Been awhile since you had a piece of rock candy? Perhaps you saw it at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant, that food service haven of all things nostalgic? Or was it at the Party City store, stocking up on favors for your child’s birthday?

And yes, America, people still purchase and consume rock candy, a treat once reserved only for the very rich and considered to have therapeutic qualities.

One might even say that rock candy qualifies for consideration as the “mother of all candies,” its origins dating back to Persia and India. It certainly represents candy in its simplest and purest form, essentially a recrystallization of pure cane sugar.

Ironically, for something that’s so simple and pure, producing it isn’t. The process is actually very labor-intensive and time-consuming.Moreover, in the United States, there are only a few major manufacturers of rock candy; and one of them is Canajoharie, N.Y.-based Richards Brands, which also manufactures soft mints, reception sticks and panned products.  The company also markets Beechies, a gum, and owns, manufactures and markets GravyMaster, a seasoning sauce.

Jim Tucciarone, the company’s coo/cfo, acknowledges that rock candy isn’t exactly the sexiest segment within the confectionery industry. At the same time, the “old favorite” represents a $7-million niche for the company.

Aside from being sold in the aforementioned Cracker Barrel and Party City outlets, rock candy can be found in various foodservice and hospitality venues, often doubling as barista and swizzle sticks. It even doubles as bling in Tiffany-like settings.

“You’ll find our rock candy sticks in jewelry stores in display cabinets,” Tucciarone says. “They are colorful and they sparkle, so it’s a great decoration for the jewelry on display.”

But rock candy, albeit the company’s oldest brand (Dryden & Palmer rock candy was introduced in 1880), represents only one nostalgic jewel in the company’s portfolio of brands. The classic Richardson Mints debuted in 1893, Beechies gum was introduced in 1936, and Bogdon's reception sticks appeared in 1945. In addition, GravyMaster, a seasoning sauce that’s a byproduct of rock candy production, hit the shelves in 1935.

As one might expect, it’s not easy carving out a niche for products that are more nostalgic than nouveau in today’s highly competitive marketplace. Nonetheless, Tucciarone and his management team are doing it, preserving a way of life in the community while delivering high-quality specialty confections to loyal and new customers alike.

Having been acquired by Founders Equity, a private equity firm, on May 11, 2006, the company’s new ownership faced its first crisis shortly thereafter when the Mohawk River spilled over its banks on June 28. The 100-year flood engulfed the entire town in several feet of water, including the 180,000-sq.-ft.  Richardson Brands manufacturing facility.

The flood’s aftermath slowed the equity investors’ plan for growth, although the company did acquire Bogdon Candy Co. on August 14, 2009. Frustrated at the lack of progress made toward profitability, Founders Equity brought Arnie D’Angelo out of retirement in late 2011 to bring about change.

D’Angelo had founded and owned International Marketing Systems of Connecticut, a marketer and distributor of branded food products including coffee creamers, chocolate drinks, imported Belgian chocolates, co-branded Arizona Iced Tea and Land O’ Lakes products.

His experience in marketing a broad range of branded and private-label food products including Bigelow Tea, where he was the “father” of the ubiquitous tea-chest offered in restaurant, hospitality and foodservice locations, was seen as an ideal fit to stimulate growth for Richardson.

Recognizing the need for an operations person while he focused on sales and marketing, D’Angelo brought in Tucciarone as his chief financial officer and de facto chief operating officer. Together, the two zeroed in on the need for organizational changes and established a new management team, which consists of Heather Primeau, director of quality control; John Almaviva, senior v.p. of operations; Tracey Burton, v.p. of financial operations; and Pedro Irizarry, director of production.

“We saw a significant need, but at the same time a lot of promise,” Tucciarone explains. “There were organizational and financial circumstances that needed improvement. The company was struggling.”

Given that the company had to deal with U.S. sugar prices being nearly double global prices, purchasing this critical ingredient compounded the situation. It contributed to cash flow issues, which prevented strategic re-investments.

“It wasn’t long before we corrected the cash flow issue, thanks to a loan from Webster Bank,” he says. And thanks to the managers on staff, other issues were resolved as well.

Primeau, charged with overseeing R&D, quality control, sanitation and food safety, recalls the challenge posed to her.

“They were having trouble passing third-party audits,” she says. “I found myself essentially building a quality assurance and food safety program from the ground up.”

The 20-year food industry veteran immediately focused on sanitation. As Primeau explains, “A good quality foundation begins and ends with sanitation.”

She simultaneously started with teaching workers how to conduct “self-audits.” Encompassing everything from record-keeping, documentation, safety, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), the condition of the physical plant and housekeeping, the self-audits had the effect of making everyone responsible for the area in which they worked and taking ownership.

“It had never been done before,” Primeau says, “but the effect was immediate.” Within a year, the plant was acing third-party audits, such as inspections from the American Institute of Baking and Silliker's. She’s also beefed up the quality assurance, food safety and sanitation departments, bringing total personnel to 30.

The company has already applied for Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification — a global food safety management system — and expects its initial audit this December. Primeau hopes to pass the rigorous review by March 2017.

Getting SQF certification “isn’t hard in concept, but there’s a significant amount of documentation and due diligence required, and even more hours to achieve,” she adds.

