day recommended shelf life on them. They’re still really good then too.” He’s right about that. But the truth is that they really are exceptionally good when you get them the same day they’re made. That’s sort of a secret, or it was until I just blew it here. How can you know when they were just made? Well… the easiest way is to call the Bakeshop (734-761-2095). Maybe we’ll get Charlie to Twitter about it?
9. Everybody Really Likes Really Good Candy
The better the candy is, the more people want it, and the more they want to entrust you with making the candy they’re most emotionally connected to. To be clear, I love having this problem–if the Zzang bars weren’t so darned good, we wouldn’t be worrying about this at all.
Again, I should have just listened to Beth from the beginning. She basically told me as much when we were emailing a while back:
It seems like more people, while craving comfort foods, are not going to spend anything on, well, just any crappy old candy. They want a full-on experience with ingredients and products from a “local” market and they want to blog about it. People want products that tell a story and that have a (real) story behind them. And better yet, a (real) person (in this case–Charlie) for true authenticity. NECCO Wafers claiming “all natural” just won’t cut it anymore. Coffee was fine as Eight O’Clock and Folgers until Starbucks got going. And candy was all OK as Snickers and Payday until the Zzang!
Mind you, Ms. Kimmerle is not the kind of woman who would just say something like this to be nice. I mean, she’s not mean-spirited, so she’d certainly stay on the mellow side of things, no matter what. But when she says something is really good, the woman means it. Which is why I take her words as a serious compliment. What she likes ultimately–and I’m in full agreement–is the flavor. Charlie’s great, his story is excellent, etc., but the key is how the candy bar tastes. Which is very good. One of the things I love about these bars is that they have the kind of complexity I’m so drawn to–layers of flavors that unfold in your mouth as you eat: chocolate, butter, brown sugar, sea salt, nuts. They all show up as individual entities, but then they also come together to make for a holistic flavor that’s far greater than the sum of the individual ingredients. And they’ve got a really nice, long-lasting finish. All of which means that you can eat a lot less of one of these bars and still feel satiated; one or two bites goes a really long way! A fact that’s probably not great for short-term sales, but is a really compelling reason to feel as positive as I do about our future in Candy Land.
10. When You Follow the First Nine Rules, You Get a Really Good (Sugar) Buzz!
No doubt, there’s a big and positive buzz around all this candy stuff. Sure, it’s funny how many people are asking me to have Charlie make their dream candy for them. But even with the impending reality of disappointing most of them (even if we did one new bar a year for the next twenty years, that’d leave about eight hundred people hanging!), there really is a ton of good energy in all this. It feels good to be in close proximity to the candy making. I was going to make some pun about energy bars and about how great Charlie’s energy is while he’s making the candy, but I couldn’t quite figure out how, so… my point is really just that, man, this guy is lit up! And as long as he keeps making it, his candy is going to light up a whole lot of happy people in the process!