A minty fresh approach
One of the USA’s oldest candy producers, Piedmont Candy Co is using traditional methods to make snacks of the future
Based in Lexington, North Carolina, Piedmont Candy Co has been making its signature Red Bird puffs and sticks since 1890. Founded by Edward Ebelein, the son of German immigrants, Piedmont was sold to the Reid Family in 1987, but its family ethos and respect for tradition remains unchanged.
“To this day, we pull, flavor, and stripe our famous candy by hand,” declares the company’s CEO, Mark Stephens. “As we have since the beginning, we only use pure cane sugar, which allows us to achieve our unique melt-in-your-mouth quality. We heat the sugar to over 300 degrees, we pull it, much like taffy, and then add our natural peppermint flavoring. From there we add our signature red stripe, also by hand, before the candy is cut, cured, and wrapped. At the end of each day, we will have produced around five million pieces of our peppermint puffs.”
Before becoming part of a historical candy-making tradition, each new Piedmont employee is required to participate in extensive quality control and food safety training. After a rigorous 90-day developmental period in which they learn about many aspects of the candy-making process, new team members are finally moved into one of Piedmont’s permanent production roles.
“Safety of our product and our employees is the number one priority of Piedmont,” Mark adds. “We feel it is critical for the quality and consistency of what we produce that our candy makers understand the entire process. We want them to relish the role they play in ensuring that every piece of candy is as good as our customers expect.”
Over the last five years, Piedmont has grown revenue by up to 40 percent, an increase driven by expansion into retail channels that are simultaneously growing, as well as the introduction of new flavors.
“Our core product remains our peppermint puff, but as time has moved on, we’ve added unique flavors, such as cotton candy, mango, chocolate, cinnamon, and many others,” Mark explains. “You will find our candy predominantly in what people would consider to be US value retailers, such as Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar, as well as in Walmart and club outlets like BJ’s Wholesale Club. However, where many people first experience our candy is in banks, doctors’ offices, schools, and other similar outlets where they are offered as complimentary treats.”
Throughout its 130-year history, Piedmont has remained true to its heritage and still continues to resist the temptation to tinker with its recipes or automate the processes that differentiate the business from its competitors. Still, this does not mean the company is unwilling to explore new opportunities. While the Red Bird peppermint puff will always be a core part of Piedmont’s product offering, the firm sees innovation in product development as a cornerstone of its future. Leading the way in this department is a new line of low sugar snack mixes called Thinful.
“Made with a blend of butter popcorn, caramel corn, rice puffs, and pretzels, all coated in our unique, proprietary chocolate glaze, Thinful shows that we are not afraid to break paradigms, whilst maintaining who we are,” Mark says of the new product. “In some ways, it is a departure for Piedmont Candy in that our peppermint puffs are made of pure cane sugar, but in reality, our new line of mixes is very much an extension of our heritage in that each product is made in small batches, by hand, and with all-natural sweeteners.
“What makes Thinful snack mixes unique is our original chocolate glaze that finally solves the riddle of how to make something taste great, but without the sugar and calories that, until now, have always been a part of any indulgent snack. Not only does Thinful come in five amazing flavors – Chocolatey Drizzle, Peanut Butter, Snickerdoodle, Sea Salt Caramel, and Birthday Cake – but a half cup serving has only two grams of sugar and 60 calories, whereas comparable snacks will have over 20 grams of sugar and 200 calories, and sometimes much more.”
Recipe for success
In addition to its line of Thinful snack mixes, Piedmont has several new product concepts in development. As part of its dedication to innovation, the company recently hired a new team member to lead its product development efforts – a role that previously did not exist. In the next 12 to 18 months, Piedmont anticipates the introduction of three new product lines in its traditional candy puffs range, as well as two new extensions of its Thinful lower sugar model. Mark argues that both sides of the business will play an equally important role in the company’s future.
“Obviously, with the introduction of Thinful, we are very invested in the trend towards healthier eating. However, we also believe that there will always be a place for small indulgences, which is certainly where our peppermint puff sits. Our research suggests that there will always be a consumer unwilling to give up taste in order to save a few calories, so our focus is on developing products that do not require our customers to make that choice. I believe this is the challenge that the entire sector is facing, and I certainly would expect more companies to try and follow suit.”
Piedmont’s current website contains over 12 recipes that showcase how its Red Bird candy can be used to make indulgent peppermint treats such as fudge, margaritas, bark, patties, brownies, and cookie pops. For Mark, the recipe for Piedmont’s continued success is simple – respect the traditions of the past, while embracing the challenges of the future. With the flexibility of its products clear for all to see, Piedmont now hopes to showcase similar adaptability as it balances its 130-year heritage with a taste for further growth.
“As I’ve mentioned, our heritage is in high quality, hand-made candy, and we have remained true to that, but with a spirit of evolving and adapting to the demands of today’s consumers,” Mark states. “As such, we are constantly exploring ways to apply our strengths in new products and categories. A willingness to evolve is the key to success in today’s business culture.
“In the next few years, we will continue to differentiate ourselves by remaining true to our strengths while constantly seeking new markets in which we can leverage those assets. The future for Piedmont Candy is extraordinarily bright given the diversification of our portfolio and the spirit of innovation that now exists within our company.”