Can Original Gourmet Foods’ Richard Alimenti do for the lollipop category what actor Telly Savalas did for the Kojak television series?

For those that don’t recall, Savalas played the role of a tough, but lovable lollipop-sucking, Greek-American detective in New York City. Moreover, according to a 1999 issue of TV Guide, Theo Kojak ranked 18th on its 50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time list.

Granted, Savalas’ lollipop shtick wasn’t the only endearing factor that captivated television viewers. His portrayal of Theo Kojak, as well as entertaining plot lines, had something to do with drawing audiences.

But then, Alimenti’s 31-gram, gourmet lollipops are also capturing the eyes and mouths of consumers and drawing the attention of retailers. Since 2006, the company has doubled in size every year, expanding its reach across the United States and most recently globally.

By capitalizing on the growing premiumization and added value trends, OGF has taken the ubiquitous lollipop and transformed it to a special yet affordable treat. But then, who can resist the perfectly smooth round lollipops that come in a broad range of flavors such as wild cherry, cotton candy, blue raspberry, pina colada, banana split, peaches and cream and mocha latte? What’s more, they last for an hour and deliver an unprecedented gourmet experience for a great value (prices range from $.50 to $.79).

“So who loves them, baby?” to paraphrase Kojak. Well, let’s start with consumers. Women and children comprise the biggest demographic. Then there’s the retailers, who appreciate a manufacturer who provides them with patented merchandising displays that facilitate impulse buys both at the checkout counter as well as every possible space imaginable.

And finally, there’s Alimenti and the OGF management team, who are dedicated to making the company the “largest lollipop company in the world.”

“Our goal is, clearly, to be the leader in lollipops by setting the pace through marketing programs, seasonal products and on-time deliveries,” says the founder and ceo of OGF. “It’s my life’s work.”

And like Kojak, Alimenti’s a pretty tenacious candy man. Just consider the path taken to “overnight success.” It all began with the establishment of NATCO Sales & Marketing in 1998, a broker rep company that specialized in gourmet specialty items such as soft-baked, double-chocolate chip cookies, fudge, chocolate-covered pretzels and fudge brownies typically packaged in tins.

As Alimenti says, “We were selling a lot of different products to lots of different companies

“When you’re a broker, you simply get a commission off the sales; everything else involving the contract manufacturers and packaging suppliers is left to the retailers,” he explains.

Realizing that the broad range of products had, indeed, complicated the process, the entrepreneur formed the Original Gourmet Food Co. in 2002.

At first, lollipops only represented a small portion of the newly formed company’s product line. In fact, the lollipops were actually hand-formed using moulds. That all changed, however, when in 2006 the company landed a large account from a major retailer, says Al Mosto, v.p. of operations.

Not only did retailer like the lollipops, but the buyer was particularly attracted to the unique, as well as patented, magnetic display, he says.

Alimenti chuckles when he recalls those early days, as well as the evolution of the magnetic display.

“Retailers loved our lollipops, but they saw room for improvement in our merchandising displays,” he says. “So I started working with our attorney on designing and patenting a new display. It’s actually the only magnetic display whereby each piece is moulded. What’s more, it’s a great way to display lollipops.”

It certainly opened the doors for OGF, which today has a broad range of merchandising displays, everything from small and large magnetic poles to counter and floor displays, acrylic bubble bins and baskets.

“Safeway is currently rolling out our new display that was customized for them for all their front end registers in all their stores,” Alimenti says. “We’re also doing a three-basket special display for Dollar General, which has 12,000 stores.”

Obviously, merchandising is one of the linchpins to OGF’s success.

But back to 2006, when the first large order came in for more lollipops, Larry Johns, the company’s production manager at its Medina, Ohio facility, simply added people to keep up with demand.

As Mosto explains, the hand-deposited operation grew from one shift to a second shift and then to a 24/7 production timetable. The company also added 5,000 sq. ft. to the production facility, increasing its size from 9,600 to nearly 15,000 sq. ft.

It quickly became clear, however, that the gourmet lollipop craze had taken hold and that hand-depositing would not be able to meet demand. That’s when Alimenti charged Mosto and Johns with finding an automated production system for the gourmet lollipops.

In 2010, the company opted once again to expand the plant by 12,000 sq. ft. to accommodate a high-speed cooking and gravity-deposited production line. The new technology featured a continuous batch cooking system that automatically blended and cooked corn syrup, water and sugar. The two-stage cooker featured a pre-cooker that would heat up the lollipop slurry from 25°-30° C to 125° C within four minutes, continuously feeding into the cooker that raises the temperature to 144° C within a minute.

Upon finishing the cooking process, the lollipop slurry is pumped toward a color/flavor addition station situated about the automated gravity-depositing line. A series of holding tanks allows rapid changeovers, virtually “on the fly” Johns says, to keep the 1,000-lollipop-per-minute depositor running when changing colors and flavors.

