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Sweet Old World

The humble origins of American candy dynasties

Katharine Weber
July 14, 2009
This article is part of Kosher Not Kosher.
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When Moishe Cohen opened Economy Candy on Essex Street on the Lower Side of Manhattan in 1937, Depression-era customers chose their favorite treats from barrels of nuts, bins of dried fruits, blocks of halvah, and sweets, from chocolate to rock candy. Today’s patrons, in the throes of a deep recession, still flock to the store, now a block away from its original location, in search of discounted candy. But Economy, run today by Moishe’s son and grandson, is not the only longstanding example of Jews in the confection trade. One hundred years ago, most confections were generic, sold as penny candy from jars on shop counters. They were usually distributed by peddlers, most of them Jewish immigrants from Europe who sold a variety of goods on their rounds. Some of those peddlers arrived in the United States with little more than the clothes they were wearing and an entrepreneurial spirit, learning the candy trade from employers. Candy was a relatively easy thing for a newcomer to make. It did not require significant investment in equipment, materials, or labor, and could be made on a stove top with a few inexpensive ingredients. Ruined batches were cheap failures, and regular production helped move businesses from the kitchens and pushcarts to retail shops and factories. No other immigrant group is as central to the candy trade as Jews. Today, three or four generations after the founders of Just Born, Tootsie Rolls, and other confectionary dynasties arrived from Europe, their businesses continue to prosper. Herewith a guide to some of these standouts:

The story of Tootsie Rolls began in 1896, when Leo Hirshfield opened a little corner candy shop in New York City. Although he made many candies, having come from a confectionary family in Austria, his most successful penny candy was a cylinder-shaped uniquely chewy cross between fudge and caramel, in a wrapper twisted at both ends, which he named for his five-year-old daughter Clara, nicknamed Tootsie. By 1922, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Joseph Rubin & Sons, originally box suppliers to Hirshfield, took control in 1935, with Bernard D. Rubin masterminding a plan to move manufacturing out of New York. When Bernard died in 1948, having expanded the company’s locations and increased its annual profits 12-fold, he was succeeded by his brother William, who headed the company until 1962. Headquartered today in Chicago, Tootsie Roll Industries is run by William’s daughter Ellen Gordon, 77, who has been president and CEO since 1972. Her husband Melvin Gordon, 81, has been chairman of the board since 1962. Neither seems ready to step down, which is just as well, given that among their four daughters there is no obvious heiress apparent. (One daughter, Karen Mills, clearly has administrative capability, having recently been appointed by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Small Business Administration.) Over the years, Tootsie has acquired Charleston Chews, Andes Mints, Junior Mints, Sugar Daddies, Dots & Crows, Nik-L-Nip Wax Bottles, and Dubble Bubble. With plants around the world, the company produces more than 62 million Tootsie Rolls every day.

In 1880, David Goldenberg arrived in Philadelphia from Romania. (Born David Seltzer, he heard on the boat from Europe that Goldberg is a good name to have in America, and embellished it with an added syllable.) After working for a decade making candies for carnivals and fairs, he opened a store, where he sold a popular chewy walnut and molasses candy, and in 1917, the walnut roll mutated to a peanut confection since peanuts were cheaper. Goldenberg’s Peanut-Chews won government contracts as nutritious, non-melting ration bars for American troops in World War I. When David Goldenberg retired after the Second World War (during which the company won more military contracts), his children Sylvia and Harry bought the very successful Peanut-Chew division of the business. Goldenberg’s Peanut-Chews stayed in the family for two more generations, with Harry’s sons Carl and Ed expanding the varieties of Peanut-Chews to include Chew-Ets, smaller bite-sized versions of the original. In 2003, David Goldenberg’s great grandson, also named David Goldenberg, sold the business to the Just Born Candy Company, which continues making Peanut Chews and Chew-Ets, now minus the Goldenberg name.

Just Born’s founder Sam Born arrived in New York from Russia in 1910. He invented the process for hard chocolate coating of Eskimo Pies, created a machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops, and came up with a chocolate-sprinkle producing machine, whose yield—Jimmies—were named for the employee who operated the apparatus. Born opened a shop in Brooklyn in 1923. His brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, became partners in the business and in 1932, they moved to an empty printing factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Just Born introduced the popular Mike and Ike candies in 1940, whose name was likely inspired by the 1937 song “Mike and Ike,” which in turn was based on a 1920s Rube Goldberg comic strip. In 1953, Just Born acquired Rodda, a jelly bean company which also made a small line of marshmallow sweets, among them an Easter Peep. It took 27 hours to produce the Peep by hand. Sam Born’s son, Bob, invented a machine that reduced that time to six minutes, and today the company is the world’s biggest manufacturer of marshmallow confections. While Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales are kosher, Peeps, made with gelatin to achieve its signature squishy texture, are not. “We see no conflict in offering a non-kosher brand or one that is so associated with Easter. We are a candy company for everyone,” said Ross Born (Bob Born’s son), an observant Jew and co-CEO of the company. The 86-year-old family business “is most definitely influenced by being Jewish,” says Ross Born, who will be inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame this fall. “Like many people, much of our philosophy about operating our business emanates from our background: the importance of family (caring about others, appreciating who they are), the importance of education (how to learn from each other and also from our mistakes), and the importance of values (our statement of philosophy that supports our vision).”

