Spangler Candy Co. is Sweet on Making Candy Safely

Features - Cover Story

Spangler Candy Co. has all the pieces in place for sweet success. By focusing on its history, community and employees, the company continues to grow without losing its sense of purpose — the pure joy of making candy.

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April 4, 2022

You smell Spangler Candy Co. before you see it.

The sweet scent hangs in the air like the anticipation of unraveling one of the 12 million Dum-Dum lollipops made inside the sprawling Northwest Ohio facility each day. The aroma, the result of cooking a mixture of sugar and corn syrup, is one of the few indications you’re about to enter a world where pure joy is made. Inside its mostly beige exterior, the company makes Dum-Dums, candy canes, marshmallow Circus Peanuts and more.

The factory is a lollipop lick (about five blocks) away from downtown Bryan, Ohio, a Main Street America-style Midwest town about 60 miles west of Toledo. Spangler, which opened here in 1906 and is currently the second largest employer in the city, has always felt like part of the community. Its mascot, the Dum-Dums Drum Man, is a regular at community events, and the town is known as the Dum-Dums Capital of the World.

Prior to the pandemic, Spangler was as much a destination as it was a production facility. Connected to the factory, a colorful gift shop and museum told the company’s history and gave everyone who entered permission to literally act like a kid in a candy store. Spangler also offered tours through the facility aboard a couple wood-paneled trolleys.

Spangler Candy Co. makes 12 million Dum-Dums every day.
© Two hearts collective

Although the tours made Spangler a popular tourist and field trip spot, Steve Kerr, vice president of food safety compliance and contract manufacturing, admits that they made his team’s job a bit more challenging.

“You put a fence up around your facility, you do all this stuff about food defense and making sure everything is OK, and then you allow anybody and their brother to come in on the tour and travel around,” he said with a laugh. “But our employees loved the tours when they came around.”

Kerr and his team made up for the added risk by working even harder to make sure they were on top of their game. There were also controls put in place on the tours. For example, riders had to wear hairnets and weren’t allowed to disembark in factory areas, and the trolleys were equipped with window guards. But with the onset of the pandemic and coupled with an increased focus and awareness on food safety from consumers, Spangler stopped the tours.

In their place, the company is gearing up to unwrap something even sweeter. Some time in 2023, Spangler will open the doors to a new visitor experience center right in downtown Bryan, furthering the company’s connection to the community. The gift shop and museum will move to that new location. To replace the tours, a virtual video tour will let visitors get an even closer look at the production floor than the trolley riders ever did.

“Our history is really important to us,” Kerr said. “The museum shows the generations of Spangler, and it’s really cool to see how it’s evolved. It’s good to keep that going.”

That new space is one example of how Spangler isn’t just resting on its Dum-Dums. In 2018, Spangler acquired three candy brands from New England Confectionary Co., or Necco. With the acquisition, Spangler now owns Necco Wafers, Sweethearts and Canada Mints. The company also bought property adjacent to its facility in Bryan in 2018. That new space, which used to house a pneumatic tool manufacturer, will be used later this year to make Bit-O-Honey, which Spangler acquired in 2020 from Pearson’s Candy Co. The roughly 200,000-square-foot facility will make it so that Spangler’s main facility stays allergen-free while Bit-O-Honey, which is made with milk, almonds and soy, is made next door.

Acquisitions are nothing new for the sweets maker. Its most popular item, Dum-Dums, was acquired in 1953, Saf-T-Pops in 1978 and A-Z Candy Cane Co. in 1954. But Spangler isn’t only about nostalgia.

The company’s mad candy scientists, like Willy Wonka but without the sociopathic tendencies, are always tinkering with new flavors and collaborations, such as a Skittles-flavored candy cane and Starburst lollipops. When you add those new products, Bit-O-Honey and the new storefront downtown, there’s a lot to be sweet on at Spangler.

