With the push of a button, John Dittbrenner adds sugar, corn syrup and gelatin to a 250-gallon stainless steel kettle at the Just Born Inc. candy factory in Bethlehem, Pa. (pop. 71,329). After bringing the ingredients to a boil, Dittbrenner pours vanilla flavoring into the sugary blend that’s destined to become the company’s trademark confection, Marshmallow Peeps.
Once the batch cools, it’s machine-whipped to a fluffy froth and squeezed through tubes onto a large sugarcoated conveyor belt, forming legions of plump, white marshmallow chicks with curlicues for beaks and tails. The newborn Peeps then ride through a wind tunnel that coats the sticky chicks with a sparkling veneer of pink, lavender, blue, white or yellow sugar before they are packaged and shipped to stores around the nation and world.
The cute fluffy critters have become essential items in Easter baskets for more than half a century. "It makes me feel good that so many people like them," says Dittbrenner, 70, a Just Born employee for 48 years.
Each year, Dittbrenner and five other Just Born cooks produce enough marshmallow to create 1.2 billion Peeps shaped like Easter chicks, bunnies and eggs; Halloween pumpkins, bats and ghosts; Valentine hearts, Christmas trees and snowmen. "That’s a lot of marshmallow," Dittbrenner says.
Peeps’ familiar, innocent expressions are what give them such broad appeal, says company spokesman Matthew Petronio. The simple, cute, lovable Peeps transcend language and culture, allowing them to be interpreted in a very personal way. "It’s the magic of Peeps," Petronio adds.
When Peeps are in production, armies of the puffy, sweet-smelling candies ride assembly lines day and night at the 500,000-square-foot plant, home to Just Born since 1932. That’s when Sam Born, who founded the company in 1923, moved his operation from Brooklyn, N.Y. By then his brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, had joined the family business.
Early on, Born touted his product’s freshness with the slogan "just born."
Before 1953, the Rodda Candy Co. of Lancaster, Pa., made its own version of winged Peeps chicks by hand-squeezing marshmallow through a pastry tube. They even painted the eyes on by hand. After cousins Bob Born and Jack Shaffer, sons of Sam Born and Jack Shaffer Sr., acquired Rodda, the process was automated and the chicks’ wings were eliminated, streamlining the production process and the chicks’ contours.
Today, Sam Born’s grandson, Ross, runs the 600-employee company with his cousin, David Shaffer. In 2002, they hired Samuel L. Torrence as president and chief operating officer, the company’s first non-family top executive.
"The Born legacy is a legacy of invention," Torrence says, noting that Sam Born’s inventions included chocolate sprinkles and a machine that inserted sticks into lollipops.
Not all innovation comes from the top, however. A few years ago, employee Melody Klotz suggested a way to keep marshmallow residue from clogging the company’s new candy-packing machine. The solution: putting cheesecloth over the machine’s vacuum tubes.
Thanks to Klotz, marshmallow goo no longer interrupts the candy-packing process, and now she operates the machine that picks up the Peeps and plops them inside shallow boxes bound for stores around the world.
Visit www.justborn.com for more information.