(Bloomberg) -- When the New England Confectionery Co. abruptly closed its doors last year, howls over the demise of its eponymous Necco wafer echoed across the candy aisle. Perhaps worse, its iconic Valentine’s Day treat—the Sweetheart and its cutesy phrases (LOVE YOU, MISS YOU, WAIT4ME)—looked like it was going to vanish as well.
For small business owner Sarah Hannington, the possibility threatened her company, too. The owner of Florida-based mycustomcandy.com, which manufactures printed candy hearts, Hannington relied on Necco to supply as many as 40,000 pounds of the tiny treat each Valentine’s Day season.
“As the news was breaking out, we kept getting messages like ‘OMG do you guys have any candy hearts left?’” Hannington said. “We get requests from all over the world. You couldn’t find it anywhere.”
But the panic was misplaced. Plenty of other companies have been making these heart-shaped sugar bombs for decades. And the end of Necco made for a big opening in the market.
“We’re certainly going to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Sarah Kittel, a spokeswoman for Ferrara Candy Co., which has been making its own version of the candy for almost 60 years. Ferrara is the parent of Brach’s Conversation Hearts and SweeTarts Hearts Candy Kits. So far this season, the company said it’s produced 10 percent more compared with last year, and sales have risen by 11 percent.
Even Hannington decided to make her own hearts—and she’s also cashing in, with a 36 percent increase in sales over last year.
Necco was a New England institution going back to the Civil War. Based in Boston and later Revere, Massachusetts, the company went on to make brands known to children and dentists alike, from Clark Bars to Mary Janes. Last year, the remains of the company were bought by a private equity firm, Round Hill Investments LLC, which ultimately sold the century-old Sweethearts brand to the Spangler Candy Co.
“In people’s hearts, Necco was the original,” said Beth Kimmerle, author of the book Candy: A Sweet History. “You’re going to reach for the brand that has been around for generations. It was the familiar version.”
Other iterations, traditionalists complain, differ in color, texture and flavor. Brach’s Conversation Hearts and SweeTarts look similar to the famous Necco hearts but taste different, some say. When it comes to Valentine’s Day spending, though, no one seems to be boycotting. In fact, rather than being seen as interlopers, the remaining companies are benefiting from all the social media whining.
“Obviously all of this very positive conversation—forgive the pun around conversation hearts—it certainly sparked interest in this product segment,” said Kittel. “For us, this interest or intrigue is translating into sales.”
Ferrara currently occupies 65 percent of the conversation hearts market, with Brach’s and SweeTarts bringing up the rear. Almost all 2,800 of Kroger’s supermarkets nationwide carry Brach’s and SweeTarts, according to company spokeswoman Kristal Howard.
For Hannington and her business—one of the few that can custom-print candy hearts—the demise of Necco created a challenge. The 36-year-old did have some warning it was coming, though. In recent years, getting orders filled by the company had become difficult.
“It was slow,” Hannington said. “You would cross your fingers, and if you got the order, you got the order.”
When Necco shut down, she reached out to other candy companies, but to no avail. So she was forced to organize her own manufacturing process. After working with a tooling firm to create heart-shaped metal plates and a food scientist to pick flavor, color and formula, she found a new manufacturer to produce the candy.
In December, she ramped up her operation, knowing some of Necco’s customers might come her way. And she was right—requests for candy hearts have been tumbling in ever since.
Spangler didn’t return Bloomberg’s request for comment, though the company said in a statement last month that Sweethearts are expected to return to store shelves in 2020.
“There is this novelty and classic-ness to candy hearts,” Hannington said. “I can’t imagine that it would ever go away.”
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