Tom Ward respectfully disagrees with Forrest Gump’s mother, who offered up the famous advice: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
“The way we look at it,” says the co-president of Russell Stover Candies, “you know exactly what you’re going to get from one of our boxes of chocolates. What you’re gonna get is simply the world’s best candy.”
In fact, the candy company was a star long before a box of its chocolates was featured in the 1994 Academy Award-winning movie Forrest Gump.
The company owes much of its success to Russell and Clara Stover, who first stirred up a tasty batch of candy in their tiny Denver kitchen in 1923, marketing it as Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies. In 1932, the Stovers relocated their company to Kansas City, Mo., where it remains headquartered today.
Company namesake Russell Stover, a native of Alton, Kan., and lifelong Cornhusker after graduating from the University of Nebraska, worked at the family business until he died in 1954. Clara continued to run the company until 1960 when she sold it to good friend Louis Ward, whose company made the boxes for the Stovers’ chocolaty creations. Clara died in 1975, and now Louis Ward’s sons, Tom and Scott, are co-presidents.
Today, Russell Stover and corporate partners Whitman’s and Pangburn’s have become North America’s largest manufacturer of boxed chocolates and the third largest chocolate manufacturer in the United States. Each year employees produce nearly 100 million pounds of candy in four company kitchens, located in Abilene and Iola, Kan., Montrose, Colo., and Corsicana, Texas. More than 70,000 stores worldwide carry the American-made candies, including 50 company-owned outlets in North America.
Yet despite the company’s size, Tom Ward says little has changed in the way candy is made since Clara Stover created her original recipes some 80 years ago. He learned early on that it’s hard to improve on Mrs. Stover’s way of doing things.
“When I first came to Russell Stover, there were all of these turkey roasting pans in the kitchens that were used to cool our cream candies,” Ward recalls. “I was determined there was a better, more efficient way to cool these candies.”
As it turned out, Clara knew that accelerating the cooling process of cream candies diminished their quality. Turkey roasting pans accomplish that process as well as any product on the market, and still are used today in Russell Stover kitchens. “She really was the brains and the talent behind the business,” says Ward, 48, who played in Clara’s kitchen as a child.
The Stovers’ passion for making great candy was equaled only by the way they treated their employees, says Doris Landstrom, 81, who retired last November after 58 years with the company. “They knew if their employees were happy and well taken care of that it would reflect in the experience their customers received when they came in the store,” says Landstrom, who worked at a Russell Stover store in Omaha, Neb.
In the early 1940s, Landstrom took a part-time job at a company store, hoping to earn enough money to take a trip. “It’s been such a great place to work, I never took that trip,” she says. Landstrom recalls that she always personally greeted each customer and did things “exactly as Clara taught me to do.”
Ward shares Landstrom’s sentiment and says the processes and principles established by the company’s matriarch have stood the test of time. “Mrs. Stover really reinforced this quality thing,” he says, “and there’s no reason to fiddle with it now.”