What makes a good company great? A good product, yes, but sometimes that’s not enough.
Burma-Shave was a great shaving cream, but it’s no longer on the drug store shelf. Ken-L Ration dog food and it’s catchy jingle had everybody singing “my dog’s better than your dog” in the 1960s but no 21st century Rover is eating the once popular brand.
E. J. Brach’s candy was very fashionable in Louisiana but it too fell by the wayside.
Though Brach’s still exists as a subsidiary under Swiss-based chocolate company Barry Callebaut AG, it’s a shadow of its former self.
That’s the way it goes sometimes; companies, even sweet candy companies, have an unlimited potential to crash and burn.
The top brass at Elmer’s Candy Corporation of Ponchatoula asked themselves the tough questions, how can we survive, can we do it better, what makes a good company great, etc., back in the mid-1980s. They found an answer.
Current Elmer’s president and CEO Robert A. Nelson was a junior executive at the time.
The odds were stacked against Elmer’s survival. World sugar prices made it tough for regional candy companies to stay in business. Penny candies had long been replaced by larger value pack bags. Automation was replacing hand-sorted chocolate boxes.
“When I was a kid, we were making everything: hard candy, chocolate, Chee Wees,” Nelson said. “We were a jack of all trades and master of none, but we weren’t doing nearly the amount of pounds we’re doing now.
“We stopped making hard candy in the early ‘80s. Nobody is making hard candy in the United States anymore.”
Elmer’s, originally called Miller’s Candy Company, was founded in 1855 by Christopher Henry Miller in New Orleans. Miller had 11 daughters and one married Augustus Elmer. Around the turn of the 20th century it became Elmer’s Candy Company.
Nelson said his grandfather, Roy Nelson, partnered with the Elmers in the early 60s, eventually bought them out and moved the sweet shop to Ponchatoula in the 1970s.
It was great growing up in a candy factory, Nelson said.
“It was different when I was kid,” he added. “My dad worked a lot of hours so we’d come in with him and skateboard in the space. That was fun.
“My daughter asks me about skateboarding in the factory and I tell her it could never happen today because now we don’t have the space and there’s too much equipment. It’s a different environment.”
The fringe benefit of all the candy the kids could eat attracted them to candy shop as well.
In a world of Hershey Bars, Nestle’s Crunches and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, how was a tiny Louisiana candy company best known for the Gold Brick Egg and other Easter confections going to compete?
Nelson said the continued production of their Easter candy line was a no brainer.
“Easter was the bread and butter of this company,” Nelson said. “Back then Easter was a big deal. During that season, every Good Friday and Saturday before Easter I was here loading trucks at five in the morning and loading up trucks all day.”
The Beaumont, Texas, to Mobile, Ala., corridor is one of the top Easter candy markets in the country, Nelson said. And Elmer’s has the top Easter Bunny in the basket.
“We have the top three items in this market,” Nelson said. “The Gold Brick Egg, Heavenly Hash and the Pecan Eggs; those products outsell the national leaders five to one in this market. It’s amazing that those brands are still the leading factors in this market. “
Take that, Cadbury Cream Egg!
But Easter comes just once a year. Elmer’s had to find another market if it wanted to stay in the candy business, Nelson said.
“We decided in order to be a viable company that was going to stay in business for the long term we had to be the best in something,” Nelson said. “We decided to concentrate on chocolate.”
The corporate decision to focus on chocolate would also seem to be a no brainer. A taste of the delicious Elmer’s Gold Brick chocolate decided that for company bigwigs.
But chocolate wasn’t really the issue, Nelson said. They knew Elmer’s made good chocolate.
The answer to all the tough economic questions was in the packaging.
“We developed a way to make our own heart box packaging,” Nelson said.
The heart-shaped box of chocolate candy is the universally recognized gift for sweethearts every Valentine’s Day. (The chocolate box is also used by errant husbands seeking to make up with rolling pin-bearing wives, which is a large market in itself.)
“You used to have to bring in a heart shaped box,” Nelson said. “You had to take off the lid, put the candy in by hand and put the lid back on. It was very inefficient.”
The standard heart-shaped box of candy in the mid-1980s was five pieces of chocolate weighing three ounces. The retail price was $1.50.
“When we developed a new way to make these boxes in house we were able to offer the box to retail at 99 cents,” Nelson said. “We made a good markup, but at that magic price point our volume shot up.
“We very quickly went from a regional company to a major player.”
Major chain stores from across America began calling Ponchatoula. Another automated line of Elmer’s boxed chocolate was quickly developed while the invisible hand of economics culled the confectioning herd.
“Whitman dropped out; Russell Stover bought them out,” Nelson said. “E. J. Brach’s sold out. We had to get better and better and over the last 10 years the quality of our candy has gotten significantly better.”
With more than 300 items in the Elmer’s catalog, the Ponchatoula candy manufacturer is a recognized leader in the boxed chocolate market.
“Valentine’s candy is two-thirds to three-fourths of our business,” Nelson said. “For Valentine’s Day we’re in every major retailer, mass merchandiser, drug and food store in North America. What you see on the shelf in Louisiana is what you’ll see on the shelf in the state of Washington or the Northeast. We also have versions of our lines in Mexico and Canada.”
It’s a month before Easter and Nelson walks through his two refrigerated candy warehouses. The storage units are bigger in area than a couple of Ponchatoula city blocks. His footsteps echo throughout the darkened, empty caverns. Nelson is happy precisely because the warehouses are empty.
For Nelson an empty warehouse means all the Easter candy for the season has been manufactured, boxed, sold and shipped. It means the Easter Bunny will have plenty of Gold Bricks, Heavenly Hash and Pecan Eggs for Gulf Coast Easter baskets.
For Elmer Candy Company life is a box of chocolates. And they know exactly what they’re going to get.