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This article by Diana Wolf

was prepared for the March 27, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Nation Celebrates Marshmallows & Sugar

If the United States — known as the world’s only

superpower and its cultural trendsetter — has its way, Peeps could

soon take over the globe. Marshmallow Peeps are America’s No. 1

selling

non-chocolate Easter candy, far surpassing even the beloved jelly

bean. Far from the regions of Netherlands and Ecuador where Peeps

now inhabit, my own childhood memories involve carefully plucking

stray threads of green plastic Easter grass off the sides of my Peeps

before devouring them. For readers who missed growing up with Peeps,

they are two-inch-long marshmallow candies in the shape of a chick.

Right now, Peeps splash the retail world with bright yellow, neon

pink, lavender, blue, and white Peeps — their colors in order

of popularity.

A fat-free, 32-calorie candy gives us reason enough to celebrate,

but these whimsical marshmallow creatures are trendy too. Peeps have

stepped into the spotlight on the Rosie O’Donnell Show, CNN, and

Baltimore’s

Fox-TV. And although I’m looking for a journalist’s scoop, I learn

that stories have appeared in Elle, the Wall Street Journal, USA

Today,

Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. A nation

celebrates marshmallow and sugar.

I loved Peeps as a child, and still do, preferring to eat them stale,

a crunchy-chewy combination achieved after patient weeks of exposing

Peeps to air. How did this innocent, once-a-year squishy treat become

a phenomenon?

Not surprisingly, the evolution of Peeps begins with your average

rags-to-riches Russian immigrant story. Samuel Born, a candy maker

by trade, arrived in the U.S. in 1910. His inventions include

chocolate

jimmies, chocolate coating for ice cream bars, and the Born Sucker

Machine, which mechanically inserts sticks into lollipops. In 1923,

he opened his own manufacturing company in Brooklyn called Just Born,

and moved it to its present home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1932.

Just Born originally produced chocolates, but that line was halted

sometime after Just Born acquired the Rodda Candy Company of

Lancaster,

Pennsylvania, in 1953. Rodda possessed jelly bean technology and a

small line of marshmallow "peeps" products. Samuel Born

mechanized

the 27-hour hand-squeezing process down to six minutes. At which point

history — and an obsession — was. . . well, born.

Today, Rodda’s technology lives on in Just Born Jelly Beans, Teenee

Beanee Gourmet Jelly Beans, as well as Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales,

and Zours jelly candies.

Marshmallow Peeps have prospered, now producing a

variety

of seasonal marshmallow items: original Peeps, Bunnies, and Eggs at

Easter, Spooky Cats, Ghosts, and Pumpkins for Halloween, Trees,

Snowmen,

and Cutouts during Christmas, and Hearts at Valentine’s Day. No one

is writing odes to the snowmen or cats, so what makes the plump little

chicks magical?

"They’re sugary, they’re gooey, they’re yummy, and they’re

cute,"

says Lauren Easterly, marketing assistant, a hometown girl settling

into her first Easter season here. "This candy has grown to become

an icon. It has become a family tradition in a lot of households.

You could say we have very, very dedicated fans."

Proof of this loyalty can be found in more than 60 unofficial Peeps

websites the company is aware of. Most people contact Easterly before

posting their site, and she follows up to make sure Peeps aren’t being

misused and there’s no inappropriate language. Fans snap pictures

of Peeps at historic sites and national landmarks. They compose poetry

and songs (including my personal favorite that transforms The Monkees’

"I’m a Believer" lyric to "I’m a Peep-leaver"). They

use spray-painted Peeps to create post-modern, Impressionist, and

Surrealist works of art. Among the many Peeps eating contests is the

annual Sacramento Peep-Off, now in its sixth year.

The scientific community has also contracted Peeps Fever. Scientists

from Atlanta’s Emory University conducted experiments to test the

indestructibility of Peeps. In another probe, Peep-o-nauts were stowed

away on NASA weather balloon launches from the Marshall Space Flight

Center during the Leonid and Perseid meteor showers.

How did this cult following attach itself to the chewy, wholesome

Peeps of my youth?

Always the intrepid reporter, I journey to the birthplace of Peeps,

the sacred destination of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to discover the

answer.

Right off the main road, with no electric gates or elaborate security,

stands the Just Born factory. Neon banana, watermelon, and strawberry

candy characters on the lobby walls generate a glow, telling me this

company takes candy seriously fun. The lobby’s supporting columns

are filled with Mike and Ikes and Teenee Beenees. Hallways here are

lined with Peeps pictures, stuffed Peeps, and strings of Peeps and

Bunnies electric lights (available exclusively at Target). A welcome

sign — a paper Peep with my name on it — announces my visit.

