When Liz Dee was a kid growing up in New Jersey, her house was well known to local enthusiasts as the “Smarties House”.
“People knew we weren’t limiting,” she says. “Instead of a candy or two, we would give away a whole bag of Smarties.”
That’s because Dee’s grandfather, Edward Dee, invented the classic pastel-colored, cellophane-wrapped pressed dextrose tablets that have been a Halloween favorite for generations.
Smarties is one of several iconic candy brands born and raised in New Jersey. Perhaps Garden State’s most famous candy brand is M & M’s, which debuted in Newark exactly 80 years ago at a factory at 285 Badger Avenue. In 1941, Forrest E. Mars Sr., son of Mars Company founder Frank C. Mars, patented his process for making small discs of chocolate covered with hard candy shells. The first plain chocolate M & M’s were sold to the US military as WWII military rations, allowing soldiers in tropical climates to carry chocolate that did not melt immediately.
In 1958, the M & M’s factory was moved to Hackettstown, where it remains today one of three US factories that produce over 400 million M & M’s each year for Mars Wrigley, a subsidiary of Mars Inc. In 2020, Mars Inc. has moved the North American headquarters of Mars Wrigley from Chicago to Newark, in the Ironside building on Edison Place.
“The return of the North American headquarters to Newark is extremely important, as this is where we started and this is where we plan to continue to grow,” says Sarah Long, Marketing Director of Mars Wrigley North America . “As one of the largest private family businesses in the world, it is truly phenomenal to have such a strong connection to the great state of New Jersey. “
Smarties, on the other hand, never left New Jersey. The company dates back to 1949, when third-generation candy maker Edward Dee sailed to America from South Hampton, England with his wife, Anita, and son, Jonathan. Initially arriving in Manhattan, they immediately moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, rented a garage in Bloomfield, and armed with a reused pellet machine and packaging machine, began producing Smarties.
Jonathan, Liz’s uncle, eventually helped run the Smarties company, which since 1967 has been based in Union. More than 70 employees continue to produce over a billion candy buns each year. Today, Liz Dee is co-president of the Smarties Candy Company, along with her cousin Sarah Dee and sister Jessica Sawyer, making it one of New Jersey’s oldest family businesses.
Not all of the beloved candy brands have maintained their longstanding ties to New Jersey. In 1938, Tootsie Roll, which was previously made in Manhattan, began production at a much larger factory in Hoboken, in buildings that occupied the entire block from 15th to 16th Street at 1515 Willow Avenue. In 1965, however, Tootsie Roll Industries opened a new factory in Chicago and closed in New Jersey.
But memories of Tootsie Roll’s bond with Hoboken haven’t faded. “Children walked past the factory and their parents, who worked there, often stood on the fire escape and threw hot Tootsie Rolls that were neither wrapped nor pre-cut,” says Bob Foster, director of the Hoboken Historical Museum. . , which in 2011 featured Tootsie Roll and other memorabilia in a special exhibit titled “A Sweet History of Hoboken”.
However, the history of New Jersey candy is much more than three famous brands. Red candy apples, for example, were said to have been invented in 1908 by William Kolb, a Newark-based candy maker. But there is much more evidence for the origins of saltwater taffy, which debuted in Atlantic City in the 1880s. Joseph Fralinger popularized the confection, while competitor Enoch James is credited with mechanizing the process, making it less sticky and cutting the candy into bite-sized pieces.
Fralinger and James Taffy are now owned and operated by James Candy of Atlantic City, a business run by the Glaser family since the postwar years. In 2018, James Candy filed for bankruptcy after Boardwalk sales declined, although the company publicly argued the filing would help it bounce back.
More recent sweet successes have come from PIM Brands Inc., known for Welch’s fruit snacks, sour jacks and Sun-Maid chocolate raisins. The company, founded in 1979 by President and CEO Michael G. Rosenberg, recently moved its global headquarters from Allendale to a large complex in Park Ridge which was the former home of Hertz Corporation. The resort underwent a nearly $ 30 million expansion and renovation last year.
How did New Jersey become such a hotbed of sweet treats? There is no one answer, candy historians say, but many tasty possibilities.
On the one hand, New Jersey’s location between many major cities on the east coast made it an important hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Beth Kimmerle, author of four books, including Candy, the sweet story (Collectors Press, 2003), which document the history of the American confectionery industry. “New Jersey was the highway for north and south, near railroads and waterways,” she explains. “It made sense logistically. “
New Jersey’s proximity to Hershey, Pa., Was a particularly useful connection. At the turn of the 20th century, Hershey was not just a manufacturer of candy bars for consumers, but an ingredients company, selling sugar (from its own Cuban plantations and mills), cocoa and other products to the manufacturers and retailers.
While it might seem odd to imagine Hershey selling to Mars, one of its biggest competitors, it was actually common practice for candy makers at the time, says Jason Liebig, founder of CollectingCandy.com and one of the country’s premier candy souvenir collectors and historians. “I think of it as Samsung making the screens for the iPhone,” he says. There were also long-standing ties between the two candy giants. After all, Liebig points out, the two “M’s” in M & M’s were taken from Forrest E. Mars Sr. and Bruce Murrie, son of Hershey Chocolate president William FR Murrie, who had a 20 percent stake in the product. “The two companies were constantly intertwined; it was very incestuous, ”he says.
[RELATED: 29 Moments That Shaped New Jersey]
Companies considering New Jersey were also often looking for more space than they could get in New York, as well as cheaper labor. Tootsie Roll, for example, did special outreach to the town of Hoboken, which had a large Latino population. “They even advertised in Puerto Rican newspapers, offering guaranteed jobs and housing vouchers,” says Foster.
Today, New Jersey remains a desirable place to run a business, says Mars’s Long, citing schools and the state’s top business network. “It’s a great state for us to recruit the best talent,” she says.
However, there remain many challenges for New Jersey confectionery companies, especially after an unprecedented year of pandemic. Not all businesses weathered the storm. In a case of bitter timing, IT’SUGAR, a chain of large candy stores, opened in the American Dream shopping center in East Rutherford in December 2019. The company, with 100 stores in 28 states, filed for an application. bankruptcy in September 2020. (He was about to complete a reorganization process and reappear in July 2021.)
But New Jersey’s best confectionery companies are no stranger to tough times, Kimmerle says. “They were founded and are led by people who have made these businesses grow through thick and thin,” she says. Even a company as large as Mars, she adds, went through depressions and wars, when selections fluctuated because sugar and other ingredients were being rationed or unavailable. “It’s really a lens through which you can look at the history of the United States,” she says.
As Smarties sales have rebounded, Liz Dee says she expects high demand for the company’s iconic candy rolls this Halloween. Unfortunately, however, Edward Dee will not be coming to the office like he always does. Liz’s grandfather passed away in November 2019, aged 95.
“He loved his job so much that he even came to work to check the sales numbers on the day he died,” says Dee. “He was a brilliant man who lived in Elizabeth for the rest of his life and changed the course of New Jersey candy history.”
And, she points out, despite being courted by bigger brands, the company is firmly committed to keeping Smarties in the Garden State.
“I have this unique opportunity to carry the torch for my family, for the candy and for New Jersey,” says Dee. “Smarties is not for sale. I’m a fifth generation candy maker here in New Jersey, and it’s an honor and a legacy to be able to continue.
Sharon Goldman is a Metuchen-based freelance writer who, by order of her dentist, no longer keeps a stash of candy in her kitchen cabinet, but dreams of saltwater taffy and chocolate-coated caramels at times.
Click here to leave a comment