Candy is Dandy

McKeesport Candy Add New Label to an Old Business

Written by Christopher Davies
Published by The Pittsburgh Business Times, August 17, 2001

Jon Prince realizes his job running the McKeesport Candy Co is the stuff of childhood fantasies.

"When (children) come here, they say "When I grow up, I want to do what you do," Mr. Prince said.

But Mr. Prince never outgrew that feeling.

"I actually like getting up and going to work." He said. "You can't take yourself too seriously when you sell things like Clicker-Lickers or Gummy pizzas," said Mr. Prince, 35.

But candy is a serious business, he insists. And McKeesport Candy, third-generation family-owned wholesale distributor established in 1927, is always looking for a competitive edge.

That's why the company plans to launch a newly redesigned label next month for its Todd's brand-handful-sized bags of various candies-sold in neighborhood stores and supermarket chains throughout Western Pennsylvania. Red dollars and Swedish fish are always among the best sellers.

McKeesport Candy hopes the new label will help increase sales. The Todd's line was first introduced in 1956.

McKeesport Candy brought in Chicago-based artist Melissa Wood, whose custom-designed greetings cards and stationery products are sought after by celebrities like George Lucas and Oprah Winfrey, to do the label redesign.

"I actually used her to design some stationery," Mr. Prince said. "We talked some, and she said she'd love to do a candy label."

The new label has a candy crest on it-a nod to the ownership family's surname and brought back a slogan removed from the Todd's bag years ago. "Tempting to the Taste."

Mr. Prince said there was hardly any market research put into the new label, and it cost "almost nothing." The now drab orange and white label and cellophane bag will be replaced with a more vibrant package.

"It's been a fun project," he said. "There's a certain retro feel to it. It's cool, whimsical."

INTENSELY COMPETITIVE

McKeesport Candy doesn't manufacture candy.

As a distributor, the company repackages candy from suppliers, such as Mars Inc, and Hershey Foods Corp, to sell to retail outlets, through its fund-raising arm or at its own retail candy store, Trifles, at Station Square. (Closed in December 2002)

"If it sells really well, then we can offer it to our larger customer base," he said.

Mr. Prince declined to divulge the company's distribution outlets by name, fearing competitors might try to snatch them up.

"This is an intensely competitive business," he said.

McKeesport Candy also prints customized bag labels for customers who want personalized candies-often supermarkets or gift shops around the holidays.

Beyond sweets, McKeesport Candy also distributes tobacco products.

In addition to the Todd's line, the company sells candies-such as Jolly Ranchers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Sour Patch Kids, Hershey's Kisses and licorice-in either bulk quantities or individual fund raising kits for school, social and civic organizations.

The company's competitors include other local candy wholesalers, such as Liberty USA, of West Mifflin and S&S Candy and Cigar Co. on Carson Street in the South Side.

REPEAT BUSINESS

Mr. Prince, who's been with McKeesport Candy for 11 years, said the company's fund-raising unit really took off after he started making sales from his dorm room at Ohio University in the late 1980's.

Its fund-raising arm now accounts for about 25 percent of the company's business. Bulk and retail candy sales, custom -label operations and the Todd's line make up the other 75 percent.

What's kept the company profitable for so many years is its attention to customer service and offering products whose quality is in the upper tier for its industry, Mr.Prince said.

"We put a lot of emphasis on the quality of our product, as opposed to sheer quantity." he said in doing so, we've created a niche for ourselves."

One of our reasons fund-raising customers continue to come back for repeat business. He said, is the company's return policy.

Often a social or civic group will order more candy than is can sell for a fund-raising event. As long as the candy is still is its original package, Mr. Prince said the company allows customers to return it. Most other candy wholesalers do not allow customers to return fund-raising candy they've already purchased, he said.

"We don't want to punish people for choosing to do business with us," Mr. Prince said. "We have a very low attrition rate for fund-raising customers, which is unique for our business.

ACCESS AND SERVICE

Except for a recent billboard campaign, advertising for McKeesport Candy has been mostly through word of mouth, Mr. Prince spends part of one day each week on the road, looking to drum up new business, while the company's general manager Tom Griffin, spends parts of three days each week doing the same.

Every customer receives a personalized thank-you note from Mr. Prince. He's available to customers 24 hours a day through his cell phone, which they can access through the company's main number.

That unlimited access can be problematic; though. Mr. Prince said he gets phone calls at all hours of the day. Once, he got a call at 3a.m. from the member of a fraternity interested in checking McKeesport Candy fund-raising kit prices.

"I said my prices are far better at 7;30 on a Monday morning that at three in the morning on Saturday," Mr. Prince said, laughing.

That attention to detail and customer service, however, is what keeps people coming back, he said.

"If you do 50 good sales, then no one would ever hear about you," Mr. Prince said. "If you do two bad sales, everyone's going to hear about you."

Mary Lou Wagner, vice president of West Mifflin High School's Titan Band parents' club, said she's used McKeesport Candy for about the past seven years.

"(Mr. Prince) doesn't push his product, which is what I'm looking for." Ms. Wagner said. "I've even referred other people to him. He'll treat you the same whether you have a big order or a small order. He's real interested in taking care of his customers."

McKeesport Candy was founded by Mr. Prince's grandfather , Ernest. It's president and Mr. Prince's father, Gerald, has been with the company-except for a break for military service- since 1949. Mr. Prince is vice president.

The company's legacy is not something Mr. Prince takes lightly.

"When you're established in 1927, you have a precedent," he said. "You're not a new kid on the block."