Stronger Than Steel: McKeesport Candy Co.

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Confectionery's Their Bag

On the front of McKeesport's building in large letters is the word "candy," as if to emphasize the company's decision to specialize in this product category. Of the 2,000 SKU's McKeesport carries, at least 85 percent are confectionery. The remainder is mostly tobacco products. Candy accounts for 65 percent of company sales.

Because McKeesport services many supermarkets and candy shops, its product mix favors gourmet bulk and bagged candies. In fact, more than a quarter of the company's sales is bulk candy. McKeesport does, however, sell traditional count goods and a growing selection of kid's candies as well.

One of the wholesaler's best-selling items is Jelly Bellies gourmet jelly beans made by the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. of Fairfield, CA. McKeesport is Goelitz's master distributor in Western Pennsylvania. The company services towering 24-bing Jelly Bellies displays for many of its supermarket customers and helps set up new displays for accounts several times a year.

"We know what flavors sell best," says Tom Griffin, sales manager and candy buyer for McKeesport. "If the store has room for 24 flavors, we'll send them to the top 24. Then we'll go in and arrange the bins so the mix of candy colors is appealing."

McKeesport labels each bin with its company name and phone number, the product ingredients and reorder number, so stores can simply call if they run low before their sales rep's next visit.

Another leading line for McKeesport is its own private-label-bagged candy. The wholesaler has been bagging candy for 40 years under its Todd's brand. Why Todd's? No one is really sure.

"I have another son whose middle name is Todd and we used to own an apartment building on Todd Street," offers Jerry Prince. "One of those two is the right answer. Pick one."

"Lets go with the son "suggests Jon."

"Yeah, that sounds better," Tom chimes in.

Jerry adds, "It's just a nice regular name. Euphonious."

Whatever the name's origin, Todd's is a customer favorite. McKeesport even ships product to transplanted Pittsburghers who can't do without the local brand. The line presently includes about 200 items, some of which are seasonal. Chocolate licorice and spearmint leaves are two of the top movers.

The wholesaler adds items to the line regularly but is discriminating in its choices. "We go after the highest quality candies," Jerry says. "People that like good candy know the difference."

Several employees work in the rebagging operation, turning out up to 3000 bags a day. One worker, Iola Tenny, has bagged Todd's candy at McKeesport for 29 years. In fact everyone calls her "Todd."

McKeesport also bags candy in plain bags for customers that prefer them to the Todd's label and does some private labeling of holiday candy for large users. "At Halloween, we'll bag candy corn and put the store's name on the label, like 'Joe's Market - Home-Grown Corn," -- says Tom. "That gives the store a little identity."

The distributor labels all of its rebagged product with UPC codes and nutritional information. The new nutrition label law posed quite a challenge for McKeesport, says Jon. He and Tom spent much time tracking down the ingredients for every product, calling manufacturers and creating a database. "That's a lot of work for a small business," Jon says

Small often means resourceful. McKeesport has parlayed its bulk candy business into sales by the case, broken into 10-lb. Bags, rebagged for the Todd's line or private label, and in a new tub pack for fundraising sale.

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