The candy man can

Dead men tell no tales, but J. Brooks West III dug up one
— who had never been alive — to promote his company.
By Michael K. Brantley

Even in Momeyer, a place that smells like peaches year round despite the lack of orchards, some find him odd. He has been known to stroll around this Nash County hamlet of some 300 souls and down the road in Nashville — population 4,000 — dressed in purple and wearing a top hat. Or decked out like Uncle Sam. That’s on special occasions. His preferred habit is seersucker suit, bow tie and spectacles, which makes him resemble Orville Redenbacher, or period pinstripes in which he looks like a Prohibition-era banker. But life is sweet these days for J. Brooks West III, or as he would like for you to know him, J.W. Butterfield.

Which explains that peach smell. It comes from a blue metal building just off U.S. 64, a former machine shop where workers with lathes, welders and torches used to grind and polish metal. Men still work there, though the scent of oil and hot metal is gone. Using equipment old as they are — and recipes even older — they mix, knead and mold candy the way it was done a generation ago.

J.W. Butterfield is a marketing persona of that, one that had worked for years, making Butterfields Candy Co. modestly successful. But not long ago, the company got one of those breaks that business owners dream of. In April, Food Network diva Rachael Ray plugged a one-inch piece of hard candy produced here as her snack of the day. “Immediately, the phone started ringing and we started getting e-mails,” says West, president and owner of Sweet Concepts Inc., the holding company for Butterfields. “We have been loading the fax machine three times a day with paper. Sales people from all over the country are calling, wanting to represent us.”

Ray had run across Peach Buds, the company’s flagship product. When she tasted one, she found out what gourmet-shop patrons have known for years: This is no ordinary hard candy. National recognition came quickly, but Butterfields is no overnight success. In one form or another, it has been around since 1924, when it started as Cane Candy Co., making holiday sweets in Winston-Salem. It later moved to Greensboro and, in the 1950s, to Wilson, where it took the name Wilson Candy Co. It was still called that after moving to Rocky Mount, where West’s former wife, Tracey, ran across the operation and bought it in 1989. A partner in the Australian group that then owned conveyor-belt maker Belt Concepts Inc. in nearby Spring Hope, she thought the candy company had potential as an investment. (West, 51, would buy her out a year after their divorce in 2002.)

West, who had worked as an independent contractor for a French oil company as well as for several international tobacco companies, took an active hand in Wilson Candy — to the point of almost destroying it. “I spent my vacations working in the kitchen. Pretty soon, as an executive, I had issues with the cooks, so I dismissed them. I didn’t know where the light switch was in the place. But there was one fellow there who had been with the company a while who stuck with me, so we started all over from scratch.”

He dug into company archives to find original recipes. “I think we went through a half truckload of sugar to get it right. But sugar was the key. More sugar in the candy releases the flavor and reacts better with the corn syrup.” What he had cooked up was Peach Buds, the base for what has become a variety of other flavors. While Peach Buds is still No. 1, Lime Buds runs a close second, followed by such flavors as tangerine, lemon, cherry, watermelon, cranberry-orange and coffee. They all have a common recipe — sugar, coloring, syrup and coconut. “We are trying to fool your mind when you put it in your mouth. The various flavor profiles are no different than varieties of tomatoes.”

By 1998, West had gone from part-time meddler to running the company. A student of guerrilla marketing concepts made famous by Jay Conrad Levinson — they use imagination and unconventional methods in lieu of a big budget — he was determined to expand without breaking the bank. He asked what’s now CapStrat, a marketing and communications firm in Raleigh, for help. The firm sug- gested personalizing the brand.

That’s how J.W. Butterfield was born. He and the brand that bears his name are retro, down to the tag line on all its items: “Disappearing from candy jars since 1924.” West visited congressional figures in 2005 as Butterfield and brought along a camera crew to film Mr. Butterfield Goes to Washington to document his concern about sugar subsidies and the loss of manufacturing jobs. He has lobbied for the National Confectioners Association against the high tariffs protecting U.S. sugar producers, arguing that the cost of sugar is as much as four times higher in this country, causing candy companies to move overseas or to Canada.

West is not the simple candy maker that J.W. Butterfield seems. He earned a degree in political science in 1981 from Virginia Commonwealth University, has lectured at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and helped broker a multimillion-dollar deal that saw Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. buy out Belt Concepts in 1997. The Chattanooga, Tenn., native grew up in a wealthy family. His grandfather was William R. Samuel, who owned Samuel Stamping & Enamel, Ohio Stove, M.M. Hedges Manufacturing and appliance maker Suburban Gas, all in Ohio, and had interests in factories that produced appliances for Sears’ Kenmore line. West’s father was a mechanical engineer who worked in the family businesses.

