McKeesport Candy Co. finds its niche in 21st century market
Jon Prince may look more like Jon Stewart than Jerry Garcia, but that doesn’t stop this third-generation candy man from invoking the Grateful Dead when describing his career in wholesale.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” he said, standing in his expansive warehouse in McKeesport, surrounded, literally, by tons of candy.
Jawbreakers in every shade, 15 varieties of rock candy, candy cigarettes (now politically correctly called “candy sticks”), Turkish Taffy, Necco Wafers, Atomic Fireballs, Black Cows, sour balls, wax lips, Zotz — more than 3,000 different varieties all told, and all in stock, ready to be packaged and shipped to customers around the globe.
What began in 1927 as the McKeesport Candy Company — founded by Prince’s grandfather, Ernest Prince — has morphed along with the times into CandyFavorites.com, an Internet candy wholesaler that specializes in hard-to-find and retro sweets, and caters to customers from the Pittsburgh Pirates to Prada to anyone with a hankering for a childhood favorite.
The 86-year-old company, still based in its original warehouse on Fifth Avenue, was recognized last month by the McKeesport Chamber of Commerce as one of the oldest businesses in McKeesport.
During the course of its history, the company was run by Ernest Prince, then his son, Gerald, and now his grandson, Jon. Max Mullen, a Prince cousin, and his family also had an interest in the company until the 1980s.
Along with the general manager, Tom Griffin, Jon Prince has reinvented the way his family’s candy empire does business with an online presence, keeping it relevant in today’s shifting market landscape.
“I’ve seen so many family businesses and small businesses not succeed,” said Prince, a Squirrel Hill resident and member of Temple Sinai. “But we’re flexible.”
By the late 1990s, Prince recognized that the business model in Pennsylvania was changing with the closure of many of the smaller drugstores and mom-and-pop businesses, the base of the McKeesport Candy Company’s clientele.
“I said, ‘Look, if we can’t get more business in western Pennsylvania, let’s sell to someone in Maine,’ ” Prince recalled. “You either change your model, or the model becomes broken.”
Gerald Prince, now 85 and retired, realized his son was right.
“It was time to make a move to another facet of the business,” he said. “My son decided the Internet might be the answer.”
That seems to be the case, as CandyFavorites.com, launched in 1998, has breathed new life into the company.
It has drawn the attention of some unique clients, including a well-known, upscale jewelry store in Manhattan that needed 130 pounds of rock candy to stand in for diamonds in a window display, and the producers of AMC’s 1960’s period-show “Mad Men,” who needed some Violet Choward’s Mints for Don to give to Peggy in a fifth season episode.
Those requests were no problem for the McKeesport candy dealer.
“We’ve been selling retro candies long before they were retro,” Jon Prince said.
The website is vast, not only in terms of merchandise, but in terms of historical content, featuring “Candy University,” a section that boasts nostalgic candy ads and commercials, and a candy timeline that goes back to the 1800s.
The site soon will feature a guide to which of the company’s products are kosher, Jon Prince said.
One of the company’s best-sellers is, in fact, Sunkist Gems, a kosher candy that is commonly thrown at b’nai mitzvah children and couples called to the Torah at aufrufs.
“We sell a ton, literally,” he said.
So, what’s it like to work in a candy warehouse?
“It goes in the category of dream job, I think universally,” said Jessica Heatly, the company’s marketing director. “It’s abundant in its opportunities. I get showered with sweets here.”
Although the business has endured for so long, Gerald Prince has no candy-selling aspirations for his grandchildren.
“I have no dreams of it going to the next generation,” he said. “Times are changing so rapidly now.”
But for now, this old-time candy company has found a way to persevere.
“Respect your past,” said Jon Prince. “Just don’t be too nostalgic for it.”
“I don’t feel like Willy Wonka,” he added. “I just feel lucky, and equally blessed.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)