At the National Confectioners Association’s expo in Chicago — the annual sugar rush for the country’s candy makers — the surprise hit last spring wasn’t the new chocolate-and-pretzel M&M from Mars. Nor was it the extra-miniature version of Reese’s peanut butter cups. What really got the candy cognoscenti excited was a brittle taffy bar that hadn’t been produced for 25 years. “When I found out about it, I was just stoked,” says Jim Esposito, head of online distributor Candy Direct.
The return of Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, whose popularity peaked in the 1960s, appears to be unprecedented in the $28 billion U.S. candy market. Over the past century hundreds of candies have failed, and just as many have waxed and waned in popularity. But people in the industry can’t recall another candy returning from the dead the way Bonomo’s has. It’s a renaissance story that features two baby boomers fighting to rescue the rights to the taffy from Tootsie Roll, a clever intellectual-property ploy, and an old plant manager who remembered the original formula from the days when Bonomo’s was made in Coney Island.
But first, what exactly is the allure of this 60-year-old taffy? Some say it’s how long the flavor lasts. “A Hershey bar you can eat in 30 seconds; Bonomo’s takes 30 minutes,” says Wayne Bonomo, 53, grandson of the founder. The refrain in the 1960s was that a bar lasted an entire double feature.
The other quality that makes Bonomo’s special, of course, is the way you eat it. “Crack it up!” screams the label. You wallop a bar on a table to break the hard taffy into small bits. Each bar produces different pieces that slowly melt into a smooth, sugary goo in your mouth. It’s the perfect excuse for a 6-year-old to play with his food. And it’s an excellent way for a baby boomer to reconnect with his inner child — especially if his inner childhood goes back to the earliest days of kids’ television. Bonomo’s was one of the first brands to sponsor its own show, called The Magic Clown, which included an audience of children dressed in Turkish fezzes. Puppeteer Bill Baird, a teacher of Jim Henson, created characters named Bo, No, and Mo for national advertisements. Elliott Gould was a child actor on the show. “Part of my pay was a box of Bonomo’s,” the 72-year-old movie star told Fortune.
The Bonomo family, Sephardic Jews from Turkey who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s, made basic candies after settling in Coney Island. When World War II ended, and with it, sugar rationing, the family began experimenting with new concoctions and came up with what’s technically known as a “short nougat.” They called it Turkish Taffy and sent chunks to Woolworth stores. In 1948 they packaged the first bar in loose, waxy paper. Sales really jumped in the ’50s with a new aluminum-foil wrapper that protected the candy from leakage in heat. “That blew the lid off it,” says Gary Nomer, 66, a former manager at Bonomo’s Coney Island plant. By the late 1960s the company was selling more than 110 million bars a year across the U.S.
About five years later, as sales peaked, Tootsie Roll Industries (TR) bought the brand. Before long, Tootsie was changing Bonomo’s — to a soft taffy. Perhaps the candy conglomerate, known for its chewy chocolate, had good intentions, but it’s clear Tootsie stripped away the things that made Bonomo’s special. It dropped the hard consistency and changed the name to “Soft and Delicious Taffy.” Sales sagged, and Tootsie stopped production in the mid-’80s. (Tootsie did not respond to several calls from Fortune seeking comment.) The taffy brand was dead — until two guys decided to bring it back.
Kenny Wiesen, a lawyer in Carle Place, N.Y., confesses to being “a nostalgic type of guy.” He listens to old westerns on satellite radio and has a hickory stick putter in his law office, even though he doesn’t play golf. Growing up in New York in the 1960s, he remembers eating Bonomo’s with friends. “It was more than just a fad at the time,” he says. “Now it’s like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which started as a movie, but it became this cult thing. That sort of happened to Bonomo’s.”