“It is exciting to be able to see growth and know that we’re growing as a company and we invest money back into it,” Kerr said. “It’s fun. We’ve got some really good things going.”

The original part of the addition that’s now the main entrance to Spangler’s production, packaging and testing areas was built in 1980 with further improvements in 2012. Its hallways, conference rooms and offices exude the charming nostalgia that its candies provoke.

From one of the wood-paneled conference rooms a few doors from the production floor, Kerr, surrounded by historical photos and a diagram showing each addition to its more than 100-year-old headquarters, talks about what it’s like to work for a company with such a long legacy.

“Spangler Candy is a very cool story,” he said, “and it’s cool to be a part of that.”

Spangler’s history is as rich as its sugary treats.

The company’s origins date back to Aug. 20, 1906, with the purchase of the Gold Leaf Baking Powder Co. by Arthur G. Spangler. The company, which was based about 20 miles away in Defiance, Ohio, only cost Spangler $450, which is about $12,779 today when adjusted for inflation.

He renamed the company Spangler Manufacturing Co. and moved it to Bryan, where it began producing baking soda, baking powder, corn starch, spices and flavorings.

In 1908, at the suggestion of his brother Ernest, Spangler added candy to the company’s offerings. Within 12 years, the company was only making candy.

Over the years, more Spangler family members joined the company, and it started making or acquiring some of the candies it still makes today, such as Dum-Dums, marshmallow Circus Peanuts, candy canes and more. The company continued to grow, adding on to its Bryan home.

That commitment to employees and community plays a large role in the company’s food safety culture.

“We do so much for the community,” said DaWanda Van Buskirk, lab technical services manager. “When there are parades and things like that, there’s so much participation from our employees. It makes you want to be a part of this.”

Van Buskirk would know, since she’s been with the company for 37 years. Kerr, who’s been at Spangler for 35 years, also touts the company’s food safety culture. And even though the term is in vogue now, it’s always been something the company has focused on.

“It comes from the top down, and it’s a very big priority for us,” Kerr said. “We do a lot of things around that.”

For example, last fall, the company surveyed all its employees, from managers and supervisors to candymakers on the floor, about the company’s culture. They then took that data and analyzed strengths and weaknesses. For example, the team realized that communication could be better, so they used TVs spread throughout the facility to communicate a push to get better at environmental swabbing. But the TVs are also used to tout employees who have done a great job on something or are celebrating special days such as birthdays.

Kerr said the food safety team, which is made up of people from several departments, including maintenance, supplier management and logistics, also welcomes input from employees.

“One of our employees came up with something the other day about an issue that we hadn’t thought about, and they brought it to us,” he said. “Our employees really take it to that extent where they’ll bring something to us that they think might be something we need to look at, and we’ll say, ‘Yeah. We should do that!’ ”

But Kerr admitted that Spangler does have an older workforce, meaning many of the people who have been ingrained in the company culture and food safety are getting set to retire. He said going forward one of the company’s biggest challenges will be hiring and training new people.

“We are hiring people every week,” Kerr said. “I worry a little bit about how you make sure that the older workforce is ingraining that food safety mindset in the younger force.”

On four production lines, Spangler Candy Co. makes 16 flavors of Dum-Dums, including blueberry, watermellon, lemon and cherry.

Part of how they’re tackling that challenge is making sure a lot of the training for new hires focuses on food safety. That starts on day one at orientation, part of which is led by Krista Schroeder, product compliance manager. Diana Moore Eschhofen, Spangler’s director of corporate communications, often sits in on the end of Schroeder’s orientation presentations.

“It’s really interesting to me to watch the faces and the expressions of the new hires who kind of go, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “They didn’t realize what a big deal it is to check for all those little things. To me, that is success because we’re instilling that culture from day one.”

Kerr said pairing new hires with experienced workers for training and making sure processes and procedures are being followed also helps build that food safety culture.

“It’s also important that they understand why they’re doing it, not just that they’re doing it right,” he said. “They’re doing it because it makes a difference.”

