A Ribbon Runs Through It

American Country Candies is a family of sweet-talkers.

"My candies won't make you fatter, only sweeter," reads a sign tucked into the corner of American Country Candies' one-room factory in Fort Collins. Lie. It's against the fundamental makeup of candy -- the candy's essence, even -- to not be fatty. But Andrea Kennedy looks like she hasn't indulged in a sugary delicacy one day in her life. Short and fiery, the 64-year-old owns the shop, which is one of the only factories in the country that makes hand-crimped ribbon candy.

For almost four months, Andrea and her candy-makers -- full-timers Nico and Donald, part-timer Megan, daughter Colleen and son-in-law Jeff -- have been churning out their signature ribbon candy. When they wrapped up their last day of production for the holiday season on December 9, they had produced about 240,000 pieces (roughly 6,000 per day), each made entirely by hand.

The process of making ribbon candy starts by bringing a mixture of glucose, sugar and water to a boil, then allowing it to bubble and steam in a cauldron, like a witches' brew. Once it reaches 340 degrees Fahrenheit, the translucent, saffron-colored liquid is poured onto a marble table where Donald adds citric and malic acids and a clear oil flavoring. With metal spatulas, Megan, Donald and Jeff stir the gooey substance. They tear up as the rising steam penetrates their eyes; they no longer even notice the smell of burnt sugar that wafts around the corrugated metal building.

Life is  candy-licious for Andrea Kennedy (left) and her 
daughter, Colleen Riggs.
Anthony Camera
Life is candy-licious for Andrea Kennedy (left) and her daughter, Colleen Riggs.

The team of five works as a unit, everyone instinctively aware of their roles as they move quickly about the work area. The batch is separated into two or three sections, then dyed and kneaded until the color is evenly distributed. To make those colors really vivid -- blues become cerulean, yellows become snow white -- each section is pulled, like taffy, on a candy hook attached to the far wall. The colored strips are then placed under a heat lamp, where they melt back together into a fifteen-pound heap of workable candy. Nico stations himself at what is referred to as the "butt" of the candy, or the head of the wooden table that serves as the assembly line. He "spins" the candy, stroking and pulling it into one-inch-thick strands and cutting it for Megan to pass down the assembly line.

"When we first started and Nico was learning how to spin, Jeff would stand back there, and the big joke was that Jeff was keeping Nico's butt warm," Colleen laughs.

The candy stays pliable for less than a minute. Megan, the designated "passer," shoots a flat piece down the row to be molded almost every second. Her aim is precise, and only a few succumb to candy hell: the floor. Dead ones get placed aside; broken ones are usually eaten. Once Megan begins sliding the ribbons down, it's a free-for-all. Jeff, Donald and Colleen grab for the closest strand, wrap it around their pointer fingers and loop it in and out of each finger until it takes on the recognizable ribbon shape. They do this 600 times before the batch is done.

The process is repetitive, to say the least. Nico and Donald talk about the Nuggets and Dwayne Wade's potential this season, or they pick on Megan and Colleen as they effortlessly pull or loop the candy. Donald has a fairly sardonic sense of humor. Everything he says is either a half-truth or an outright fib, but he quickly follows each biting remark with, "Naw, I'm only joking." Donald and Nico met in the Youthful Offender System, a juvenile-delinquent facility in Pueblo, and were both transferred to Turning Point Center, a halfway house in Fort Collins. When Andrea put an ad in the local newspaper for seasonal workers, Donald responded. Nico followed.

Despite "getting lost," as Donald and Nico refer to their time in Pueblo, everything appears equal at the factory; everyone jokes with each other and gives each other a hard time, like family. Spending eight hours a day together in such close confines, you have to get comfortable with one another early on, Donald says.

Up until recently, Andrea supervised the crew, but when Colleen and Jeff moved back to Fort Collins from Arizona to help out, Colleen took over the manufacturing end, since she had spent much of her childhood watching her parents make candy. Andrea stayed on as a sales rep and continues to hand-deliver the packaged goods all over the Front Range and the Western Slope. She rarely crosses state lines, because inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration increase with interstate commerce, she says. In fact, customers from any of the six outside states in which Andrea conducts business must drive to the Colorado factory to pick up their orders.

Keeping the business local and hand-delivering orders is actually less of a hassle, Andrea notes, because the ribbon candy is so delicate that it can't be shipped, no matter how carefully it's bubble-wrapped. Each holiday season, Andrea makes frequent drop-offs to Cook'sMart in Cherry Creek, the Cupboard and JAX in Fort Collins, and the Spruce House in Estes Park. Some businesses, like JAX, have been customers since the beginning.

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