Sunday, December 16, 2018

Flashback 2006: Skipping into candy land

Vandal Gummy, Red, by WhisBe
      The Ferrara Candy Company announced last week it is moving its headquarters, and 400 employees, from Oak Brook Terrace to Chicago, specifically the Old Post Office, which is finally getting its long-awaited overhaul, after years as one of Chicago's most recalcitrant white elephants. 
     That reminded me of my visit to their Forest Park factory, a dozen years ago, and I dug it out of the archives. 

     Do you know how they make gummy bears? Of course you don't. You probably think they use metal molds to form the little squishy ursine confections. Ha! Of course not. The actual process is . . . Well, I'm not sure I should tell you. Because it's so staggeringly cool, maybe it should be a secret only a few of us really plugged-in cool guys know about. . .
     I didn't learn the secret of gummy bears until I went through Ferrara Pan Candy Co. in Forest Park. A dream of mine, to visit the home of Lemonheads and Red Hots and Atomic Fire Balls (There's an un-PC candy name for ya!) and gummy bears and sour gummy worms, which are made . . . no, no, not yet!
     The production line is vertical—that is, it uses gravity to cut down on the need for pumps. Sugar and corn syrup and flavorings and colorings start at the fifth floor, then are blended and mixed and cooked on lower levels, which feature tons and tons of a certain white granular staple.
     "One thing you've got to have is lots of sugar," said John Conversa, the plant manager, showing off one of a pair of two-story sugar silos, 16 feet across. "I believe this one holds 600,000 pounds."
     Sugar—or more precisely, our government's shortsighted and punitive sugar tariffs—have driven many Chicago candy companies to Mexico.
     Family-owned Ferrara Pan stays here, although it does have factories south of the border, and its more, shall we say, sugar-intensive candies are made there, such as Atomic Fire Balls, which are basically pure sugar with a heart of plutonium-239 (joking; they only taste that way).
     Not that sugar aplenty isn't being used at Forest Park; the factory goes through 200,000 pounds—the contents of a single rail car—every day.
     The dynamics of the plant are interesting enough to fill up three columns. Parts look just like a ship's engine, all pipes and retorts and gauges. What they're basically doing is removing moisture, taking liquid ingredients and cooking and drying them until the result is a miniature distillate of sweetness and flavor.
     Much of that flavor is sourness, which means acidity, and, as Conversa says, "Acid is very hygroscopic," meaning it draws water, so keeping tabs on the water content of the candy is very important.
     An extra 2 percent of moisture is the difference between a jelly bean that will sit happily on the shelf for years and one that will immediately begin to break down—"sweat" is the candy maker's term. Sweating candy is bad.
     Jelly beans, incidentally, are built up like pearls, around a center, a process known lyrically as "engrossment."
     They actually use three different types of sugar, increasing in fineness, to get the hard sheen on the outside, the way you would switch to finer sandpaper to finish a wooden desk.
     But I was going to tell you how they mold gummy bears. No, not a metal mold—imagine trying to pry a warm, sticky gummy worm out of THAT. No, they take corn starch, mixed with a bit of oil to make it clump like wet snow.
     Machines spread the beige starch in a low tray, then take a plate bearing hundreds of little steel bears and press their shapes into the starch, the way wet sand forms footprints. Then the trays slide under hundreds of little spigots—the whole place is automated—and the nozzles blurp just enough sweet/sour liquid to fill each bearlike impression. The candies are set aside to harden, then the trays are flipped over, the nascent gummy bears have their cornstarch steamed off, and are on their way to be packaged for their rendezvous with your mouth.
     Like most kids, I have an innate preference for the chocolate family of candies. But going through Ferrara Pan gave me appreciation for the whole sour/gummy subgenus.
     They truly are a wonder and, more so, a Chicago wonder.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 30, 2006


  1. A hundred TONS of sugar, every DAY? I have never encountered any struggling dentists, anywhere in America. Now I know the reason why.

    Wasn't one of their plants visible from the Eisenhower Expressway? I remember the Ferrara Pan sign on their factory wall, in the Sixties, as I drove west heading back to school. How long has the business been in the same family? I can't remember their last name, but I think I knew one of their sons while in college.

    I used to love those Boston Baked Beans. Are they still around? And the box they came in, with its brick-red graphics on the outside, also did double duty as an adequate substitute for a kazoo.

    1. The Forest Park facility is the one seen from the Eisenhower.

  2. Neil! What and where is that beautiful concourse you have pictured across the top this morning? (I'm thinking it is some common Cicago landmark Minneapolitans are unaware of.)

    1. The Oculus mall, at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City. I posted it because that's where I saw the gummy bear sculpture.

  3. That tax seems to have lasted quite a long time, despite costing American consumers billions of dollars. Whom does it benefit, pray tell?


    1. American sugar farmers and refiners, who else?

      Because sugar can be made from both cane (from the South) and beets (from the Plains and elsewhere), sugar farmers are distributed throughout enough states to make sure that there's just enough political support for the sugar subsidy to keep it going.

  4. Aren't food plants just the coolest? I used to have a job that required me to tour one every month. It was great--like getting paid to go on a terrific school field trip.

    And yes, starch moguls (that's what they're called) are awesome. One thing you didn't mention is that the starch gets recycled and reused, over and over, so that they're not nearly as wasteful as they might seem.

  5. Working downtown, I often savor the smell of chocolate from the Blommer Factory. I live a few blocks from the Forest Park Ferrara Pan factory. Often, getting off the Blue Line here at Harlem and, yes, the Eisenhower, the air often smells of lemon, or strawberry. It's nice, can take you out of the daily grind somehow. Love that orange neon sign, too (this morning, from a few blocks away, barely visible in the fog). I believe the original Taylor Street bakery is still there in Little Italy, near Western, where the candy making started 110 years ago.

  6. I've always wanted to know how they put the "m" on all those gazillions of M&Ms. They have a guy with a teeny tiny marker of some kind who stands there all day stamping candy?

    1. The candies fall into little depression and pass rollers, which transfer the Ms in vegetable dye in a process similar to offset printing.


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