A Ribbon Runs Through It
"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.
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.
Andrea and her late husband acquired the business 27 years ago, when it was Tony's Sweetheart Candies. Tony Skoulas, the former owner, had a strong Greek accent, a pronounced limp and a distinguished knowledge of candy-making. After the Kennedys bought the business for a scant $10,000, Tony stayed on for five years, passing down everything he knew from a lifetime in the candy industry.
"The old Greek candy-maker was really adamant about flavor," Andrea says. "'If you're going to spend that much time and that much money to make candy, make it the best that there possibly is,' he would say." It was Skoulas who inspired the couple to continue to use the old-school method of making the ribbons with their fingers instead of a machine.
It's this hand "crimping" that sets American Country apart: When you open a package of its ribbon candy, each piece is different. But this traditional method is so labor-intensive that it has been abandoned by most ribbon-candy makers, says James Gilson, owner of Sevigny's in Massachusetts, the largest ribbon-candy manufacturer in the United States. In fact, American Country is one of just three companies left in the nation that do not use any motorized machinery. Denver's own Hammond's Candies use crimpers -- a hand-cranked metal object that bends the ribbon into perfectly shaped loops -- to create its popular ribbon candies. With this method, Hammond's has the ability to produce candy more efficiently, but Andrea feels that it lacks the authenticity of American Country's imperfections, such as the occasional square loop or crack that occurs if the candy begins to harden before it's molded.
While Colleen admits it would be easier if they used crimpers -- especially since American produces six more flavors of ribbon candy than Hammond's during the holiday season -- it would negate all those years of preserved tradition. "I think it's a lost art, and my mom has really tried to keep that alive. And my husband and I hope to keep that alive, and maybe through our kids keep it alive," she says.
Whether that hope will come to fruition is still uncertain. Andrea put the factory up for sale two years ago, before Colleen returned to help, and was asking $250,000 for everything. Colleen is thankful that there have been no recent offers because she wants to keep American Country family-owned. And even though her mother still has the business on the market, she's moving ahead with plans to print catalogues, update the company's website and possibly hire an experienced sales rep. Colleen's oldest daughter will return from Iowa in March to help out on the assembly line -- they'll make peanut brittle, candy drops and candied popcorn until Easter -- just as her sixteen-year-old son did this winter.
It's a family tradition.
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