It’s all about “continuous improvement,” Primeau explains, “building on our core business. It’s all about improving what we know and what we do well.”

To emphasize that in a very clear way, the head of quality control is personally involved in heading up continuous education courses on food quality and food safety for employees.

“It’s mostly web-based courses, but there’s plenty of hands-on instruction as well,” she says. “We are showing them real-life examples of how it pertains to improved quality and safety.”

The lead-by-example approach extends to production as well. Enter John Almaviva, senior v.p. of operations. Here, too, it was a matter of adding structure.

“I was charged with setting up a costing system and improving overall plant efficiencies,” he explains. “It was applying cost-accounting practices and applying it to our operation. And while this may have been straightforward to most experienced operations professionals, Richardson Brands wasn’t any ordinary confectionery plant.”

As Almaviva goes on to explain, his experience was in the cosmetics industry. And while every production concern entails an ingredients-in, products-out process, working within the confines of a five-story, 108-year-old structure requires some added flexibility.

For example, the to-do list included needed repairs resulting from the 2006 flood, energy-saving improvements and every facility’s never-ending concern, a new roof. Add to that the five totally different production lines in operation — rock candy, gourmet mints, soft butter and pastel mints, reception sticks and GravyMaster seasoning — and Almaviva recognized that in addition to introducing structure and organization, there would be a learning curve.

He, with the help of Pedro Irizarry, director of production/maintenance, slowly introduced the operational framework that was “long overdue.” Employees were exposed to the importance of not only food safety and improved efficiencies, but to documentation as well.

It didn’t take long for the plant to see results.

“Our operating efficiency went from 60 percent to 94 percent,” Almaviva says. The increased efficiency numbers dovetailed with investments into new packaging equipment, as well as spurring the relaunch of Bogdon’s reception sticks, hard candy sticks enrobed in chocolate. That rebranding effort has ignited a 10 percent increase in sales of the elegant, premium confections.

The uptick in overall efficiency has enabled Richardson Brands to pursue private-label and contract manufacturing opportunities, which showcase the potential Tucciarone saw when he joined the company.

Recently, the company has contracted with a major club store chain to produce chocolate-covered strawberry-flavored centers. The panned product rivals offerings from the majors, says Primeau, who developed the product.

“We have plenty of panning capacity and have the skilled workforce to produce just about anything,” she adds. In fact, the company hosted the PMCA’s panning short course in early November (1 – 4). The move stemmed from Primeau wanting to sign up for a short course.

“When they told me that there wasn’t any course being offered because there was no one available to host it, we jumped at the opportunity,” she explains.

That probably best sums up Richardson Brands currently; the company is ready to jump at opportunities, be they retail or foodservice.

“We have a management team that’s really stepped up; they’ve taken Richardson Brands to a new level.” One that’s well above the banks of the Mohawk River.


The ‘mother of all candies’

It is, by all accounts, one of the simplest and purest forms of candy, a recrystallization of sugar. It is not, however, easy to produce rock candy. Rather, the process takes five days and involves plenty of manual labor and several days of seeding, incubation, dying, cooling and finally “fingering” before the confections are ready for packing.

The process begins with seeding. Using 4- , 5- and 6-in. wooden sticks with ball tops, workers will place these manually in stainless steel racks holding between 448 and 672 slots. Once the rack is filled, the sticks are dipped in a “secret sauce,” a supersaturated solution of glucose syrup.

It is here that the seeding takes place. The racks are rolled into an incubation room that’s kept at 90° - 100° F, which allows the seed to grow. After 24 hours, the racks are moved to another climate-controlled room and dipped into a sugar solution, the seeds extracting the sugar molecules from the solution.

It’s here that the temperature and viscosity of the solution control the growth of the sugar crystals, and hence, the size of the rock candy, explains Pedro Irizarry, director of production. After 24 hours, the racks containing the formed rock candy are taken into the dying room. Racks are individually lifted and submerged into a tub of dye, then placed on a holding rack to dry. Drying typically takes another 24 hours.

Prior to packaging, the rock candies are manually “fingered” to remove any crystals not firmly attached. They are then cooled for 24 hours and manually packed into bags or bulk boxes.

It takes about 10,000 lbs. of cane sugar to produce 2,000 lbs. of rock candy. Fortunately, in 1935, Dryden & Palmer discovered a way to use the byproduct of rock candy production and combine it with herbs and spices to produce GravyMaster, a seasoning sauce used in gravies and in marinating meats.

Today, rock candy is sold in a variety of ways, as traditional treats and as barista and swizzle sticks for foodservice operations.


At-a-Glance: Richardson Brands Co.

Headquarters: Canajoharie, N.Y.

Plant: 180,000 sq. ft.

Employees: 170

Products: Rock candy, soft mints, panned mints, reception sticks, panned candies, gum, cooking and seasoning sauce.

Brands: Richardson, Dryden & Palmer, Beechies, Bogdon’s, GravyMaster

Output: 12 million lbs. annually

Sales: $22 million

Management team: James Tucciarone, cfo/coo; John Almaviva, senior v.p. of operations; Tracey Burton, v.p. of financial operations; Heather Primeau, director of quality control; and Pedro Irizarry, director of production.