(By Marissa Rothkopf Bates)
Generations of Halloween trick-or-treat bags have been haunted by Smarties candies. Yet these diminutive rolls of pastel-colored wafers, which for years children have eaten in the hopes, perhaps, of improving their intellect, may turn out to be smart treats after all, at least for some allergen-sensitive families. The candies are not only vegan, but also dairy-free and produced in a nut-free facility in Union.
Despite the modern dietary sensibilities, Smarties have a rather old-fashioned back story, involving an immigrant with a dream, an expanding family business and, coming around the bend to modern times again, the rise of the female executive.
The story starts in 1949, when Edward Dee sailed on the Queen Mary to the United States from England with his pregnant wife Anita and their young son, Jonathan.
Mr. Dee, who was from a candy-making family in London, settled in Elizabeth. He rented a garage in Bloomfield, where, with a repurposed pellet-making machine, he turned out fruit flavored pressed-sugar tablets. He loaded the candy into his car and sold the cellophane-wrapped rolls of sweets to small groceries and tobacco stores.
Sixty-six years later, a factory in Union, located on a sweet-smelling one-way street and employing about 100 workers, turns out more than one billion rolls of the candies every year. (This does not include what a second factory in Canada produces.) Mr. Dee’s business, known as Ce De Candy, was renamed after its most famous product in 2011. Now called the Smarties Candy Company, it is one of the few family-owned mass-production confectionary companies left in the United States, said Eric Ostrow, the vice president of sales and marketing for the company.
At 91, Mr. Dee still comes into the office, walks the factory floor and offers suggestions to his granddaughters — Liz Dee, 31, and Jessica Dee Sawyer, 34, who are sisters, and their cousin, Sarah Dee, also 34, all of whom now run the day-to-day operations. “He could be in Florida, relaxing, but he’s here because he loves it,” Liz Dee said. “It’s in his blood. It’s in all of our blood.”
Two of Mr. Dee’s sons, Jonathan and Michael, hold titles of president and executive vice president of the company, while Mr. Dee’s granddaughters all share the same title of executive vice president, despite their varying job descriptions. Liz Dee heads food safety and quality and oversees communications. Ms. Sawyer runs the art department, freight and shipping, sales, and human resources, while Sarah oversees the operations and purchasing.
“Each of us was allowed to decide when the time was right to come into the business, and we grew into roles that highlight our strengths,” Liz Dee said. “That has allowed us to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.”
For Ms. Sawyer, there was no doubt she would work for the family company. “I am pretty sure I knew I wanted to do this forever,” she said. “As a kid I loved the idea that my dad could go to work with his brother and his dad and get paid.”
Growing up in a candy dynasty was as enjoyable as an outsider might imagine, Ms. Sawyer recalled. “We went to candy conventions as kids,” she said. “We would get to try all the new candies, and there was a sample room where you could fill the bag up with all the candy you wanted. It was like Halloween all in one room.”
Sarah Dee added that her grandfather would give family members tours of the factory and let them “catch the Smarties tablets hot off the press.”
When asked what her grandfather thought of his three granddaughters running the company, Liz Dee suggested that he’s delighted. She certainly seems to be. “It’s part of the reason I don’t want to change the original wood-paneled walls in my office from 1967,” she said, comparing the space to something out of “Mad Men,” the retro television series. “It’s a testament to how far we’ve come in our family, and how far women have come professionally. I’m not getting coffee for someone in this office, I’m the one sitting behind the desk.”
The three women all agreed that their goal was to keep the company in the family. “I hope for my daughter’s sake, that the business is here for her,” Ms. Sawyer said. Liz Dee quickly added, “If the next few generations are like the last three, I think we’ll all be very pleased.”
Today the company not only makes the original cellophane-wrapped rolls, but also tropical flavor and sour flavor Smarties, lollipops in three sizes, oversized Smarties, candy necklaces and love hearts. The company recently introduced a new product aimed at adult lovers of Smarties, the Smarties ‘n Creme, which is a quarter-sized tablet of half fruit flavor and half cream flavor.
But it’s the traditional smarties in their tidy packets that retain the true bond between customer and company. Mr. Ostrow, who has been with the company for 35 years, has made it his duty to respond to letters the company receives from fans. Mr. Ostrow recalled one of his favorite correspondences, which was with an 85-year-old Mormon bishop from Utah. “He explained to me he was known as the ‘Smarties man’ at church, because each Sunday he would hand out the candies to kids in attendance,” Mr. Ostrow said. “I wrote him back, sent him candy and promised he would never have to buy another roll of Smarties in his life. I also asked him to visit if he ever came East — and darn it if he doesn’t show up a year later with his wife, kids and grandchildren.”
The smell of candy permeates the air inside and outside the factory in Union. The fruity scent is well known to students at nearby Union High School, yet it seems that many New Jerseyans are unaware that the famous confection is made in the state.
“There was a time when we were approached by numerous other states to make the move out of New Jersey, because the cost of doing business in the state — well, it’s not one of the more friendly states for manufacturing,“ Ms. Sawyer said. “But we decided to put the quality of life of all our employees first, even though it may have been cheaper to produce elsewhere. We’re here because we want to be here.”
(Originally appeared at NYTimes.com. A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 1, 2015, on Page NJ9 of the New York edition with the headline: Maintaining a Sweet Family Business)