Candy maker Wolfgang charts new approach
Inside a former printing plant found just off Interstate 83 in southern York County, Wolfgang Confectioners is making a miracle.
At least, that’s how it smells. The industrial facility in the borough of Loganville has an immediate and sweet odor to it. It’s chocolate, but it’s also peanut butter and white chocolate and the smell of baked snacks as they’re covered in all three. It’s a smell that sits in your back teeth and makes you forget your new year’s resolution or that article you half-read about the dangers of sugar. It’s the unmistakable smell of a candy factory.
For the generations of York County residents familiar with Wolfgang, that smell might not seem like a miracle. It is, after all, a candy company. But for those who have watched the company’s decline over the past decade, the survival of Wolfgang as a company was decidedly in question.
Now, helmed by President Sam Miller and Chairman and CEO Mike Stillman, the company is poised for a comeback from its long-gone days of school fundraising. When Miller came on as COO in 2016, it had 15 full-time staff members supported by teams of seasonal staff. Just two years later, Miller said Wolfgang has 108 full time employees.
It’s a level of growth that Miller and Stillman hope to continue — even if it means the loss of a legacy consumer brand.
Since the company’s 1921 founding in the cellar of Delphy Eli and Mima Mae Wolfgang, the company became synonymous with school fundraisers, farmer’s markets and vending machines.
“If you’re from here, you can’t go very far without meeting somebody that has eaten or sold Wolfgang candy,” said Miller, who sold it himself for school fundraisers.
Its business model gave the company nearly 90 years of uninterrupted prosperity as well as brand loyalty with its factory tours and a candy shop in North York borough.
That was until the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into federal law in 2010. The law set stricter regulations for the sale of high-fat and high-sugar products in schools, which included chocolate bars made by Wolfgang Candy.
The law was an existential blow for the company, said Miller.
“In one year, Wolfgang Candy’s sales as a fundraiser fell 50 percent. When it drops that dramatically because of a legal, political component, there are a lot of quick decisions that need to be made,” said Miller.
The company began a restructuring in the fall of 2011 and struck a partnership with an unnamed company, but M&T Bank failed to approve the deal, according to news reports at the time. Reporting between $1 million and $10 million in debt, one of the oldest family-run candy businesses in the country filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2012.
The next year saw Wolfgang flirt with a sale to Alabama-based Divine Serendipity LLC before the proposed deal was terminated by a judge in September 2012. In a last minute rescue, Wolfgang was bought for $1 million by Lancaster-based Food Management Systems Inc., a Stillman-owned company.
Wolfgang began pursuing new lines of revenue, including an expansion of its retail offerings, co-manufacturing partnerships and the continuation of its fundraising wing. But over the next few years, Miller and Stillman both realized they were chasing three opportunities and only catching one.
“The fundraising side continued to see declines year to year. When you get in that retail game, there’s a lot of risk and reward,” said Miller.
When Miller was elevated to COO of the company in February 2016, he knew it was time for drastic changes.
“We really determined at the big level we were doing all three business units, but not doing any of them great,” said Miller, who became the company’s president at the start of 2017. “It was very complex for a small, family-run business, and overly complex at the end of the day.”
The company abandoned most of its retail business — a move that included closing its North York retail location — and all of its fundraising business. By 2017, Wolfgang Candy had been retooled as strictly a co-manufacturing operation, a term often shortened to co-man.
“Co-man opportunities were coming in on a daily basis, literally,” said Miller.
Co-manufacturing — when one company licenses another to make a branded product for it — might seem like a death knell for the century-old brand. No longer does the company produce the products for which most consumers know it and, legally, co-manufacturing businesses like Wolfgang cannot reveal their partnering companies.
“There’s secrecy to it, because they want their end user to believe they’re making it,” said Miller.
The culmination of these efforts was the company’s 2016 purchase of a printing plant in Loganville — what is now the fully-functioning candy factory producing those unmistakable scents.
The need for more space sprung from a 2016 meeting with a prospective co-manufacturing partner. The North York facility couldn’t handle the growth necessary to take on the project proposed by the other company, so Miller and Stillman were forced to look elsewhere.
“We actually walked out of that board meeting and I saw that this facility was open. So I called Mike and his dad and we looked at it that day,” said Miller.
The 56,600 square-foot facility had sat empty for a year but had been listed for sale for only three weeks when Wolfgang found it. In August 2016, Wolfgang settled on the building and the surrounding 13.6 acres of land for a final sale price of $2.3 million. By November 2016. The facility was making candy for its clients.
“We had to turn this from a printing facility to a food-grade, which is a whole different game,” said Stillman. The facility required several major enhancements, including the installation of floor drains and the addition of chocolate piping systems.
Most importantly for Wolfgang, that has meant cash in the door — the company has seen a 446 percent growth in revenue over the last year, said Miller.
The Loganville plant is key to that growth. The facility started 2018 at 55 percent production capacity, estimated Miller, with each production line running three shifts, five days a week. By year’s end, the company expects to have the facility at 90 percent capacity with an additional 70,000 square feet.
The facility has already overtaken Wolfgang’s North York campus in capability. The enrobing lines — production lines that cover items in chocolate — on the North York campus can produce 250 pounds of finished product per hour said Stillman. At the Loganville facility, the lines are currently producing 1,700 pounds per hour.
Unlike other manufacturers in the region, Stillman said Wolfgang has not struggled to find the skilled labor necessary for that kind of growth.
“We’re in a great corridor where snacks and candy are being made, so we’re kind of in the right spot. And York has wonderful heritage of workers and manufacturing so we haven’t had trouble finding key people,” said Stillman.
Pennsylvania is a “sweet spot” for the industry, according to the National Confectioners Association. The state is home to 200 confectionery companies that collectively employ 10,000 people.
With the new Wolfgang — now Wolfgang Confectioners — comes the loss of a heritage brand for many consumers. But those concerned with the brand should focus instead on the company’s continued presence in York County.
That was the message from Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance. “This change shows a thoughtful, strategic movement by Wolfgang to be nimble in response to the market shift,” he said. “We are proud of a local company who makes the decision to strengthen and define their skills in to stay local, and expand in York County.’
Miller and Stillman share that focus on preserving the company, even if it means sacrificing the Wolfgang consumer brand.
“We have no Wolfgang product right now at all,” said Miller. “Part of this rebrand is to set ourselves up as solely a B2B confectioner. We’re building our team that way, we’re aligning our culture that way.”
“The name Wolfgang resonates in this area, and we lose that on the front end going forward. But we don’t lose it as an employer,” said Miller.
While consumers won’t see the Wolfgang brand on shelves, said Miller, the company’s employees will know their part in producing the brands they will see on shelves and he hopes those employees feel pride when they do.
“At the end of the day, working for a candy company sounds better than making widgets,” said Miller.