Dubble Bubble ruled the bubble gum market when Abraham, Ira, Philip, and Joseph Shorin developed Bazooka Bubble Gum, recognizing, as World War II ended, that the wartime slogan for their spearmint-flavored Topps Chewing Gum, “Don’t Talk Chum, Chew Topps Gum!” (a variation of “loose lips sink ships”) was about to become obsolete. Topps was established in 1938 by the four Shorins, after their father’s American Leaf Tobacco business (founded in 1890 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn) faltered during the Depression. (Their father, Morris Chigorinsky, changed his name to Shorin after he arrived from Russia in 1888.) Wanting to take advantage of his tobacco distribution channels with a product they could sell to those same outlets, the brothers relaunched the family business with a name—Topps—which echoes a Cole Porter lyric. When sugar was rationed during World War II, Topps bought up small candy companies in order to close them up and use their sugar quotas. Topps thrived even while larger gum brands went out of business. In 1950, Topps changed focus with the introduction of celebrity trading cards, starting with Hopalong Cassidy, but turning to baseball players a year later. Originally developed as a clever means of getting people to buy more gum, the baseball cards quickly turned into a lucrative centerpiece of the business. Serious collectors don’t want the value of the cards compromised by gum residue, and gum is no longer packaged with the trading cards. In the ensuing decades, Topps went from a publicly traded company to a privately held one, expanding all the while, with Ring Pops (the Topps bestseller, introduced in 1977 and certified Kosher just this year), Push Pops, Baby Bottle Pops, Pro Flip Pops, and the just-introduced Wazoo. Arthur Shorin, 74, son of Joseph (on whom Bazooka Joe was modeled), was CEO at Topps from 1980 until 2007, when Michael Eisner’s investment firm, the Tornante Company, took over. Eisner is reportedly planning to make a movie based on Bazooka Joe, whom he regards as an American icon. “Bazooka Joe is my new Mickey Mouse,” the former Disney CEO has said.

The Annabelle Candy story began when founder Sam Altshuler arrived from Russia in 1917, though he arrived via China (with forged identity papers), beginning his new life in Seattle instead of New York. He worked various food-related jobs until he found his way to San Francisco, where, in 1950, he developed his chocolate-and-cashew-covered marshmallow bar, which he called Rocky Road, made in his kitchen, and sold from a pushcart on Market Street. Rocky Road was so successful Altshuler opened a factory, naming the business for his daughter Annabelle. Fifteen years later, the company moved to Hayward, California, and in 1971, when Altshuler died, Annabelle Altshuler Block took over. The following year, the company acquired the Golden Nugget Candy Company, makers of Big Hunk and Look, and six years after that, it also purchased the Cardinet Candy Company, bringing U-No and Abba Zaba candy bars into the Annabelle family. Altshuler’s grandson Gary Gogol ran the company for several years and then in 1995 handed it off to his sister Susan Gamson Karl, a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, who is the company’s current President and CEO. “My mother’s name was actually Hanna Basha on her birth certificate,” Karl said. “But she started calling herself Annabelle because it sounded more American.” Although most of the Annabelle candy bars are kosher, that is “a business decision, not a choice about any personal religious belief or identification,” Karl said, as many consumers consider kosher certification to signify a high standard of quality control.

The first generation Jewish immigrants scrabbled for traction in the land of opportunity. The next generation built on the foundations laid down by those entrepreneurs who parlayed determination and ambition into success and prosperity. Subsequent generations, born with so much opportunity, have the privilege of pursuing entrepreneurial ambition while making the world a better place.

Deborah Schimberg founded Verve, Incorporated, makers of Glee Gum, in 1992. A motivated community organizer who founded a community land trust and a dual-language immersion elementary public school, Schimberg is also the Executive Director of Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island, a consortium of donors devoted to entrepreneurial philanthropy. Verve is a family business “dedicated to linking world communities and creating environmentally and socially responsible products and activities.” Their first product, still in production, is a Make Your Own Chewing Gum kit, was inspired by a visit to an economically depressed chicle-producing village in northern Guatemala. Chicle, the sap extracted from the Sapodilla tree by workers called chicleros, was once used for all chewing gum, but has been replaced by cheaper and more efficient synthetics. Glee Gum, the only American brand made from chicle today, is the natural next step on a path of what Schimberg calls a Jewish social conscience, “Doing well—making money while doing something you love—and also doing good.”

Katharine Weber is the author of several books, including the forthcoming novel, True Confections.

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