The flavored lollipop slurry is simultaneously deposited onto moulds, each containing 30 half rounds. Upon deposit, the two moulds come together, creating a perfect airless, colorful ball. Specially designed nozzles allow the creation of various designs.

Once the moulds have come together, they continue their journey to the sticking unit, which places plastic sticks into the moulds. After a brief cooling period, the moulds come undone and the lollipops drop onto a conveyor that feeds two high-speed wrapping units, each capable of handling 500 lollipops per minute.

And although it took a while for both managers and employees to work out the kinks of the new technology, about three months, production tripled.

Success breeds success and so, within a year, thanks to ongoing growth and demand, a second line was installed. In 2012, OGF committed to adding another 18,000 sq. ft. and the addition of a third line. Last year, the company expanded the facility once again, adding more than 16,000 sq. ft. and bringing total square footage to 60,000. Thanks to a multimillion-dollar investment in equipment and infrastructure, the company today produces more than 100 million lollipops annually.

The latest production line also features the capability of producing not only 31-gram lollipops, but the company’s newest addition, mini-pops, which are 10.5 grams and are available in various size packages, from single-serve to 100-count gusseted bags for the warehouse club channel.

The smaller lollipop cousins will make their debut this September in select Target “See, Spot, Save” sections. The sphere pops feature the candy in clear film wrappers, just like consumers are used to seeing at the checkout and are displayed in windowed bags for quick and easy recognition.

“The 31-gram lollipops are a favorite for adults and children,” explains Alimenti. “The new minipops are designed as a party favorite. We expect this new line to be a huge success. And we don’t foresee them taking away sales from the large pops.”

The company also has a few more rollouts scheduled, all capable of being made on the same high-speed production lines. First, Lollidrops, a stickless version of the lollipops, are in the works. They will be individually wrapped and packed in bags.

Second, the company has also launched a new line of all-natural lollipops, Sweetly Naturals, featuring natural colors and flavors. It has had great success with the Sprouts chain of stores and has just received listings at Whole Foods.

Again, it’s a case of giving consumers another “better-for-you” option explains Toni Worobel, sales and marketing manager. She also points out that the better-for-you category is growing very fast.

To provide support for these and as well as existing products lines, the company is gearing up a new marketing campaign entitled, “Choose to Smile.”

“It’s all about giving the lollipop more personality,” she adds. Given that the company’s mission is “To inspire smiles in our consumers by sparking memories through our offering of quality, innovative gourmet products,” the tag line makes sense.

Moreover, the “Choose to Smile” campaign is the company’s way of conveying the mutual satisfaction that is achieved, from supporting American jobs and enjoying vibrant, long lasting gourmet flavors at an affordable price.

It will encompass online marketing, social media, trade magazines, displays and even beauty pageants, says Worobel.

Beauty pageants? Yes. In fact, the company has a pageant director on staff. Why? Alimenti explains.

“Did you know that there are more than 100,000 pageants held in the United States?” he asks. “We will be working with them. Every pageant has from 30 to 200 contestants. And each contestant receives a gift bag, which will include our lollipops. These are the future brides, moms and businesswomen of America, and we want to be recognized by them as a quality brand to pass on to their families.”

In short, Alimenti describes the upcoming marketing campaign as “Unbelievable.” But he deferred on giving additional details. He did not, however, hesitate in talking about the company’s growth globally.

Unbelievable is also a good descriptor for that.

“Our international sales are incredible,” the ceo says. “We have good results in the United States, but it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in Europe and around the world.”

Alimenti provided some examples, such as France.

“There are five major retailers in France,” he explains. “Everyone is either testing or will be testing our products within the next six weeks. Several retailers are excited about their success.”

The company also just inked a deal with KARO, one of Russia’s leading cinema chains, to have their products sold in KARO Vegas 22, Russia’s largest and most sophisticated movie theater, which holds 4,477 seats.

“Our products are flying in Italy and we’re doing very well in Sweden, Denmark and Finland,” he adds. “And we’ve just begun testing with AEON, the fifth largest food retailer in the world, with sensational results.”

Does that mean OGF faces another capacity challenge?

“We’re in good shape in the United States,” Alimenti responds. “I see us adding more capacity to our plant in Istanbul within 18 months and adding a new manufacturing facility in Asia within two years. In short, I’m prepared to invest unlimited sums.”

That kind of commitment also extends to the company’s product line and to its customer base, he adds.

“We’re committed to the highest quality lollipops on the face of this earth, regardless of the cost of raw materials,” Alimenti asserts. “We want to sell the best lollipop, but at a fair price. We don’t want to be overpriced.

“It’s all about selling more products, having our customers sell more products,” he continues. “We’re developing merchandising solutions for our customers so that they can do bigger and better sales.”

 Is there any doubt who loves the category?