At Butterfields, all the tinkering that West did paid off. The company sells $2 million to $4 million of candy each year. West declines to be more specific, citing competitive reasons. However, he says broadening sales from the original holiday market has benefited the company. So did moving it in 1994 to its 10-acre site near Nashville to take advantage of several factors. The maintenance staff of Belt Concepts could help out as needed, and local labor was cheap. The site was close to I-95 and U.S. 64, and he liked the friendly feel of Momeyer. His next move was to change how the candy was presented. For years, Wilson Candy used cellophane bags with twist ties or utilitarian plastic jars, hardly a chic look. “People said from the beginning that this was a great product, but the packaging was not so good,” West says. “You’ve got to answer two things in packaging — what is this and how much does it cost?” The new package — a white window pouch — gives the impression of a gourmet item. He admits his candy is not for the masses. He’s in a niche, with no delusions of displacing Jolly Ranchers, Life Savers or Dum Dums.

The market for hard candies has changed in the last several decades, says Ed Loeb, publisher of trade magazine Gourmet Retailer. “It used to be that you needed great volume, which tended to push [the product] down to the masses. Some companies now want to stay in that niche because of the cost of making the candy. They don’t want to be in the mass market. They feel there is sufficient business to be down in between those channels. That’s where Butterfields fits.”

West hit the road doing trade shows from coast to coast, including Fancy Foods shows in New York City and San Francisco. They are annual events where as many as 24,000 buyers gather to examine nearly 200,000 specialty items. They also give out a sort of food Emmy. Twice, Butterfields has been a finalist for Outstanding Confection of the Year. The brand has garnered nearly 20 regional and national awards. The first push at strategic marketing was calculated. “We got ourselves into airports all over the Southeast,” West says. “Our 3-ounce package is just perfect for taking on an airplane. So people from all over the country were getting our candy. We also put our 800 number on the package. When people would get home to call and order more, we’d start marking a map as to where they were calling from, and then we’d find a distributor in that area.” Butterfields is available in all states, the United Kingdom, Japan, Mexico, Canada and parts of the European mainland.

West says Butterfields will not change its recipes or the traditional way its candy is made. Workers cook syrup and sweeteners in dented old copper kettles — age unknown — that “look like they were dropped out of an airplane,” West says. Once the mixture reaches a certain temperature, it is poured onto a water-cooled metal table where the liquid begins solidifying. Two workers to a table add color and work the gel with metal rods until it is properly mixed and a consistent texture. A machine spins the candy into an almost fiber-optic appearance before it is fed by hand into a machine that cuts it into uniform pieces. The candy then rides a conveyor belt where it is cooled by fans. In another room it continues cooling on long wooden tables and awaits packaging. Two employees run a hopper that feeds the candy into plastic bags by weight. Butterfields employs 11 to 14 workers, most on the factory floor. That swells to around 40 during the fall for Christmas orders. It can produce just over 5,000 pounds of candy a day.

In stores, the 3-ounce package is the best seller, with a suggested retail price of $2.50. Nine-ounce bags sell for $4.50. While the entire factory smells of peaches, other flavor lines are growing. Among them are Peanut Crunch, hand-rolled peanut brittle with North Carolina-grown peanuts, and white chocolate Chocolate Bark. Sales, he says, will exceed $5 million in 2009, when he expects Oregon-based gourmet retailer Harry & David to put the company’s lemon drops in some gift baskets. Butterfields will do test marketing with Williams-Sonoma, a high-end retail chain based in San Francisco. West plans to revamp his Web site to allow distributors and companies to order online and streamline his order fulfillment process.

However, a 2004 acquistion might prove to be the best move the company has made. Sweet Concepts bought Shaker Country Meadowsweets, a maker of botanical herbal confections and organic products, from New Jersey-based Hillside Candy Co. While Shaker Country has sat dormant, the green movement has grown and a relaunch of the company with its own packaging and heritage appeal is in the works.

“We’ll have a lot of tea-related products. We own the trademark for Tea Drops, a candy you drop into tea to flavor it. We’re also working on a candy that has the tea in it, instead of putting it into the tea. It didn’t fit the scale of the company that owned it, but it is right for us.”

Michael K. Brantley is a freelance writer who lives in Nashville.