Fifteen years ago, Wiesen, 53, was searching for a place to buy Bonomo’s in New York when he came across online forums filled with people asking where they could find the taffy. With a little digging, he found that Tootsie owned the brand. Wiesen researched intellectual-property law. On July 26, 2001, at his upstate New York bungalow with dial-up Internet, Wiesen filed for one of Bonomo’s key trademarks the moment it expired at midnight. Then he sued Tootsie to gain control of the brand in March 2002. The lawsuit was dragging on when he got a call from someone else looking to buy Bonomo.
On the line was Jerry Sweeney, 53, who has been CEO of a public real estate investment trust for 16 years. Back in 2001, on a family vacation at the New Jersey shore, Sweeney and his five siblings regaled one another with old stories, including one about smashing Bonomo’s bars into as many pieces as possible. He started writing letters to Ellen Gordon, the CEO of Tootsie Roll, offering to buy the brand. He never got a response. “I’m sure it went into the junk mail file, like, Who’s this crank?” he says. Months later Sweeney went to a board meeting for a small Atlanta telecom, where another board member knew someone at
Tootsie. A few conference calls with Tootsie brass later and he had a deal to buy Bonomo in mid-2002. It wasn’t until the due diligence that his lawyer found Wiesen’s pending lawsuit. Sweeney called Wiesen, and to his pleasant surprise, the two hit it off. “I was thrilled that instead of being a lawyer who simply wanted cash for an expired trademark, that he actually was very excited about getting the brand reinvigorated,” he says. Sweeney put forward the cash to buy it from Tootsie — less than $100,000 — and Wiesen’s lawsuit was settled.
Buying Bonomo’s was the easy part. Wiesen spent the next five years
searching for someone to make it. He interviewed contractors from the U.S. to China; he even sent a video camera to a plant in Trinidad and Tobago to see if they had the right equipment. (Just getting his camera back through customs convinced him he had to find a U.S. manufacturer.) At last he found a factory in York, Pa., owned by Warrell Corp. Its two high-pressure steam kettles can cook Bonomo’s without burning it, and the packaging lines can handle the large Bonomo bars, as well as small twist versions. Just as important: Warrell required no minimum order guarantee. (If Bonomo’s doesn’t sell, Wiesen and Sweeney won’t be forced to warehouse half-a-million extra bars.)
It’s a sunny Friday in September when I arrive there. I’m not sure what a factory that makes a 60-year-old candy should look like, but this is probably it. The production area is spotless, but the building is a century old and has a musty lobby. Some floors are just pieces of metal welded together.
Today six workers are almost done with their eight-hour shift, during which time they’ll turn 4,000 pounds of banana-flavored sugar globs into 43,000 bars. The process of making taffy resembles mixing a frappe. A whipper mixes egg whites into a kind of meringue. That’s combined with a batch of corn syrup, sugar, flavoring, and fat in an industrial mixer, then is cooled.
There’s a thunk, thunk, thunk as I approach the line with Warrell CEO Pat Huffman, a talkative candy man who previously ran Jelly Belly. The gears are jammed. “Happens whenever I stop by,” Huffman says with a sheepish grin. The taffy dropped a few degrees in temperature — it must stay between 105° and 112° — enough to wreak havoc on the gears that press it flat. Warrell spent three months getting the manufacturing process right — and as much time on the taste — and they’re still tweaking things. Gary Nomer, the former Bonomo plant manager in Coney Island who’s now a food consultant, says the flavor is near the original. “Vanilla is pretty close, strawberry and banana are in the ballpark. Chocolate needs more strength.” It’s a fairly easy fix — just bump up the cocoa content — but it can still take weeks to get just right.
All this raises the question: How do you market a once-dead taffy? And what if your core customers risk losing a denture with each bar?
Wiesen knows that Bonomo’s is competing with newer brands and aging customers. But he can’t help trying to restore its former glory. “It evokes this nostalgia, this warm feeling from people,” he says. “It’s like having a feel-good wand.” Even if this wand is a baby boomer’s ticket to the dentist.