In familiar orange-and-yellow wrappers, hundreds whizzing by the minute down a conveyor belt cloaked in a syrupy-sweet aroma, they made a bit o’ candy history on Wednesday.
For the first time since its debut in 1924 — when Calvin Coolidge was sitting silently in the White House and “Rhapsody in Blue” first set toes tapping — Bit-O-Honey is being produced in Minnesota, at the Pearson Candy Co. plant in St. Paul.
The hope is that the candy with a long history will help ensure a strong future for Pearson, which has weathered much change over 105 years in a city that in recent decades has lost other hallmark businesses, such as Ford, Hamm’s and Whirlpool.
The addition of the Bit-O-Honey line brings 40 new jobs.
“The company, much like the city, started with a few ambitious minds, and they have thrived, excelled and pushed new boundaries,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, among those on hand at the candy line’s launching. “I’m proud that Pearson’s continues to call St. Paul home.”
Pearson bought Bit-O-Honey, a chewy, honey-flavored taffy embedded with bits of almond, from confectionary giant Nestlé last May. What had been a minor brand for Nestlé now becomes a focal point for Pearson’s plans to strengthen its national presence, said Michael Keller, Pearson’s president and CEO. Its Salted Nut Roll and Mint Patties are distributed nationally, while its Nut Goodie and Bun Bars are regional brands.
When Brynwood Partners, the Connecticut-based private equity company that has owned Pearson since 2011, got wind that Nestlé was looking to divest Bit-O-Honey, Keller said, the firm moved quickly to make its first significant expansion at Pearson. The brand fits well with the type of long-established candy brands that Pearson makes.
“You can call them ‘nostalgic,’ or you could call them ‘classic,’ ” Keller said, noting that the Nut Goodie debuted in 1912 and the first Salted Nut Roll appeared in 1933. “But I think what you’re really talking about is iconic, the kinds of brands that families have grown up around.”
While Bit-O-Honey is Pearson’s largest recent expansion and affirms the company’s commitment to staying in St. Paul, it likely won’t be the last, Keller added. But first the company will focus on getting Bit-O-Honey rolling.
Moving manufacturing operations from Bloomington, Ill., was an undertaking, as was finding room in the plant on W. 7th Street for all the new equipment, assembly lines and utilities. New employees, selected after a job fair last fall that drew more than 1,000 applicants, had to be trained.
The St. Paul Port Authority, a development agency that operates independent of the city, and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) also played roles. A DEED loan of $200,000 won’t have to be paid back if Pearson is still holding on to the 40 new jobs in two years.
Jeff and Steve Pearson, siblings whose grandfather and uncles started the company in 1909, have seen the company change hands several times since the family sold the business in 1969.
“We were always concerned that the new owners were going to move the plant and change the name,” Steve Pearson said. “That was something none of us wanted, obviously, but of course there was nothing we could do about it.
“The fact that they’re staying in St. Paul and keeping the Pearson name has made us very happy and very proud.”
Elsie Syverson, 92, a Bit-O-Honey superfan who has been indulging in the sweet for nine decades, cut the ribbon to inaugurate the new line.
“I’ve been eating it for, it seems like forever. I just like the flavor — and they’re easy to share. I always keep some in my purse,” she said, adding with a twinkle: “I haven’t pulled out any fillings yet!”