Maybe there's no such thing as bad publicity. Perhaps it's better for people to hate your business than to pay it no attention.

Case in point: Peeps, the highly controversial candy--adored by some, loathed by others. I'm pretty sure there's no middle ground.

With Easter Sunday approaching, we're at peak Peeps season. So here's the story of the company, the reason why so many people hate the ubiquitous candy, and why they're super-successful, anyway.

"I dislike them intensely"

Just Born Quality Confections churns out 2 billion Peeps a year.

That's an unbelievable amount of "sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin" plus "less than 0.5 percent" of other ingredients, as revealed in a recent profile by Dianna McDougall in Adweek.

Time for a disclosure: I am firmly in the anti-Peeps camp, among the many who find the concoction of to be virtually inedible. I am not alone:

OK, maybe that last dig is a little milquetoasty. But you get the gist.

27 hours

Regardless, you do have to salute the acumen and ingenuity that allowed a series of family entrepreneurs to come up with Peeps--and then build their popularity and into a seasonal sugar success.

The history starts with the Rodda Candy Company, which started making Peeps in the 1940s, but more as a decoration to give to loyal customers than a candy.

Seriously, I don't think they originally thought anyone would actually eat them. They gained some popularity, but didn't take off, in part because it took 27 hours to make Peeps by hand.

In 1953, however, Just Born, bought Rodda, and Just Born figured out how to drastically reduce Peeps production time: 27 hours became six minutes.

All of this wouldn't have mattered much, except for the fact that the candies became popular. What can we say, there's no accounting for taste--even if some of the popularity had to do with the fact that regardless of how they taste, Peeps are nearly an indestructible food.

Just Google "peeps in microwave," and you'll get the idea.

Virtuous circle

The whole thing turned into a virtuous circle: Peeps became more popular, and because Just Born had figured out how to make them fast, they were easy to mass produce, and fill that need.

 "Mass production and automation," Matt Pye, Just Born's senior vice-president of sales and marketing, told Adweek. "When the market started to grow, we were able to keep up."

Today, they're part of the cultural fabric of Easter in the United States (well, at least the secular version of the holiday).

When I lived in Washington, D.C., for example, I checked out The Washington Post's annual Peeps diorama contest without fail--even though I'd never eat one of the things.

(Alas, that annual contest ended two years ago, although a rival paper has picked it up.) 

"Our Mickey Mouse"

Just Born does 75 percent of its Peeps sales during Easter. The company says Peeps isn't actually its top seller; it also makes candy like Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales. I don't think I've ever seen either outside of a movie theater concession stand, but here we are.

After more than 50 years, in 2014, Just Born retired the original machine that had enabled Peeps to become so ubiquitous. They're now using a different process that doesn't take up as much room in the factory, and lets them add many more flavors and shapes.

But they're going to keep the original Peeps chick, simply because it's what they're so well known for.

"That's our icon. That's our Mickey Mouse," co-CEO David Shaffer told Candy Industry in 2014.

Published on: Apr 19, 2019
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