On the Spangler production floor, that sweet smell is back as Dum-Dums, candy canes and more in various states of creation whir around you, colorful and cacophonous.

Candymakers work with a seemingly effortless efficiency, always watching, inspecting and working in harmony with candy and machine. They add flavor and coloring to hot, pliable candy to make the 16 flavors of Dum-Dums. They combine red and white (and so many other colors depending on the flavors) chunks of candy, then layer, cut, layer, cut, to make the iconic stripes of a candy cane. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were watching a baker working with dough. They watch carefully as another machine gives the canes their signature hook, like a shepherd’s crook. It’s gotta be just right, since Spangler is the largest candy cane manufacturer in the United States.

This attention to detail is pretty important at Spangler. For about 20 years, Spangler has been an allergen-free facility, which has promoted positive feedback from customers, parents and more worried about food allergens. (No, Circus Peanuts don’t have actual peanuts in them!)

“We definitely take that very seriously,” said Kerr. “We do put that on our bags and our packaging that we’re allergen-free.”

While that involved a lot of testing on Spangler’s part, it also makes it all the more important for them to carefully vet suppliers so there’s no risk of cross contamination. They give each supplier an allergen questionnaire to fill out. If there are allergens in the supplier’s facility, they must explain what they do to make sure there isn’t cross-contamination when they’re running products for Spangler.

“Then we actually test the supplies when they come from those suppliers that have allergens so that we make sure we are allergen-free,” Kerr said.

Spangler also works hard to maintain good relationships with suppliers since they ask so much of them, such as updating policies and procedures or sending product flows.

Van Buskirk, Kerr and Schroeder work to make sure Spangler’s main facility stays allergen free.

“We have to have a good trust level with them,” said Schroeder. “The last couple of years has really shown that we have a good relationship with our suppliers because we didn’t miss a beat.”

Spangler also sources things as locally or regionally as possible. For example, its sugar comes from Michigan, and its corn syrup comes from Ohio.

“Those are really two important ingredients because they’re our main ingredients,” Kerr said. “And so, you want to make sure they’re close.”

The addition of Bit-O-Honey will shake things up — just a bit. Since the sweet, nutty candy contains milk, almonds, soy and tree nuts, it’s not exactly allergen-free. Luckily, the 200,000-square-foot former pneumatic tool plant next door is being completely revamped to run Bit-O-Honey. The company is also hiring 40 new people to run the candy.

With honey as one of the other major ingredients in the new-to-Spangler candy, Kerr said that brings an increased focus on food fraud, since honey ranks high in that respect.

“That’s something we’re going to have to look for,” he said. “We’re looking into how to test to make sure it’s pure.”

Over the last five to 10 years, Kerr, Van Buskirk and Schroeder have seen consumer awareness around food safety reach new heights.

Spangler created its marshmallow Circus Peanuts in 1940.

In fact, many questions they get from consumers are around food safety and allergens.

“We just get bombarded with all kinds of requests for information from a food safety perspective,” Kerr said.

Schroeder compared the relationship Spangler shares with its suppliers to the relationship the candymaker has with its consumers.

“A lot of customers are asking a lot, and so we have to make sure our policies and procedures are buttoned up and that everybody knows them,” she said. “We’re testing our suppliers, but we’ve got to know that there’s people testing us too. It’s full circle.”

The elevation of food safety is part of why Spangler was already considering halting factory tours before COVID-19 hit. It just sped up something that was already in process. And Kerr said more and more investment goes into food safety. He estimates that 60-70% of his job is solely involved in food safety and making sure Spangler is doing everything right. He works with the National Confectioners Association to find out about new laws or standards. He stays up on trends and is always keeping an eye on what might be next in food safety.

“We need to provide safe products for consumers,” Kerr said. “That’s what we try to make sure we’re doing. We say, ‘We make smiles for kids.’ ”