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The Born legacy
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The Born legacy

Let me get this out of the way at the outset: Someone should really write a children’s book or make a movie about a candy factory.

A few months back I wrote a column about Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, and how, after an unsuccessful rebranding of the chocolaty treat, its manufacturer decided to restore the “Goldenberg’s” name to its label. I presented it as an object lesson in ethnic identity, and even an important statement that far from a liability, a recognizable Jewish name could be an asset. I implied that Just Born, the company that purchased the Goldenberg’s brand from the eponymous Philadelphia family that created it, hadn’t appreciated the candy’s Jewish roots. This was, after all, the company that makes marshmallow Peeps — the neon-colored chicks and bunnies that are staples in Easter baskets.

One problem: I didn’t check with the company.

A few days after the column appeared, I got a call from Ross Born, co-CEO of Just Born and the grandson of Sam Born, who founded the company in the 1920s. Mr. Born wasn’t annoyed, exactly. Let’s just say he was eager to clear a few things up.

The first thing he wanted to tell me about was his own deep roots in the Jewish community. Both he and his wife are past presidents of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, and remain active. His grandfather’s was a classic Jewish immigrant’s story: A former rabbinical student in Berdichev, he landed in Paris, where he learned the art of chocolate-making. After opening a factory and store in Brooklyn, he brought his brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, into the business. Ross’s cousin David Shaffer is his co-CEO.

I think you’re getting the picture.

Mr. Born also wanted to clear up the whole Goldenberg’s thing. The Goldenberg kin sold their company to Just Born, he said, because they knew the company would take good care of their own multi-generation brand. The challenge came when marketing consultants suggested they try to expand the Peanut Chew franchise beyond the 100-mile or so radius of Philadelphia and greater New York. The name “Goldenberg’s” had no resonance outside of its traditional market. “In order to sell in Des Moines, we came to the conclusion that we would just call it a Peanut Chew. It had nothing to with a Jewish name, honest to God,” said Ross.

The national launch didn’t go well. “We really kind of screwed up,” Ross acknowledges. “We didn’t take enough time to build the brand.” And in the meantime, Goldenberg’s loyalists were aghast.

The story has a happy ending, Ross assured me. Focusing once again on their traditional territory and market, bringing the old name back, and promoting the brand with a series of cheeky “Chewin’ it Old Style” advertisements, Just Born says Peanut Chews are doing better than ever.

Last week I took Ross up on his offer to visit the Just Born factory in Bethlehem, Pa., where they make Peeps, Mike and Ikes, Hot Tamales, and Zours. Ross, who looks like a benevolent version of the entertainment mogul Barry Diller, conducted the two-hour tour himself. He and his employees greeted each other by their first names. He took obvious pleasure in pointing out the folks who’d been on board 25 years and more, and in explaining the company’s progressive personnel and environmental practices.

For a visitor whose only manufacturing experience is the production of sentences, the industrial processes were amazing. Huge machines squirted armies of mousse-flavored Peeps onto a conveyer belt, on which they glide past little guns that paint on the eyes. Mike and Ikes are made in towers of molds stacked about 10 feet high. A completely automated forklift runs down a track, grabs a tower, then carries it over to one of a dozen or so ovens, each the size of a railroad car. In a vast space upstairs, in what look like backyard cement mixers, the colorless jellies are coated with flavoring and color and spun until they shine. Everywhere there were large tubs filled with candies in hundreds of flavors. Even the shmutz on the floor was bright yellow or pink or purple.

They don’t make Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews in the Bethlehem factory, unfortunately. Still, it’s cool that the same company makes Peeps and Peanut Chews, which would be like the same seminary ordaining priests and rabbis.

At lunch in the company cafeteria, Ross and David reminisced about their fathers, asked me about the paper, and talked about their kids. In short, very heimishe.

Ross sent me home with a few buckets of Peanut Chews and packages of Mike and Ikes, which are kosher, but no Peeps, which aren’t. That, of course, disappointed folks on staff who are fans of Peeps. I hesitate to even mention this, since Ross Born is the kind of mensch who will read this and send over boxes of Peeps. So let me be clear: Please Mr. Born, do not send us boxes of Peeps. Not the dark chocolate Peeps, or the candy-cane flavored Peeps, or the sugar-cookie flavored Peeps, or the chocolate-covered Peeps….

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