Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Working at NECCO - that's one sweet job

The Boston Globe  publishes occasional articles on odd jobs, and the one the other day was especially interesting to me.

The article (by Cindy Atoji Keene) profiled Jeff Green, who's in charge of research and quality for the NECCO company, a venerable old New England institution and one that's delightfully retro when it comes to their offerings: NECCO wafers, Sky Bars, and Sweethearts. (Not to mention Mary Janes and Squirrel Nuts, which I think they acquired from the buy-out of another Cambridge candy company.)


It's now located in Revere, Massachusetts, but until recently the NECCO factory was just outside of Central Square in Cambridge, right next to the MIT campus. Having gone to grad school, and later worked, in the area, I loved the cloying sweet-spicy smell that the factory gave off, and still miss it when I happen to be around those parts. (I may be wrong, but I think the NECCO site has been replaced by something bio-tech. Which is, of course, progress.)

And although they were by no means my favorite candy - which was and always will be M&M's, followed closely by Good and Plenty, the non-pareil, and the Hershey's Kiss - I have a fond spot for NECCO products in my increasingly nostalgic heart.

Sky Bars, which combine four different merged together chocolates, gave you variety. More important, from a kid's point of view, it gave you splitability. If you or your friend had a nickel, you could buy a Sky Bar and split it four ways. You may not have gotten your first choice, but you got something that was physically equal to what everyone else got.

NECCO Wafers also gave you variety, and even more share-ability than a Sky Bar, but they were primarily useful as the source of fake communion wafers when you played Mass.  You just separated out the white ones, and away you went. Sure, they had a different flavor than an actual communion wafer. And they were a lot more brittle.  But it's not as if anyone were going to give us real communion wafers to play with - especially in those heretical scenarios in which a girl played the priest. NECCO Wafers were, however, the right shape and size. Plus they had the benefit of not sticking to your teeth or to the roof of your tongue. Not that it would have been a mortal sin to use your finger to dislodge a stuck NECCO Wafer, but still... It seems as if the church could have used some of the properties of the NECCO Wafer when they came up with their design.

I also liked the Sweethearts, chalky and bland, but with a message on them: B MINE, I LUV U, and - if I remember this right - OH YOU KID.

My favorite New England Confectionary Company confection was the Candy Cupboard boxed chocolate assortment, which came into our home seasonally/occasionally, somewhat interchangeably with a Whitman Sampler or a box of Hebert's Candy Mansion candy as a house gift - whatever you could pick up at the drugstore, I assume. I liked Candy Cupboard because of the patchwork lettering design on the cover. Because it didn't scream the company's name, it was useful as a treasure box. (Admittedly, the Whitman Sampler box was better constructed.)

In his job, Jeff Green gets to eat "up to 2 pounds of candy every day."

Even to a sweet-toother like me, that gets the old stomach churning.

But, as Green says, "'You learn to spit after a while.'"

Like everything else, the candy-biz is competitive, and NECCO is always testing out new products to augment it's classic lines.

Right now, they're experimenting with "a mix of crunchy real chai tea centers covered by dark and milk chocolate."

Sounds more interesting than a NECCO Wafer, that's for sure. (But can it top a fresh, soft, chewy Squirrel Nut.)

Green is constantly experimenting, trying out different flavor combinations, working with flavor or ingredient vendors to create new concoctions. He mixes small experimental candy batches in an electric fry pot and larger quantities in a 25-gallon kettle. "The only flavor that doesn't work for my palate is liver," he says.

"I'm playing around with things here that you can't even imagine. I'm even experimenting with french fries, ketchup, and hot dogs. I'm not actually putting chocolate on hot dogs, but I'm looking at the seasoning blend of hot dogs, as well as chili and other things. After all, there are no boundaries - what doesn't go with sugar? Already out on the marketplace, there's chocolate with bacon, dark chocolate with curry, and other interesting twists. Sweet and savory mix well."

Well, hot dog is better than liver in my book, but I can't really see either that or chocolate with bacon. Curry might be a possibility.

A number of interesting things popped out of this article, including that products that don't get sold and waste elements that drop on the floor sometimes gets fed to livestock.

Any why not? If chocolate makes for contented humans, why not contented cows?

Which Green may know something about, since he started out handling quality control for a meat company.

R&D technicians and quality assurance techs can, according to Green, earn decent money, starting out in the $30's, and making over $100K once they've gotten considerable experience.

And, for the most part - or so it seems to me - food production has not yet been as fully off-shored as some other industries.

One of the benefits of Green's job - which presumably didn't exist when he worked in the meat plant - is that he gets to give out real Sky Bars and NECCO Wafer rolls on Halloween. ("None of those little miniature-sized candies. You wouldn't believe how the kids' eyes light up. I'll do it again this year.")

Some things never change - I can still remember how much happier I was to see someone tossing a full sized candy bar into the trick-or-treat bag, as opposed to a couple of minis - or, worse, a little paper bag with a some candy corn or hard candies in them. (What a waste! My mother made us throw anything unwrapped, along with lollipops for some reason, out.)


Suldog said...

Wonderful post. The Sky Bar was (still is, really) one of my all-time favorite candy bars. And I buy a tube of NECCO Wafers once every year or so, just for nostalgia's sake. The chalky taste, the unique aroma, the crack-crunch as you chew them - all worth the price of admission.

Anonymous said...

The Necco factory in Central Square is now the Novartis Biomedical Research Institute. In some sense, it's progress - the switch boosted employment at the plant to 700, and those are all highly-paid research jobs as opposed to relatively low-wage manufacturing. The renovation of the site was unusually well done and the result is a building that honors the past and still looks modern. The downside is that NECCO was just about the last serious manufacturing concern in the city; its demise marked the end of an era. There aren't many jobs, outside of the service sector, left in Cambridge for those without advanced degrees. And there are virtually no such jobs that pay enough to raise a family within the city limits.

And yeah, Squirrel Brand was originally independent. The old factory building stands a few blocks away, on Broadway, with the company's name still clearly painted on the wall in six-foot-high letters. There's a nice pocket park on an adjoining lot, which includes a walkway inlaid with the names of its marquee products.

Come by sometime for a walk down memory lane.

Maureen Rogers said...

Suldog - Thanks. I think I'll go out and buy a roll of Necco wafers - that chalky coating: yum!

And thanks to Anonymous for the scoop on Novartis, your insight on the shift in types of jobs in Central Square, and for the location of the Squirrel Nut factory - I can picture it now.

Anonymous said...

Hey there -- what about all your friends cramming into a dark closet snapping their teeth down hard on (I think it was) the green NECCO wafers that were supposed to give out sparks...Or did that gig never quite make it from Western Mass out west to Worcester?

Anonymous said...

Just don't buy any chocolate nut candy from New England Confectionery
they tend to have worms and flies
bought a bag of Pistachios ended up
throwing them away due to worms