Chocolate maker Mars will begin construction next week on a $100 million expansion at its Topeka, Kans., facility where it produces a variety of M&M’s and Snickers products.
When the Topeka plant opened last year, it was the first new Mars site built in North America in the past 35 years. This latest development, which will add 70 jobs, brings the company’s total investment in Topeka to $430 million.
The expansion is a departure from broader trends at legacy food companies, which in some cases have reduced U.S. production capacity as consumers shift away from packaged food.
As Fortune noted in its “War on Big Food” June 1 cover story, the annual volume of packaged food sold in the U.S. has fallen more than 1% for each of the past two years, according to research by Bernstein.
Despite consumers’ push for healthier products, confectionaries have held up better than other parts of the food industry in large part because there’s no confusion that candy is an indulgence.
“We’re a treat,” explains Mars Chocolate North America president Tracey Massey. “We’re not a food. We’re not a meal. We’re a treat and consumers like to treat themselves.”
The expanded capacity, scheduled to go online in early 2017, will be used for product innovations. “As an industry, what we hear from our consumers is they’re looking for more choice—the type of product, calories, price points,” Massey says. “This enables us to meet more of that choice across the board.”
Mars has already started answering consumer demands involving health and wellness. For example, the company is launching a new line in the U.S. called Goodnessknows, which is a 150-calorie fruit, nut, and dark chocolate snack with no artificial flavors or colors. Mars also recently brought back Crispy M&M’s, which have fewer calories than the original. Last month the privately held company came out in support of health authorities’ recommendations to limit sugar to no more than 10% of daily calories.
Mars, however, has not followed its industry peers when it comes reformulating products to make them free of artificial colors—actions taken by both Nestlé and Hershey.
Mars has said it’s exploring the possibility of using natural colors, but that when it does tend to make those changes it doesn’t always publicly talk about them. For example, it has reduced saturated fats and cut high fructose corn syrup from its chocolate without any major announcement.
Massey says consumers worry when the company announces it’s going to change their favorite products. “We’re very careful about what we say, because we don’t want people to think we’re going to impact the taste.”