At the 75th Anniversary celebration of Candy Industry’s Kettle Awards, Robert Nelson, chairman and CEO of Elmer Chocolate, received the gleaming copper kettle.

Nominees Judy Hilliard McCarthy, former owner of Hilliards Chocolates in North Easton, Mass.; and Mark Schlott, executive VP/chief operating officer, R.M. Palmer Company in West Reading, Pa., were also recognized at the event, which was held Tuesday at the Union League Club in Chicago.

Nearly 250 people attended the reception, which was held for the first time since 2019 due to pandemic-related cancellations. It took place after the conclusion of the first day of the Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place. Special buses provided transportation for Expo visitors to the Union League Club.

Founded in 1855, Elmer Chocolate is one of the oldest candy companies in America. In 1963, Roy Nelson, a Chicago native who married a New Orleans woman, purchased the company from the Elmer family. Two years later, he recruited his son, Allan, a physicist with McDonnell-Douglas, to help run the business. In 1970, faced with aging facilities and a space shortage in downtown New Orleans, the Nelsons moved the company to 20 acres in Ponchatoula, about 45 miles from New Orleans. Rob Nelson, Allan's son, began working at Elmer in the early 1980s as a teenager, doing everything from making candy to boxing it and delivering it to retailers.

When the time came to choose a career, however, Nelson wasn't sweet on the candy business. After earning a degree in business from Tulane University, Nelson enrolled in law school at Louisiana State University and planned to practice law for a living. Not long after law school, his father (now deceased) asked him to help run the company, which was then undergoing a period of rapid growth. Nelson, who had participated in a number of the company's sales and marketing initiatives throughout college and law school, joined the company as marketing director and general counsel. He was later named vice president and COO in 1995, and president and CEO in 2005.

Throughout its history, Elmer, like most regional general line candy companies, manufactured an eclectic range of treats, everything from hard candy to Chee Weez, a crunchy cheese curl, but changes in the retail environment forced the company to re-examine its business plan. "In order to remain a viable company, we had to be one of the best at something," Nelson says.

That something is Valentine's Day candy, specifically heart-shaped box chocolates. Elmer vertically integrated its facility, enabling it to design and manufacture its own packaging as well as warehouse its products. Elmer grew from a small, regional company to a leader in seasonal candy throughout North America, selling to all major retailers in the discount, drug, food and club classes of trade. Elmer recently expanded for the fifth time in the past 25 years, making its 385,000 sq. ft. plant one of the most efficient box chocolate facilities in the world.

“To Foster and Celebrate Life’s Opportunities” is a higher purpose Rob Nelson and Elmer Chocolate have served for many years, and Nelson is intentional about using his platform as a business leader to make a difference in his community, in part, by offering apprenticeship opportunities and sustainable, higher paying jobs.

Nelson’s love for the candy industry extends beyond his own company. He helped establish the Confectionery Foundation in 2011 and served as chairman from 2018 to 2020. Nelson has served on the NCA Board and Executive Board twice (as early as 1996), as well as the current NCA Board of Trustees. He is a regular contributor to the NCA PAC, was a Kettle Award nominee in 2015 and was inducted into the NCSA Candy Hall of Fame in 2017.

He and his wife, Virginia, live in New Orleans and have four children, Regan, Sydney, Melita and Ran.