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The Greatest Candy Cane "Caper" Of Them All

Monday, 10 Dec 2007 | 10:28 AM ET
Candy Canes

"Just keep smiling. Yes, it's getting tiring, Yes, you're sweating a little heavily. But just keep smiling." That's me talking to myself as I stand in the kitchen of Hammond's Candies in Denver, Colorado. On the other side of the picture window is a tour group made up of 7 and 8 year old kids. They're staring. At me. They're smiling, and I'd better be. I'm making candy canes.

"We make between 750,000 and a million candy canes a year, "Andy Schuman, Hammond's CEO, says as I struggle with my blob of candy fixings. I'm supposed to be folding in a piece of yellowish mixture into this big white ball. I don't know why. Just keep smiling, the little buggers are watching.

Hammond's Candies goes back to 1920 here in the Mile High City. Schuman bought the company a little over a year ago. He and his family had a very successful photo processing operation on the East coast, but digital technology was encroaching on the bottom line, so it was time to do something else.

Candy? Are you serious?

"I walked in here and I just knew it's what I wanted to do," so says Schuman now with a grin. There have been times in the last 13 or so months he hasn't been so sure. Candy is a very tough business to be in, and not just on your fillings and your waistline. It's tough because either you're a commodity producer, someone like Mars or Hershey, or you're struggling. Selling candy by the piece in a little store sounds like so much fun to allot of people. Until they have to pay the rent. Then it's not so much fun. Unless you're Hammond's.

"We have a very nice, lucrative niche. What we have to do is have specialized products. Products that taste better, look better, more appealing to the customer. And when they buy those at the retail level they think, 'I am buying a quality piece of candy."

Schuman is explaining all this while we watch his employees pack some of the 120 different items he has in the Hammond's line. Right now 85 per cent of his business is made and shipped during the last quarter of the year. He needs to change that.

"If we can level that off, get it to around 60 per cent, and 40 per cent the rest of the year, we're a much more profitable company, cash flow wise."

In order to do that he's branched out into "natural" candy and distributes to Whole Foods . He's coming up with new items, like the chocolate bar encased in wax for use by hikers and skiers, just throw it into your backpack and it won't melt. But right now, the sweetest part of the business is these candy canes. Pulled, rolled out and snipped off by hand, they can retail for $2.50 and up. Martha Stewart loves them.

"Great," I think, "where's Martha when the tough work need to be done?" Keep smiling, just keep smiling. Ever notice that seven year olds don't blink??

"MOA" is in Michigan and Ohio all week. We'll see you along the road. I'm the one with big muscles and a smile.

Questions? Comments? mikeonamerica@nbcuni.com