For three generations Smarties candies have been a favorite among Halloween trick-or-treaters who love the pastel-colored wafers that are even good for some allergen-sensitive children. On Wednesday the Smarties Candy Co. celebrates its 70th anniversary at its manufacturing headquarters in Union, New Jersey.
The company, founded by 96-year-old patriarch, Edward Dee has a lot to celebrate. It is one of the few family-owned mass-production confectionery companies left in the United States, and it turns out more than 2 billion rolls of the candies every year.
So how has the company kept its strong brand following as dietary sensibilities have evolved over the years?
The secret lies in keeping its core customers happy, while modernizing packaging and production, says Liz Dee, one of the founder's granddaughters and currently co-president.
No doubt, over the years there have been many changes.
Smarties was founded in 1949 by Edward Dee, who was from a candy-making family in London that settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He rented a garage in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where, with a repurposed pellet-making machine from World War II, the company turned out the small fruit-flavored pressed-sugar tablets. He then began selling the candy by delivering it by car to grocery stores throughout the U.S. and in Canada, where they are called Rockets.
Today the company is run by Dee's granddaughters, co-presidents Liz and Sarah Dee and Jessica Dee Sawyer, who have made many technological updates to their candy-making process.
"We have grown exponentially, our volume has grown," said Liz Dee, one of the company's co-presidents. "Almost every single part of our process has been updated to allow for us to do what we do more efficiently."
The manufacturing process has evolved, utilizing robotic automation technology with forklifts, conveyors and robotic arms to produce the candy more efficiently. They now have programmable machines that measure and mix the ingredients, arrange the candy into rolls, then wrap them and pack them into boxes.
"There's more accuracy in each individual batch, less fluctuation of ingredients, and it has really made our control greater," said co-president Sarah Dee.
"When you're producing at the volume that we produce, every bit of efficiency matters," said Liz.
The women said they did not want to change the recipe for their candy but needed to evolve their technology in order to stay relevant and competitive.
"It's really important to us to continue the tradition that our grandfather started," said Sarah.
The factories, one in Union, and another in Newmark, Ontario, have also seen updates. After Hurricane Sandy brought damage to their New Jersey facility, they rebuilt it into a 90,000 square foot factory, combining two buildings together and adding solar panels.
The facility in Canada, which opened in 1963 to help meet product demand, was also rebuilt in 1988 and is now 125,000 square feet. Each factory runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and together, they produce 2 billion candy rolls each year.
The granddaughters also recently rebranded the company, updating its logo with a new font and more vibrant colors. They wanted to modernize while also staying recognizable to their customers.
Plans are to introduce a "Smart Mix," which is a mixed bag of candy containing the company's original, X-treme sour and tropical-flavored candy.
"We tried to hold on to a lot of the core classic imagery that our grandfather created way back when he started it 70 years ago, but we try to refresh it," said Sarah.
According to Liz, only 12% of family businesses make it to the third generation, but Smarties is one of the few that remain within the family, which the women are committed to maintaining.
There have been challenges, including trade uncertainties over trade agreements with Canada that could affect pricing. So far, none of the materials or packaging were on the list of retaliatory tariffs imposed on Canada in 2018.
Then there is the issue of being a small brand amid giant candy companies. "We get reached out to almost every day by larger companies who want to purchase our company and turn it into something we don't want it to be," said Liz. "People don't realize that we're a small family business."
Sarah said that they do not plan to leave New Jersey or North America and will continue to stay affordable. While the company updates and improves, they aim to maintain their integrity and stick to their family roots.
"We're modernizing, but we're still classic," Sarah said. "We're still the same as we were when my grandfather started making it in a rented facility."