Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Pennsylvania, in 1953. Rodda possessed jelly bean technology and a
small line of marshmallow "peeps" products. Samuel Born
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
of seasonal marshmallow items: original Peeps, Bunnies, and Eggs at
Easter, Spooky Cats, Ghosts, and Pumpkins for Halloween, Trees,
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
"They’re sugary, they’re gooey, they’re yummy, and they’re
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
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
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
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
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
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
and we’re trying to get that story out there internationally,"
Broczkowski also likes to call himself Peeps’ "travel
Born a few blocks from the factory, he used to watch the trains
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
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
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
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
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
bonnets and stringing necklaces. Peeps aren’t just for eating. Who
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,"
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
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
many of whom are multi-generational employees. This factory is a
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
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
new life, and bunnies represent fertility. Thus, the candy is
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.
Tracy & Mia’s Peep-O-Rama, including a gallery of Peeps pictures,
from Philadelphia to Paris, with links and the neon Peep.
Emory University (includes "fear response" category).
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