The smell of peppermint, root beer, and cinnamon waft through the air near F.B. Washburn Candy factory in Brockton. Vats of sugar bubble, lemon drops tumble off rollers, and lollipops sparkle in the light. Does co-owner Jim Gilson ever feel like Willy Wonka? “I’ve been asked that question many times, but to be very blunt, no, never do I feel like Willy Wonka.” For one, he’s purveyor of hard candy, not chocolate, and sorry, boys and girls, there are no golden tickets or glass elevators in this production plant. But without a doubt, Gilson is a candy man: He’s confectioner at the oldest family owned candy business in the country. During peak season, 6,000 pounds of product — including its famous ribbon candy — cascade from the old mill building.
“I’ve always had a sweet tooth. So yes, I do eat candy way too often. There are candy samples all around me, but I do my best to refrain. We are the largest producer of flat lollipops in the US — if you go to the bank and see lollipops, that’s us. We also have a full line of hard candy with every shape and flavor imaginable.
“Before I took over as president almost three decades ago, I ran the kitchen for 20 years. I know a lot about candy making and purchase all the machinery, as well as formulate any new formulas.
“This is somewhat of a seasonal company — 60 percent of our business is for Christmas, especially ribbon candy and traditional Christmas mixes. No one else has an automated process to make ribbon candy; our patented machinery is 40 years old. Ribbon candy — it looks like curvy pieces of ribbon — is almost too beautiful to eat. It’s as much decorative as a food item.
“When I was young, we made a greater variety of candy products, including a coconut, marshmallow, and peanut bar. Then my father and uncle decided to gear the business more toward hard candy. We also do a lot of private label manufacturing for Russell Stover, Fannie May, and other companies who buy from the plant to sell under their own labels.
“I continue to invest in new equipment, including a new wrapping machine from Italy that doubles the speed of how we wrap products. But like everything, our business model is changing. Hard candy is an older person’s candy, and sales continue to decline. But in our case, we’ve captured more of the market, so it doesn’t affect us.
“We’re constantly experimenting with new versions, including sugar-free and all-natural candy. But between all of us, we go into the kitchen and figure it out. There’s no other way to do it. I’ve seen everything there is to see with hard candy.”Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.