Watch as peppermint happens … Red Bird earns its candy stripes
Piedmont Candy, the maker of Red Bird – North Carolina’s home-grown candy – makes candy sticks and candy puffs. And while some of its candies have red-and-white stripes, and some are flavored with peppermint, it’s a completely different candy experience.
You cut a hole in the orange, stuck in a candy stick and sucked – very hard, hard enough to make your cheeks hurt – until the pores in the candy dissolved enough to let you pull a little orange juice through the stick. (In theory, anyway: It doesn’t work that well in practice, although it sure kept kids busy on long Christmas afternoons.)
As a company, Piedmont is almost as different as its candy. It’s still family-owned, although it’s on its second family now. It has stayed here, on a side street in Lexington, instead of moving somewhere cheaper to operate, as many candy companies have. It’s even branching out, with new flavors and styles and with retro packages for stores like Williams-Sonoma and Anthropologie.
For a company that makes such a colorful product, the Piedmont Candy factory isn’t a colorful place: White metal buildings huddle on a gray gravel parking lot behind a wire fence. The only color comes from small red-and-white striped awnings over a couple of doors and the Red Bird logo (“Southern Refresh-Mints”).
Before you open the door into the factory, you had better love peppermint. The smell tickles your nose and makes your eyes tingle. Neighbors near the plant say they keep their windows open in summer, to enjoy the minty smell.
The first thing you pass are giant white sacks of Dixie Crystals sugar, 2,400 pounds each. The difference between Red Bird and hard peppermint is right there: Candy canes are made with corn syrup, which makes them hard and shiny. Red Bird uses cane sugar, water and invert sugar (a mix of fructose and glucose, the same as honey), which keeps sugar from crystalizing and retains moisture.
▪ After the sugars and water go through the cookers, eventually climbing to 300 degrees, they come out as a yellow goo that looks like thick honey. It curves around a metal drum, draping off the back into sheets. As it piles up, clear bits of sugar sheet off like glass, fluttering in the air, and filaments of sugar drape over anything nearby in webs.
▪ Every few minutes, a white-suited worker pulls off a 100-pound mound of of hot yellow sugar. First, he cuts off a 10-pound lump and drops it off on the coloring table. There, workers – who have rubbed their gloves and the table with wax to prevent sticking – grab the hot candy and add a ladle of red dye powder, kneading and turning for about 45 seconds until the lump is a deep, dark red.
▪ The remaining 90 pounds are hurried over to machines called pullers, with four arms that spin around each other, stretching the candy as it cools while workers ladle peppermint oil over it. As air mixes in, it turns from yellow to white, forming graceful whorls that look like manes for life-size My Little Pony dolls.
▪ Then the workers make the stripes: Every 4 minutes, a pillowy white mass of cooled candy gets hefted to a table and shaped into a fat pillow. The dark red candy gets cut with giant scissors – like the ones in your mom’s sewing kit, but as long as your forearm – and shaped into 4 long strips. Each strip is stretched along the white pillow, end to end.
▪ Next, it goes into the rolling machines, long metal rollers with bumps to keep the candy from sticking. Those spin the pillow roll, pressing in the red strips and shaping the candy into a log. As it turns, the red strips wrap around to form spiral stripes. The log stretches out, from fat as a barber pole to skinny as a pencil, then goes through cutters – short for peppermint puffs, long for peppermint sticks.
Fans blow everywhere, keeping the candy pieces from sticking together as they cool. Rattling along the assembly line, past two women with very quick eyes who pull out misshapen puffs or blobby stripes, they go into the closed humidity room.
That’s off limits to visitors’ eyes, but it’s where a little magic happens: Humidity, basically steam, opens up the pores in the candy, softening it a little. Before the room was created, It used to sit for four days, so Southern humidity could do the job. Now it takes less than an hour. After wrapping and packaging, the company tries to let it sit for two weeks longer before shipping it out.
Paquin has only been at Piedmont Candy for a year. It’s a lot more fun than her old job: She was in marketing for a conglomerate, working on the account for D-Con, the rodent killer. Here, she gets to work on new flavors and new packaging. Right now, she’s developing a holiday assortment for next year, with flavors like cinnamon bun and gingersnap.
Fans of vanished flavors like sassafras and spearmint still mourn, but Piedmont adds new flavors all the time, like lemon, orange and cotton candy. Paquin also is excited about a new line of chocolate-covered peppermint puffs.
Eberlein was born in Baltimore to a German family. His father died when Eberlein was 18, so he apprenticed with a candy maker and worked his way south. In 1918, he came to Lexington to work for the North Carolina Candy Co., the forerunner to Piedmont Candy. When the Depression hit and a partner died, the plant closed and eventually declared bankruptcy. Eberlein ended up buying it all, including a bunch of boxes labeled “Red Bird.”
That’s when Doug Reid stepped in. He had worked in textiles, so he knew manufacturing equipment. Eberlein sold him the factory, keeping the candy store as a family business. The plan was for Eberlein to teach Reid to make candy. But Eberlein died suddenly in a lawn mower accident. Employees taught Reid what he needed to know. Using his knowledge of manufacturing, output rose from 2,000 pounds a day to 6,000 pounds an hour. Reid’s son, Chris, is now the CEO.
The candy store is crammed with all kinds of sweets and novelties. But a big part of what they sell is still Red Bird, in all shapes and sizes. Foster and Leonard, both retired teachers, spend their days surrounded by candy, including fudge that Foster makes every day.