LEXINGTON – It’s a candy factory. Not a movie fantasy like Willy Wonka’s, but a special place nonetheless.
The bracing aroma of peppermint pervades the building and clings sweetly to clothes when you leave. Workers in lab coats and hair nets move among gleaming machines, muscling 100-pound masses of candy dough.
Piedmont Candy Company uses essentially the same recipe that Ed Eberlein devised for a cheap sugar candy during the Great Depression. In puffs or sticks, it’s a brittle, airy treat that melts in your mouth.
Barry Brown, human resources manager, explains it’s still a family-owned business – now the Reid family, which bought it from the Eberleins – and still based in Lexington. Much has been mechanized, such as packaging, but it’s still human hands that shape the dough and human eyes that screen for rejects.
On an average day, the factory uses 55,000 pounds of cane sugar to make 4.5 million candies. The product is distributed nationally.
Brown’s office is squarely in the center of the production area. Naturally gregarious, he moves easily among the workers, clad like them, speaking to each in English or Spanish. With a staff of 90, he can know each one. “I value that,” he said.
Keeping good workers is critical to success, Brown explained. Their experience ranges from “hired yesterday to 29 years. The majority have been here several years.” Every worker has to learn on the job because “nobody even remotely close makes the products we make.”
Brown leads a tour, showing how 2,000-pound totes of sugar become cellophane-wrapped mints. The process starts by cooking a mix of granular sugar, plus liquid sugar and some invert sugar – the proportions must vary with temperature and humidity – into an amber viscous fluid. Workers separate it into 100-pound batches and mount it on machines that pull it like taffy. As it stretches, it picks up air and turns white. Midway through the pulling, a worker carefully adds 5 ounces of peppermint oil.
After it’s pulled, a worker removes the dough to a table and shapes it into a fat cylinder, to which stripes of red-tinted dough are hand-applied. Next stop is a machine where rollers stretch the mass into a narrow rope, to be cut at the end into individual puffs or sticks. After an hour in a curing oven, the candies move on to wrapping machines.
There are other flavors, Brown explained, but 90 percent of production is peppermint. Its content is almost pure sugar.
There are two competitors for this kind of candy, Brown said. Both are based in Mexico, where labor is cheaper. “Our advantages are ‘Made in America’ and 100 percent cane sugar.” Competitors use corn sweeteners.
Piedmont sells candies under its own Red Bird brand, as well as under private labels. The brands are “Nice” at Walgreens, “Gold Emblem” at CVS and “Family Gourmet” at Family Dollar. Some customers, such as BB&T, hand out mints under their own label. Some labels simply say “Thank you.”
Shortly after he arrived in 2014, Brown brought in Savers Admin to replace a “cumbersome, time-consuming payroll system.
“Payroll used to take all day on Monday, but now it takes less than two hours. This gives me an opportunity to pull reports, calculate turnover or look up anything I need.”
The system offers “all the bells and whistles of the big national operators, plus personal, local service at a very competitive rate.
“One time I forgot to enter a rate for an employee and as a result he didn’t get paid. I called Savers Admin for help and they said don’t worry, we’ll cut him a check today. I had the check within two hours.
“If an employee needs something – such as the last four pay stubs for a loan application – I can print out the last four or the last 40 in less than two minutes.”
More recently, Brown installed a new thumbprint-reading timekeeping system with Savers Admin’s help. It further reduces errors and clerical cost by connecting directly with payroll.
Just as Piedmont Candy has modernized its machinery, it’s modernized its HR systems, to keep making old-fashioned candy that’s competitive in the 21st Century.