The world's most famous candy company doesn't exist: Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory is a figment of Roald Dahl's imagination. But there's one thing America's biggest candy companies share with Wonka's factory: Outside these production plants, dotted across the country, the air smells like chocolate and sugar. In fact, the atmosphere takes on a fog, a sort of magical candy vapor.
And if you happen to work at the New England Candy Company — better known as Necco — you get to eat as much candy as you want, every day. You can't eat it in the manufacturing plant, but you can eat it in your office or the cafeteria or on your way to a meeting down the hall. You can eat as many Mary Janes, Sweethearts, Sky Bars, and Candy Buttons as your belly desires. For 20 years, third-generation candy maker Steve Saveriano was an employee of Necco until he semi-retired this past January. "Now I work two days a week," he says. "But I still eat a piece of candy every day. At least one."
The History of Candy in America
The New England Candy Company is based in Revere, Massachusetts, a town of roughly 51,000 people located about six miles northeast of Boston. Revere has eight places on the National Register of Historic Places, including Revere Beach, the oldest public beach in the country. Less than a mile from that beach is Necco, the oldest continually operating candy company in the U.S.
Ironically, candy-making in America started out as a pharmacist's trade. Until the late 1800s, medicine was prescribed by doctors; pharmacists either mixed the drugs into a liquid cocktail or pressed them into a lozenge for the patient to suck on or eat. These lozenges were made mostly of sugar to mask the bitter taste of the medicine they contained. In 1847, a Boston druggist named Oliver R. Chase invented a small machine that automated the lozenge pressing and cutting process. Not long after, he began minting money by printing candy.
As with other American sweets, Necco’s initial success can be traced back to wars fought abroad.
Chase was one of the founding fathers of Necco. The New England Candy Company was created with the merger of three moderately sized but innovative candy companies all established between 1840 and 1880: Chase and Company, founded by Oliver R. Chase and his brothers Daniel (in Chicago) and Silas Edwin (in South Boston); D.L. Clark of D.L. Clark Company in Pittsburgh; and Charles N. Miller of Boston. In 1901, the three candy outfits incorporated their business under the name Necco Sweets with $1 million in capital.
In Candy: The Sweet History, historian Beth Kimmerle writes that when Chase, Clark, and Miller moved to a Boston manufacturing facility in 1927, they established the largest confectionary business in the U.S. As with other American sweets, Necco's initial success can be traced back to wars fought abroad. Ray Broekel writes in The Great American Candy Bar Book that by 1899, the U.S. government began including candy in soldiers' rations to improve morale, increase caloric intake, and "improve endurance and health." Necco Wafers were shipped to battlefields during the Spanish-American War and during World War I. In 1917, the U.S. government bought one entire year's production of Necco Wafers and packed them into soldiers' ration packs. Why Necco Wafers? Because the product is nearly indestructible: It has a two-year shelf life and it's not subject to heat or cold.
Necco's Sky Bar — the first chocolate candy bar to feature four different fillings — was introduced in the 1930s to honor the newly burgeoning aviation industry. Necco named the Sky Bar in honor of the great American skies, but had to halt candy production during World War II. The end of the war was marked by the re-introduction of the Sky Bar. A Sky Bar advertisement was one of only six signs relit in Times Square in 1945 after three years of darkness, during which the U.S. war effort conserved energy.
Until the 1950s, Beantown was a sweet town; Main Street in Cambridge was known as Confectioner's Row. Some sources say there were as many as 200 separate candy companies in Boston at its peak in the 1930s and '40s. Among the biggest were the James O. Welch Co. (Junior Mints); Schrafft's (mainly chocolates); and Necco.
Three Generations of Candy-Making
By the middle of the 20th century, most of Boston's candy companies had left town. Many merged or folded. Some went to Pennsylvania to take advantage of the better tax rates. Today, Necco is the biggest candy company left in Boston, but candy's deep history in the city can still be traced back generations. "Everybody in my family got into the candy industry by accident," says Necco's Saveriano, noting "the candy industry has a history of giving opportunities to immigrants and helping them out." According to Saveriano, when his grandfather immigrated from Italy, "he didn't speak English. He was discriminated against." Grandfather Saveriano couldn't find work as a cobbler, but Schrafft's was willing to let him work in its plant. He was hired as a nut roaster and worked there for 51 years.
