All In The Family: Sweet Candy Company

Founded when suppliers delivered wares in wagons and folks routinely paid bills with sacks of flour or heads of cattle, few Utah businesses can boast 100 years or more of survival. Those tenacious enough to have remained in the hands of family are not just endangered species, they’re practically extinct. We asked a handful of local, family-owned businesses to share their secret sauce for surviving over a century of depressions, pandemics, wars, construction, big box stores and—lest we forget—online shopping. You’ll likely recognize the names. Now you’ll appreciate what it’s taken to stand the test of time.

When asked why Utahns eat waaaay more sugar than any other state, (twice the national average), Rachel Sweet, whose family founded Sweet Candy Company 120 years ago, can only speculate.

“Everyone needs a vice,” she says, pointing out that many Utahns follow certain religious strictures. “Not drinking alcohol, coffee or tea probably has something to do with it.” We’d wager she’s right—if wagering wasn’t also restricted. 

At Sweet Candy Company, “candy is king,” says Rachel’s cousin, Rick Kay, president and CEO. While he doesn’t look anything like Willy Wonka, (no plum overcoat or top hat in sight), it does seem like something the fictional candyman would say.

Rick, who jokes that “nepotism rules aren’t a thing here,” sits in a conference room across from his cousin, Rachel (VP of Corporate Affairs), and niece Anne Bischoff (Marketing Director), as they view the candy plant below. He describes how his great-grandpa Leon Sweet first sold licorice root candies from a horse-drawn wagon in Portland, Ore. before relocating to Salt Lake City.

One of Sweet Candy Company’s first buildings in Portland, Ore., 1892. Photo courtesy Sweet Candy Company

“Utah manufactured more sugar,” he explains of the then-newest state in the union and its already-evident fixation on sugary bliss. Today, Sweet Candy Company is the largest national distributor of nostalgic salt water taffy, jelly-filled chocolate sticks and chocolate-covered cinnamon bears. (Sidenote: Rick says cinnamon candy is a regional flavor preferred in the West. “Distribution stops right around Kansas,” he says.)

As fourth and fifth-generation custodians of the family legacy, Rachel, Rick and Anne say the company has been through it all. 

“We’ve survived a couple of pandemics, the Great Depression and two World Wars,” says Rachel. The famous “Candy Bomber” Gail Halvorsen dropped Sweet’s chocolates made by their grandfather from his C-54 cargo plane for children in post-war Germany. “And Prohibition, that was really tough for Sweet,” she adds. “The liquor once used in our flavorings had to be locked in a vault and every drop accounted for.”

As Rachel and Anne suit up in steel-toed boots, eye protection, hairnets, shields and gloves for a tour of the plant (this is the stuff of fantasy: one of the rooms is literally named the “chocolate enrobing room”), Rachel describes the importance of understanding every nook and cranny of the candy manufacturing process. “I first started learning the business as a teenager, filling orders in a bulk-pack line,” she says.

Anne says her first job was an apprenticeship, rotating through different areas of the company. “It’s important for the next generation to have institutional knowledge in order to carry this on,” she says. “But it’s also important to bring new ideas and innovations.”

Newfangled, robotic-armed machines sort and box those orange sticks alongside older-school contraptions like the Mogul—a machine that fills trays with starch, prints the starch with moulds, fills with moulds with jelly centers, and then stacks them into a pallet for setting. We pass by monster-sized vats of taffy being flavored, whipped, twisted into shape and wrapped in wax paper. Is this heaven? 

Whatever it is, Sweet’s candy operations are considered an “essential” part of the food chain. During the pandemic, the plant ran as usual and not a single of its 228 employees was furloughed. When the mom-and-pop stores had to shutter for a time, Sweet found new channels of distribution to keep the company afloat. Many local grocery stores now have Sweet’s old-fashioned taffy displays and even Costco carries our favorite treats.

“Folks need their candy,” says Rick, describing how the sweet stuff seems bulletproof even amidst the pandemic, supply chain challenges, and the threat of a recession on the horizon. “You may not be buying a jet ski, but you’ll probably keep buying your orange sticks.”  

Utah: The Sweet Tooth Capital

Even in the early days, Utah was known for its love affair with sugar. Leon Sweet moved his company from Portland to Utah for greater access to the state’s sugar mills. A study by Hershey’s candy company found that Utah leads the United States in the consumption of sweets, making Utah (unofficially) the “sweet tooth capital” of the U.S. 

Discover more Utah businesses that have stood the test of time here!

Heather Hayes
Heather Hayes
A Salt Lake native, Heather Hayes has been a voice for Utah’s arts and culture scene for well over a decade, covering music, dance and theater Salt Lake magazine. Heather loves a good yarn, no matter the genre. From seatmates on ski lifts to line-dwellers in a grocery store, no one is safe as she chats up strangers for story ideas. When she’s not badgering her teenagers to pick up their dirty socks or spending quality time with her laptop, you can find Heather worshiping the Wasatch range on her bike, skis or in a pair of running shoes.

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