BRISTOL, Va. - Helms Candy Company in Bristol, Va., is one of America’s oldest family-owned and operated candy companies still in operation today.
Founded in 1909 by Helms' great-grandfather, George Helms, the company is most well-known for its Red Band Candy Canes, Peanut Butter Sticks and King Pops suckers.
George Helms did not start out as a confectioner.
"He owned Bristol Grocery and needed candy to stock his shelves," Mark Helms explained. "He started making his own candy under the brand name ‘Jobbers’ because that is what wholesalers were."
The company continued to carry the name "Jobbers" until 1976 when the candy manufacturer moved to its current location on Lee Highway in Bristol.
Over the years, Helms branched out and started making some pharmaceutical products. Due to 9/11 and ever-tightening FDA restrictions, Mark said, that part of the company is being slowly phased out.
The company is now concentrating on sugar stick candy, which is sold under the Red Band and Virginia Beauty brands. Helms Candy is distributed in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. While most people believe the stick candy is a seasonal item, Helms sells the candy year-round.
As one of the nation’s oldest confectioners, Mark said it is getting harder and harder to compete.
"When I was a child, we would go to shows and there would be more than 1,000 confectioners. Now, there are less than 100."
Mark attributed the decline in American candy companies to free trade. "Most all of your candy today is made in Mexico where you have cheap sugar, cheap labor and there are no FDA regulations," he said. "Even Hershey’s makes its chocolate in Mexico. All they do in Hershey today is mold the chocolate."
While much of the confectionary business is automated today, it still requires a lot of hands-on work. More and more, Mark said, making candy is a "lost art and it is getting harder to find employees interested in learning this art."
More than anything, weather affects the production of candy.
"You can have all the formulas in the world, but the humidity affects the look and feel of the candy. And you have to know what the candy should look like and how to make adjustments for the correct consistency."
Aside from Mark, who is vice-president, his brother and sister work for the company. His sister, Deborah Smith, is president, and brother George (Buzz) Helms IV is vice president of candy sales.
Today’s generation of children has been raised up on Gummy Bears, and they really don’t know what real candy is like. Mark would like to encourage parents and grandparents to share some Helms candy products this Christmas with the next generation.
And there are many ways to eat Helms candy. Right out of the box, broken up and poured over ice cream, or the way country folk ate it - get a fresh orange, cut a hole in the top, and place the stick candy in the hole to be used as a straw. For many older folks, nothing says Christmas like a piece of Red Band Candy stuck down in a fresh orange.comments powered by Disqus