My guides are Ed Broczkowski, export development manager, and Wendy

Esch, product manager for the company’s colorful and fast-growing

array of seasonal items. Just Born does not offer public tours, but

special arrangements have been made for this inquisitive reporter

determined to delve into the mysteries of the Peeps phenomenon.

Before entering the Peeps manufacturing area, I am asked to remove

every piece of jewelry, watch, hairpin — anything that could fly

off into the vats. I’m given a metal pen with which to take notes,

so should it fall out of my hands, the metal detectors will sense

it. I slip into a labcoat and hairnet, required attire for anyone

on the factory floor, and follow my leaders into "Peepsville."

Peepsville is warm, with a cloud of sugar and a lingering sweet smell

hanging in the air. The confection ingredients — sugar, corn

syrup,

water, gelatin, and flavoring — are combined in a mixture called

slurry, which is then whipped to give it fluffy airiness. The whipped

slurry flows through tubes to the two assembly lines via original

machinery dating from 1953.

One machine exclusively produces classic Peeps all year round. A

second

machine is adjusted to whatever product is in demand, which today

is Bunnies. Excess Peeps and their country cousins are stored in a

temperature-controlled facility in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to retain

freshness within their official 18-month shelf life.

A thick coating of yellow sugar covers the conveyor belt, providing

a mat to coat the critters’ bottoms. As I watch, the Peeps are

squeezed

out tail first, five at a time, in a row of puffy white number 2’s.

The Bunnies and other flat characters squeeze through cookie cutter

shapes, where a wire cutter separates them. A whirling wind tunnel

tosses the sugar into the air, coating every side of the marshmallow.

It’s blissful — yet I’m coughing from the sugar dust.

The Peeps travel up a long conveyor belt in regiments of 30 across

and hundreds deep. I do not grasp the enormity of the task until Wendy

Esch tells me 3.8 million individual edible items are squeezed each

day. This year, over 1 billion Marshmallow Peeps will be produced.

Exporter Broczkowski indicates that the number includes

the 10 million Peeps exported to 14 of the company’s 22 export

countries.

You may find Peeps in your travels to Mexico, South Africa, Singapore,

Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. You will not

find them in the Middle East since Peeps are made with a pork gelatin

base. (However all the company’s jelly candies are certified kosher

by the Orthodox Union.)

With the exception of Canada, described as Peeps’ "most mature

market," which has experienced the joy of Peeps for the past seven

to eight years, Just Born’s other export countries have only received

precious Peeps within the past two years. "It’s a feel-good

product,

and we’re trying to get that story out there internationally,"

he says.

Broczkowski also likes to call himself Peeps’ "travel

director."

Born a few blocks from the factory, he used to watch the trains

delivering

sugar to the candy factory from the end of his block. His grandmother

had worked at Just Born during the Depression, and he has the fondest

memories of eating Peeps from his Easter basket. The son of a

firefighter

and housewife, Broczkowski he earned his MBA from Lehigh University,

and has been employed at Just Born for three years. As the company’s

export specialist he says, "We’re looking to build the same love

of Peeps in other countries, and the story transcends cultures and

boundaries."

Success has been surprisingly smooth. Every year, Just Born attends

a worldwide candy show in Germany, the title of which translates as

the International Sweets and Biscuits show (ISM). Here the company

sets out to prove Peeps uniqueness. "There’s a lot of marshmallow

products, but nothing that looks like the Peep, that has the

dimensionality,

the size, the color, and how it’s presented — in packaging where

the item becomes the front panel," the company boasts. At trade

shows, when Peeps are described as made of marshmallow to others,

"they look at you like they don’t believe you. Then they tap on

its head, and they see that it squishes."

However the overseas story hasn’t been without hiccups. Just Born

had to redesign its packaging to include both English and French to

conform to Canadian market requirements. Cracking the potentially

huge Chinese market required even more creative outreach. Broczkowski

discovered that since the Chinese do not celebrate the Easter holiday,

people there were faced with some questionable stories about a product

that is based on the Easter story and only sold in the U.S. at that

time. Reassured "that Easter is a positive holiday in the United

States, that it’s about rebirth and renewal and spring, and Peeps

were a good luck thing to have. They were returned quickly to the

shelves," reports Broczkowski. Today China is the only market

where Peeps are sold year round.