"The candy industry has a history of giving opportunities to immigrants and helping them out."
Saveriano's father was a carpenter by trade. He finished high school during the Great Depression and couldn't find work; construction had all but ceased after the stock market crashed. But candy has always been a low-cost luxury. During the Great Depression, penny candies became the norm, and Schrafft's was one of the companies that supplied penny candy stores with their wares. When Steve Saveriano's father couldn't find work in carpentry, his father found him a job at Schrafft's. He worked there for 45 years. He met his wife there, too, and as the story goes, Steve was the result of a little mischief the elder Saveriano and his new bride got into. "Twenty years later, when I started working there, everyone used to tease me that I was conceived in the hard candy room at coffee break."
Though he studied education, the third Saveriano couldn't find full-time, permanent work doing what he wanted to do: teach high school students. "Schrafft's offered me a job as a planner. I took it as a very young man. That's how I got into the candy industry, and I've been in it for over 30 years."
Schrafft's — the candy, chocolate, and cake company based in Charlestown, Massachusetts where the Saveriano family got their start — was founded in 1861. It was dissolved when PET Milk purchased Schrafft's in 1967. Around when that transition took place, Saveriano decided to go to Boston's biggest candy maker, Necco.
Nostalgia, All Wrapped Up
Mitch Cohen is the third-generation owner of Economy Candy, a 2,000-square-foot candy emporium in New York City's Lower East Side, where every square inch is covered in something sweet. Delilah Firpi has been a manager at Economy Candy for eight years and says Necco Wafers (and other candies Necco produces, like Mary Janes and Haviland Thin Mints) are still a popular item at the store, even with all of the M&Ms, Jelly Bellys, and endless caramels the shop offers. "It's not just the older generation that goes for Necco's candy," she says. "It's that you get used to what your parents had in their pockets or brought to the dinner table. The Necco Wafers get super popular around Christmas because they make the best shingle for gingerbread houses. I bring those home for my kids every year. Right now, going into Halloween, we're selling a lot of the Mary Janes."
America's candy history is full of mergers and acquisitions, and it can be argued that Necco's enduring success lies in its ability to notice trends in the marketplace and acquire businesses that were producing something with a unique history and taste. Over the past century, Necco has purchased the Stark Candy Company (the makers of Sweethearts Conversation Hearts); the Candy House Button Company (makers of Candy Buttons); Borden Candy Products (which it renamed Haviland Candy; it's known for its peppermint wafers); and Glen Candy Company, known for its peanut butter kiss and salt water taffy.
Necco most recently purchased Clark Bar America, the makers of the chocolate-covered peanut butter crunch known as the Clark Bar. Necco remains a force thanks to the nostalgia wrapped up in these candies. As Kimmerle notes in Candy, a crucial element to a successful nostalgia trip often lies in a consistency of taste. Reached by phone, Kimmerle says that what makes Necco notable "is that they are trying [today] to bring these historic brands up to date." In 2009, Necco tried to change the formula of the Necco Wafer, taking out artificial colors and replacing them with all-natural colorings, but "it was a disaster on the level of Coke changing their recipe. They heard about it from their customers right away." Necco lost no time in changing that formula right back.
Firpi of Economy Candy notes that Necco is "one of the few companies that produces candy that still tastes pretty much the way you remember it." She notes that as we get older, the way we taste and our taste memory changes — "but there's something about Mary Janes that tastes the same forever."
Back outside of Boston, Steve Saveriano's daughter Jessica Polizzotti says she remembers her father coming home for dinner every night smelling like sugar. "He'd empty his pockets after dinner and there would be wafers and mints and crunches and chews... the irony is that I never had a sweet tooth. We always had candy lying around, and there were never any restrictions about it." In high school, Polizzotti started selling candy herself, but eventually left the candy business to work in education. She has two children, five-year-old Marcus and three-year-old Vivian. "Oh, they love candy," Polizzotti says with a knowing smile, "and to them, my dad is the candy man."