Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

A factory in Cambridge makes 14 million Junior Mints a day. Why is no one allowed inside?

Cambridge Brands, between Kendall Square and Central Square, is owned by Tootsie Roll Industries.
Scott Kirsner for the Boston Globe
Cambridge Brands, between Kendall Square and Central Square, is owned by Tootsie Roll Industries.

On the walk from Kendall Square into Central Square, you’ll pass the last remaining candy factory in Cambridge. It’s a boxy cream-colored building, with opaque windows. A small sign out front whispers that the facility, Cambridge Brands, is owned by Tootsie Roll Industries. You need sharp eyes to read it from the far side of Main Street.

For a few years now, I’ve wanted to unwrap the mystery of the Cambridge Brands factory, and find a way to get inside. I succeeded at one of those goals.

My starting point: Everyone in Cambridge assumed that the factory probably made Tootsie Rolls or Tootsie Pops — or maybe both — given its corporate parentage. And the small sign incorporates Tootsie’s familiar white, red, and brown color scheme.

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For the first half of the 20th century, Cambridge was the rich, creamy center of the nation’s candy industry. Factories cranked out Charleston Chews, Necco wafers, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Sugar Daddies, and an array of chocolates and cookies, including the Fig Newton. According to the Cambridge Historical Society, 1946 was the apex of the city’s candymaking era, with 66 different companies dotted around Cambridge. At the time, the area in which Cambridge Brands is located was known as “Confectioner’s Row.” The Cambridge Brands facility was built in 1927 by the James O. Welch Company, which invented Sugar Babies, Sugar Daddies, and Sugar Mamas — all caramel-intensive treats. Welch was eventually acquired by Tootsie Roll Industries in 1993.

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In the second half of the 20th century, the candy industry consolidated, manufacturing moved out of the city, and many of the dustier brands fell out of fashion. Still, even in the early 1980s, “My first memory of the neighborhood was how sweet it smelled,” Gus Rancatore remembers. “The Necco factory was still making candy, and I think two other factories were still in business.” Rancatore was a cofounder in 1981 of Toscanini’s Ice Cream, whose original location is diagonally across the street from Cambridge Brands. But Rancatore told me that he’d never been inside the factory. “Wish I could be more helpful,” he said.

I asked the public relations representatives of Tootsie Roll Industries, headquartered in Chicago, whether anyone could tell me about the factory in Cambridge, or perhaps give me a glimpse inside. I waited, and called, and e-mailed again. I rang up the CEO’s office and left a message.

I read everything I could about Tootsie Roll Industries, which the Wall Street Journal described in 2012 as a “secret empire.” It’s a publicly traded company — the stock is down about 20 percent over the last year — but does the bare minimum of publicity. The company has 2,000 employees, and the Cambridge factory is the smallest production facility it owns. Two years ago, there was a rare accident at the Cambridge factory — a candy-wrapping machine severed a worker’s fingertip — and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration levied a $46,000 fine for workplace safety and training violations.

I eventually tracked down one person who’d been inside the factory: Jeff Lemberg, a Curry College communications professor who wrote a 2002 story about it for the Globe, just before Halloween. “I was hoping to find chocolate rivers and Oompa-Loompas,” Lemberg said, “but it was just a bland factory run by a small team of Central American women in hair nets.” The noise from the machinery was so loud that everyone wore ear plugs. Lemberg also happened to meet the CEO and COO of Tootsie Roll Industries, Melvin and Ellen Gordon, who gave him a personal tour. “By coincidence,” Lemberg explained, they just happened to be in town from Chicago.

Melvin and Ellen Gordon in 2003.
Sun-Times Media via Associated Press/File
Melvin and Ellen Gordon in 2003.
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Actually, it turns out that the top two executives of Tootsie Roll Industries lived part-time in Wellesley and had strong ties to the area. Melvin Gordon was born in Dorchester, and earned degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Business School; Ellen Gordon studied at Wellesley College and earned a degree at Brandeis.

The Gordons had overseen acquisitions that included Dots gumdrops, Charms Blow Pops, Dubble Bubble gum, and Andes chocolate mints — as well as the purchase of the Cambridge Brands facility in 1993. While the company is headquartered in Chicago, the Gordons seemed to spend a good deal of time in Wellesley; Tootsie Roll Industries paid about $12,500 a month to rent them an apartment in the Windy City, and between $800,000 and $1.2 million on their private jet transportation, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

When Melvin died three years ago, at age 95, Ellen took over as the company’s CEO. She is now 86. “Mrs. Gordon is vigorously engaged in the day to day operation of the Company’s business and strategic planning,” according to a March SEC filing. “In addition, Mrs. Gordon has advised the Board that she has no present intention of retiring from her current positions as an officer and a director.”

Tootsie Roll Industries

There are continual questions about whether Tootsie Roll Industries will be gobbled up by a larger company. But Ellen Gordon, her late husband, and her father before her have been at the helm since the 1950s. Gordon and her four daughters own about 60 percent of the company.

No Wall Street analysts cover Tootsie Roll Industries, in part because the company is so reticent — it doesn’t hold investor conference calls, for instance. But in 2017, the activist investment firm Spruce Point Capital Management issued a “strong sell” recommendation on the company. “Tootsie dates back to the early 1900s and its brands are withering along with its core customers,” the Spruce Point report said. “Sales haven’t grown in six years, and we estimate it is losing market share in North America.”

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After waiting two months for a response, I finally got an e-mail from the public relations firm that represents Tootsie Roll Industries. They answered five questions, informing me that the answers came from the CEO herself.

About 200 people work at the Cambridge factory, making 26,500,000 pieces of candy a day. Of those, about 14,560,000 are individual Junior Mints. (The Cambridge Brands facility is the world’s only source of Junior Mints, Sugar Babies, and Charleston Chews — but it doesn’t make Tootsie Rolls or Tootsie Pops.) How is it that Cambridge Brands has continued to operate as everything else has closed down? “The company has invested millions of dollars in automating packaging, processing lines, and materials handling equipment, and we will continue to do so,” Gordon wrote.

Why doesn’t Cambridge brands offer tours, or even let the occasional reporter (like me) inside? “As is typical in the manufacturing industry,” Gordon explained, “for food safety, proper sanitation, and hygiene, the facility operates a closed plant.”

Its neighbor on Massachusetts Avenue, the New England Confectionery Company, decamped from Cambridge in 2003, moving its plant to Revere. That company is in dire straits: It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April, and an auction is scheduled for May 23. The company could be acquired by someone who wants to continue running it, or it could be sold for parts. Necco’s former factory is now occupied by the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, a pharmaceutical research center that is now Cambridge’s biggest private employer.

That leaves Cambridge Brands as the last vestige of an industrial era when Cambridge made things, from railroad cars to carriages to soap to woven hoses to bolts.

It still makes Junior Mints.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.