Mallo Cups maker pulls itself out of sticky strait

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) — In the past 10 years, Boyer Candy Co. has survived the death of its owner, a legal squabble among his heirs that halted production for nine months, and distribution hiccups as the company regained its footing. All that left customers to wonder, “Do they still make Mallo Cups?”

Yeah, they do.

This month, Boyer set about reminding folks by launching a new product — Dark Chocolate Mallo Cups — that company officials hope will help re-establish the reputation of this small company in Altoona, tucked into the Allegheny Mountains about 90 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Mallo Cups are coconut-laced milk chocolate cups filled with a marshmallow center. They were invented by Emily Boyer, the mother of R.J. “Bob” and William “Bill” Boyer, who at first sold candy door to door during the Great Depression.

Mallo Cups are the flagship, distributed nationwide and accounting for more than 60 percent of sales at Boyer, which also makes its own Peanut Butter Cups, Smoothie Cups — a butterscotch cup candy — and other products.

“We’ve been around since 1936. … We’re an old-fashioned, family-owned company, and we don’t change that quickly,” said Deborah Forgione, Boyer’s director of marketing, and one of four trustees who control the company once owned by her late ex-husband. “This is a big undertaking for us.”

Experts say the move makes sense for a smaller company safeguarding its niche in an industry dominated by larger rivals with names like Hershey, Nestle and Mars.

“I’m rooting for them, if that makes any difference,” said Beth Kimmerle, a candy historian and blogger who develops candy exhibits in the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

“I love it when these regional brands sort of stay true to their original heritage, but keep on keeping on, you know?”

Steve Almond is author of “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,” an ode to smaller candy factories he toured, though he’s never been to Boyer. He thinks Dark Chocolate Mallo Cups make sense, as long as the company harbors no illusions that they’ll be Boyer’s salvation.

“What Boyer is doing is called a brand extension,” Almond said. “You want to try to expand your business, but in order to do that, you have to have something new to sell.”

That’s why the bigger candy makers semi-regularly roll out new versions of old favorites — “We’re talking about Kit Kat Dark, Kit Kat White, Kit Kat Coffee,” Almond said. That’s a bigger risk for smaller companies with less advertising clout and more to lose if the new product tanks.

“It’s the equivalent of the Hollywood sequel,” Almond said.

Except Boyer officials believe the new version may be even better than the original.

“It’s an exceptionally good taste, with the dark chocolate and the Mallo center,” said Bob Faith, a former vending company owner hired three years ago as CEO to reinvigorate the company after years of turmoil.

The Boyer brothers retired in 1969 and sold the company to American Maize Products, a corn syrup manufacturer, which tried to expand Boyer’s line of chocolate cup candies in the 1970s with varieties including the Fluffernutter and the Minty Mallo — the last time the company tried a variation of the venerable Mallo Cup.

The new products never really caught on, and American Maize sold Boyer in 1984 to Anthony Forgione, a New York entrepreneur who fell in love with the business and moved to Altoona. He stabilized Boyer by focusing on its core candies before his death in March 2001 almost toppled the company.

His divorce from Deborah Forgione — finalized just days before he died — set off a legal battle between her and two of their three children for control of Boyer. A trust controlled by Deborah and the three children now owns the company, but management instability during the court battles shut down the company for most of 2003 and saw Mallo Cups lose their coveted place on many store shelves.

Much of Faith’s job is undoing that damage.

“If you cut off the supply, they’re not sitting there waiting for you to come back,” Faith said. “We were out. It’s taken time to get people’s confidence. They love our product, but they don’t want the problems.”

Some problems were easy to fix. Before he ran Boyer, Faith said his vending company about a mile away had trouble buying Mallo Cups because of Boyer’s antiquated 1,000-pound minimum order requirement. That’s changed.

“We’ll find a way to sell you our product,” Faith said. “We’ll sell to anybody: the little guys, the big guys, the middle guys.”

The vice president of sales, Tina Baker, says Boyer has 250 to 300 accounts, including chains like Sheets or Speedway SuperAmerica with hundreds of convenience store outlets — the company’s bread and butter.

Other problems were trickier and took money, which the Forgiones have been spending, Faith said.

Privately held Boyer guards its finances as carefully as Willy Wonka secreted his recipe for Everlasting Gobstoppers, but Faith offered a few numerical clues to the company’s rebounding fortunes.

After revamping its machinery and improving its methods, the factory now produces about 600,000 candy cups a day — about double a year ago. Most of Boyer’s 70 employees were lucky to work a couple days a week a couple years ago, but are now working full-time, with the candy line running four days a week.

And, despite its problems, the company had banked decades of goodwill with many customers.

Samuel Scheinberg, the third-generation owner of Shirley’s Shoes (since 1930), a few blocks away, has been eating Mallo Cups his entire life.

“Oh my, yeah! I remember as a child we would collect the coins,” he said, referring to cardboard tokens in each package that can be redeemed for candy or Boyer-themed products.

“Boyer Candy, that’s the trademark of our town,” Scheinberg said. “It’s all a part of our identity.”

Said Faith: “Back in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, we were a big player. There’s still a lot of name recognition out there, and you can’t put a value on that.”

Faith is counting on that to fuel sales of Dark Chocolate Mallo Cups.

“This is just going to have to grow word of mouth. We’re not big enough. You’re not going to see us on TV, like with the new M&Ms,” Faith said.

And the true impact of Dark Chocolate Mallo Cups might not be measured only by the company’s accountants.

“Just the fact that Boyer is alive and well and we’re doing new things,” Faith said, “that’s just good for business because for a long time people didn’t know if we were still in business.”

The Associated Press