When John Ryan, production manager at Ferrara’s Itasca plant, came home, his kids would sometimes drag their friends over to him for a quick sniff.
“Come over and smell my dad!” they’d say. “My dad works for a candy company!”
The ability to impress your children is only one benefit of running a candy factory. Employees — and yes, they’re hiring, like everybody else — get free samples.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with my recent visit to Ferrara — in mid-May, not so recent. I’d seen Nerds — little granules of hard candy — being made in big drums, bright yellow, hot pink and cool aqua, then poured into tiny rattling boxes. And Sweetarts, those little squat pastel cylinders, packed into clear wrapped plastic cylinders. Cherry ropes running through a production line as long as a football field.
Not the sort of inside information the world is eager to consume. I kept waiting for a break in the awful news to slip this sweet interlude into the paper. Isn’t mid-July supposed to be sleepy? The president off on vacation, glimpsed wearing a big Panama hat while patting a bison, on some ranch in Wyoming?
But no. For nearly two months, one damn thing after another. I woke up Sunday morning and assessed my options. The headline on the Sun-Times was “TOGETHER WE GRIEVE,” with six pages of coverage of the Highland Park July Fourth parade massacre. States scrambling over each other to smother women’s reproductive rights. The Ukraine war still grinding on. Boris Johnson out as British prime minister, after mass resignations in his administration, the kind of selfless move that only adds a new layer of shame to our Republican leaders. Shinzo Abe assassinated in Japan, a nation of 125 million people that had one — one! one! ONE! — murder by gun last year. Maybe I should just write that sentence over and over, 25 times, then call it a day.
Not that it would sink in. Not that anything sinks in.
Suddenly, how Ferrara gets 13 compressed pastel discs of sugar and malic acid lined up and into a neat little roll seems more and more interesting.
One of those questions that doesn’t cross your mind until you’re standing in the factory watching it happen. The Itasca plant runs 24 hours a day.
“The last three years have really taken off,” said Joe Malesic, plant manager. “This year we’re pacing 100 million pounds of candy, most related to Sweetarts and Nerds.”
Ryan said the plant has doubled in size in the 20 years since he joined, and the most exciting aspect of his job is figuring out how to meet current demand while constantly expanding.
Sweetarts have been around since 1963. Nerds are newer, created in 1983.
Before I could tour the factory, I had to suit up, and it felt like I was entering a NASA satellite production facility. Safety goggles, yellow vest, hairnet, blue hard hat, and a new touch: a headphone/microphone unit so we could talk over the noise. White cotton jumpsuit. We washed our hands, went over our clothes with lint rollers. Nobody wants a piece of lint in their Sweetart. Our voices sounded like Mission Control.
“You can smell your way through,” a voice crackled.
Sweetarts have a convoluted story. The Fruzola Company made a powdered drink mix of sugar and citric acid not unlike Kool-Aid. They noticed that kids liked to lick the empty packages, and seeking to reach that untapped market, created Lik-M-Aid in 1942.
In the 1950s, they packaged the stuff in paper drinking straws called Pixy Stix, which became a classic penny candy — tear an end off, put the straw to your lips, tip your head back. A blunt, unadorned delivery system — sort of a hypodermic for sugar, which isn’t quite an addictive drug like heroin, but a step in that direction. They now cost about a nickel.
In 1963, Pixy Stix dust was compressed into tablets called “Sweetarts.”
I thought sugar tariffs were driving Chicago candy companies to Mexico. Apparently not.
“It’s not a deal breaker,” said Greg Guidotti, chief marketing officer for Ferrara. “We have every intention of being in Chicago, in the Chicagoland area. This is where there’s institutional knowledge, where there’s talent.”
See? There’s good news peeking out from amidst the horror. Chicago has its problems, true, but it also has Nerds and Sweetarts. Because, sometimes, a little sugar helps.