Peeps’ most "challenging" export destination has been the

United Kingdom due to public antipathy toward genetically-modified

foodstuffs. Because the corn products used in Peeps cannot be

guaranteed

100 percent GM-free, they are kept out of grocery stores. Yet they

sell out every year at Woolworth’s, UK’s largest chain.

Broczkowski is looking at other confection consuming markets, such

as Japan and Russia — moving up to a global scale — but also

trying to establish a broader presence in its current markets. This

small company is stepping on the toes of true multinationals like

M&M Mars and Hershey.

In the opinion of this reporter, however, Peeps have little to fear

from such big competition. After all, neither chocolate giant boasts

a fan club 10,000 strong and whose welcome kit includes a free package

of Peeps, as well as the "Newspeepers" newsletter. Here you’ll

find recipes as well as craft ideas for gluing Peeps on colorful

Easter

bonnets and stringing necklaces. Peeps aren’t just for eating. Who

knew?

Back in Peepsville, the Peeps miracle of sight is administered

in a separate room high above the birth as the wax eyes are put on

the Peeps (other characters’ features are made of icing). I didn’t

expect the loud "pop-pop-pop," but I stare, transfixed, as

brown eye dots appear where none were before, again and again. I am

like a kid in a candy factory.

Wendy Esch says the Peeps travel backwards "so they don’t see

where they’re going so they can’t fly away." They also can’t see

her pluck a conjoined quintuplet of Peeps off the belt, offering me

a fresh sample. "It’s the ultimate roasted marshmallow,"

Broczkowski

adds. He is right. The Peep is warm and gooey, sticking to my fingers

and the roof of my mouth. Wow — even stale Peeps can’t compare

to this!

The chicks’ six-minute ride ends in the packaging area, where the

marshmallow has hardened enough to be dropped into cardboard boxes.

Peeps plop automatically, but Bunnies are hand packed. Although this

line will eventually be automated, I’m told that none of the workers

here will lose their jobs. Just Born’s factory is home to 470

employees,

many of whom are multi-generational employees. This factory is a

family

too.

Evolving a company to capitalize on holiday candy sales, combined

with loving care to customers and employees, serves to strengthen

Peeps fandom. Responding to laments that the months between Easter

Bunnies and Halloween Spooky Cats pass too slowly without a Peep,

Just Born launched another product. New Marshmallow Peeps Stars, a

white sugar-coated patriotic star that glistens with blue and red

flecks, was introduced at this year’s Olympics in Salt Lake City.

It will go on sale in stores for Memorial Day. Another new treat this

year, available when back-to-school supplies are replaced with

trick-or-treat

bags, is Cocoa Bats, the company’s first chocolate marshmallow candy.

In 2003, the awesome 50th anniversary of Marshmallow Peeps will be

observed with special events and promotions, including exclusive 50th

anniversary Marshmallow Peeps products available for one year only.

In addition, a new Easter Egg flavor will be introduced, as well as

a new two-heart marshmallow product for Valentine’s Day.

With such a sugar rush, it’s easy to forget that Easter is a Christian

religious holiday. Reverend Sam Sirianni, pastor of Holy Angels Church

in Trenton, and director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese

of Trenton, says that the Catholic church takes no position for or

against holiday candy. Even this priest has fond memories of Peeps.

Next to chocolate, he says, "they were my favorites."

Easter, he explains, celebrates the Paschal mystery of Jesus’s death

and resurrection. Early Christians adopted pagan symbols of spring

and gave them new meaning in their celebrations. Chicks and eggs

symbolize

new life, and bunnies represent fertility. Thus, the candy is

connected

to beliefs, but their symbolic connections are sometimes forgotten.

"It’s a sweet way of getting the faith across, of teaching the

faith," says Reverend Sirianni.

Amen to that, and pass the Bunnies.

For more information visit Just Born’s official website at

www.marshmallowpeeps.com

Other sites include: www.marshmallowpeeps.org

Tracy & Mia’s Peep-O-Rama, including a gallery of Peeps pictures,

from Philadelphia to Paris, with links and the neon Peep.

Www.geekbabe.com/peeps/ — A big list of Peeps links.

Www.nokilli.com/food/peep.html — website for the annual

Sacramento Peep-Off.

Www.peepresearch.org/ — scientific research on Peeps from

Emory University (includes "fear response" category).

users.ids.net/~flamingo/mp.html — Peeps song

parodies.


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