Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ribbon candy: yet another fine product made in Massachusetts

There are still no lights on it, but last week the tree went up at Jordan Marsh, errrrr, I mean Macy’s. This did, of course, get me thinking more seriously about Christmas, so I did a bit of Christmas shopping over the weekend. And that got me thinking about whether to get a new one-man tree stand.Even though I’ve been able to put the tree up by myself the last two years, those easy-peasy ones where you put some kind of sheath around the bottom of the tree and then use some sort of foot-pump to adjust do look, well, a lot easier-peasier than the one I have now. (Worked much better when my husband was holding up his end of the bargain.)

Anyway, it’s still plenty early, but I’m letting myself glide into the Christmas season a bit.

So I was delighted to see an article on the Boston Globe the other day on that most wondrous of Christmas treats: ribbon candy. Which, as it turns out, is made in Massachusetts by F.B. Washburn Candy of Brockton. Now, I knew we made Necco Wafers and Skybars and Valentine’s Day message hearts. But I didn’t know about ribbon candy, possibly the most beautiful confection in the candy world, while remaining almost impossible to eat.ribbon_plate400

Ribbon candy was one of my Grandmother Rogers’ favorites, and it was always on offer at her house over the holidays. You had to get at it quickly, because after the box was open and any air hit it, the candy became as sticky as flypaper. I remember that the sticky pieces always had something akin to mitten fur on them.

I never really liked the taste in particular. And, when fresh, it was like eating shards of glass: careful or you’ll cut your lip. I do believe that so much ribbon candy has some red in it to disguise the blood.

But it sure is pretty. And I love that it’s made here. (This is the best news since learning that lawn flamingos were born in Leominster.)

F.W. Washburn has been around for 160 years – it’s the longest-lived family-owned candy business in the United States. In addition to ribbon candy – and they pretty much produce all of it – Washburn makes most/all the flat lollipops they give out in banks. (More red, fewer green, please.) Hard candies r’ them. Which is not a particularly good thing, market-wise:

“Hard candy is an older person’s candy, and sales continue to decline.” (Source: Boston Globe. Quotes from co-owner Jim Gilson.)

I find this pretty interesting. Sure, my grandmother – who lived to great old age (97) – liked hard candy. Must have done wonders for her terrible teeth. (That and the Brach’s Toffees that she always had around.) You’d think that, as you got older, you might look for softer candies. Like a Hershey’s Kiss. Or M&Ms. Guess not.

So far, it hasn’t hurt Washburn all that much.

“But in our case, we’ve captured more of the market, so it doesn’t affect us.”

One way they cornered the ribbon candy market was by acquiring the last competitor standing. And I guess, given that it’s ribbon candy we’re talking about here, no one’s worried about a monopoly.

Given the importance of ribbon and other Christmas-y hard candy to their business, Washburn is somewhat seasonal. During peak season, they produce 6,000 pounds or hard candy a day there. (I’m actually guessing about the “a day”. The Globe article says only: During peak season, 6,000 pounds of product — including its famous ribbon candy — cascade from the old mill building. I’m guessing that’s not over the entire season. Given that Christmas candy is 60% of their business, 6,000 pounds over the course of a season wouldn’t produce all that much revenue, even if a 12 oz. box of ribbon candy costs $19.95 at the Vermont Country Store. I just did the math: if it was 6,000 pounds over the course of a Christmas season, AND the manufacturer actually got that whopping $20 for each 12 oz. box (which they do not), this would produce $160,000 in revenues. Now, if this were 60 percent of their business, that would mean that the company had revenues of $267,000. Which pretty much can’t be true. Ah, the curse of the math-literate and observant. And can publishers bring back a few copy editors, please????)

I will end on a more upbeat note:

“Ribbon candy — it looks like curvy pieces of ribbon — is almost too beautiful to eat. It’s as much decorative as a food item.”

I may just go and order a box from the Vermont Country Store, and put it out as a decoration. Far to beautiful – and treacherous – to eat.

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