Fax Me at the NECCO Factory

“Be Mine.” “True Love.” “Cutie Pie.” “Fax Me.” For well over a century, lovers the world over have expressed their feelings on Valentine’s Day through red ink on a chalky pastel candy. Today, lovestruck sweet tooths consume 12 to 14 million pounds of the stuff each year.
By Julie M. Zauzmer

“Be Mine.” “True Love.” “Cutie Pie.” “Fax Me.”

For well over a century, lovers the world over have expressed their feelings on Valentine’s Day through red ink on a chalky pastel candy. Today, lovestruck sweet tooths consume 12 to 14 million pounds of the stuff each year.

All of it is made less than 10 miles from Harvard Square, in Revere, Mass.—home to the New England Confectionary Company, maker of the indomitable Sweetheart.

The plant is ordinarily closed to visitors, but it’s amazing what one can accomplish with an email starting “Hello, I am a writer for The Harvard Crimson, as well as a very big fan of Sky Bars and Sweethearts.”*

A walk through NECCO’s massive factory is a step back into the peak era of American manufacturing. Nearly all of the machines which are used today to make NECCO candies have been around since before World War II. The trusty machinery is still at it now, making not only Sweethearts but also the familiar disc-shaped NECCO Wafers, the bright candy buttons that many of us ate off paper strips as children, and an assortment of lesser-known candies with names like Slap Stix, Peach Blossoms, and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

NECCO’s founders were at the cutting edge of confectionary innovation back in 1847, when Oliver Chase created the lozenge cutter which led to the development of NECCO Wafers.

(The recipe, for flavors like clove, cinnamon, and wintergreen, hasn’t changed since then aside from an ill-fated experiment with all-natural flavorings in 2009.) In the 1860s, Oliver’s brother thought of printing messages on the candies in red dye. In 1902, the company started printing them in heart shapes.

But a little less than a century after the Chase brothers’ ingenious inventions, NECCO froze in time, more or less. The holy trinity of candy making—Hershey, Mars, and Nestle—successfully automated every step of the process, from mixing to molding to wrapping up the candy bars and shipping them out the door. Not at NECCO.

At the NECCO factory, an employee dumps food coloring into metal pails full of steaming hot liquid, whisks the batter, and pours it into a machine caked in a coral-reef-bright accumulation of rainbow batter. That machine then drips the intensely colored liquid onto sheets of edible paper, thereby forming 1,000 pounds of candy buttons every day. Four women manually shove finished buttons, which have cooled for a week, into cellophane bags, while another employee drops each bag into a machine that seals it with a puff of steam. Two more box the bags for shipping.

Someday NECCO will be forced to automate, plant manager Hugh Albert says. But right now, the company, which was bought by the venture capital firm American Capital Strategies in 2007, simply doesn’t have the money for new machines. And despite worries about how the company will stay in business, Albert likes it just the way it is.

“I love to see it, because it’s all about the nostalgia, seeing how this process has been done for 70 or 80 years,” he says. Plus, he says, there’s “the human element of it: I love to see people employed.”

A few decades ago, it would have been hard to predict that M&Ms and Hershey Kisses would be household names while Canada Mints and Mary Janes would become also-rans.

NECCO looked just as poised to become a major sugary power as any other company, as the history lesson on its website would tell it. NECCO Wafers went off to war with Union soldiers in the 1860s and to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd in the 1930s. When the lights came back on in Times Square at the end of World War II, New Yorkers flocked to see the re-lit NECCO Sky Bar sign.

The riddle of NECCO’s quiescence while others were rising to prominence comes down to just one word: marketing.

Other companies advertised, and advertised hard. They paid supermarkets enormous shelving fees to put their products at the check-out line, turning Milky Ways and Crunch bars into typical impulse buys. Asked whether NECCO made a conscious decision not to compete for that shelf space, Albert says, “We never even thought about it.” NECCO’s longtime president didn’t like to spend money marketing his candies.

Since American Capital acquired the company, looking to make it profitable and then sell it again, that president “would have a fit if he heard how much we spend on marketing and advertising now,” Albert says. “It’s tough to keep up with some of these guys. It amazes me every day that a company our size, which is fairly unique, is able to stay in business. You have the giants, and you have the mom-and-pops.”

What keeps NECCO afloat as a mid-size maker in a candy landscape split between goliaths and boutiques is, in large part, the Sweetheart.

The conversation hearts go on sale for just six weeks a year, but it takes 10 to 12 months to produce the billions and billions sold during that brief holiday window.

Two days before Valentine’s Day 2013, workers are already making next year’s hearts, 9,000 pounds per hour. An employee paints red dye onto a roller, and 80 different sayings appear on the dough a moment before it is cut into hearts. Clouds of sugar and cornstarch waft into the air constantly as workers dump tray after tray from one machine to the next so that the hearts can be dried, combined, and packaged. Those that come out badly are tossed into waiting containers and later sold as animal feed.

In those six weeks of Sweetheart sales, the company makes more than half its annual profits. “Financially, it’s the bread and butter of this company,” Albert says. “We’re fortunate that we’ve branded the name Sweetheart. That’s us. That will never go away.”

In other words: “Me & You.” “Sweet Love.” “For Ever.”

*For the purposes of full disclosure, a note: Plant manager Hugh Albert kindly insists that those lucky enough to suit up in white coats and hair nets for a private tour of the NECCO factory always walk away with arms loaded with complimentary candies, Crimson reporters included.

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