The Real-Life Willy Wonka Behind Those Classic Candy Hearts

geoff-bloomThe magic happens in a room with a giant tub that looks like Play-Doh, in a 810,000-square-foot factory, in a small city named after Paul Revere.

The New England Candy Company, better known as Necco, produces 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts — those colorful conversation hearts you got from everyone in your third-grade class on Valentine’s Day — each day for nearly the entire year, even though they’re only sold for several weeks in January and February. They’ve been around for decades — 150 years, to be exact — but Geoff Bloom, the creative director at Necco, is tasked with finding ways to keep them fresh. (“On Fleek” is one of the phrases you’ll find on the hearts this year.)

Valentine’s Day, a one-day holiday to you but a six-week one to Necco, is the company’s biggest moneymaker; about 2 billion Sweethearts are eaten each year. But none of that would be possible without Bloom’s careful touch.

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The Food Stylist

lAfCRGvyItUxgIuXO5AYmekE389gQj-Fb4gMd4i1oU8A box of instant mashed potatoes.

That’s the one thing every food stylist always walks around with, says Charlotte Omnès. If you have a giant bowl and only four shrimp to fill it with, you pad the bowl with mashed potatoes underneath to make it appear full.

“What I do is like hair and makeup for a model, but for food,” Omnès, who has more than a decade of styling food under belt, says. “People think we’re evil sorcerers doing something awful to make food look good, but stylists love making things look real and authentic so you’re not duped when you buy a product.”

Food can be a temperamental beast; lettuce wilts, ice cream melts. But it’s Omnès’ job to make that part invisible to you — and instead to leave your mouth watering.

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The Mazemaker

Adrian Fisher

Fisher first sketches out ideas for mazes using a pencil and paper, then translates them into computer graphics and models.

Mazes seem to defy time and age. You’re in a maze — and I’m talking about real ones, not ones you solve on your iPhone — for 10 minutes or two hours; it’s hard to tell. You’re either 8 years old or 45. It all starts to feel the same.

Adrian Fisher has been designing mazes — mirror mazes, hedge mazes, water mazes, you name it — for 36 years. He holds seven Guinness World Records. Continue reading

The Duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel

"It's not a very subtle outfit, but it's not a very subtle job," says Anthony Petrina, who has been the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel for about three years.

“It’s not a very subtle outfit, but it’s not a very subtle job,” says Anthony Petrina, the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel.

“I never thought you could get a condescending look from a duck, but as it turns out, you definitely can,” Anthony Petrina explains.

He remembers the day clearly: It was his second week on the job as the duckmaster at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and he thought he was doing a pretty damn good job of marching those ducks down the red carpet in an orderly fashion. (It’s a twice-daily occurrence at the hotel that attracts hundreds, including names like Jimmy Carter, Oprah, an incognito Michael Jordan and Nicholas Cage.)

But he had pressed the wrong button on the elevator, and instead of opening into the lobby, Petrina was greeted by an open expanse of balcony. The five mallards turned around and just looked at him – the duck equivalent of major side-eye.

Along with his assistant duckmaster, a retired hotel veteran, Petrina oversees the decades-old, now-famous Peabody Duck March – and the care and keeping of the ducks. He can even see the duck palace on the roof of the Peabody from the window of his apartment down the street. “I can literally keep an eye on them at all hours,” he says, “though that’s probably taking the job a little too far.”

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The Sword Swallower

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Swallowing a sword is one of the most uncomfortable sensations the human body can possibly experience. A 24-inch metal blade is wedging its way down your esophagus, between your lungs and nudging aside your heart.

Your body constantly wants to gag as saliva is trying to trickle down your lungs. The sword could impale your heart, killing you instantly. And because no nerve endings exist beyond your upper throat, you can’t actually feel the blade once it gets down to the bottom of your stomach. And you’ll have “sword throat” afterward from the abrasions and scrapes.

So who would actually choose to make this his or her career? For good reason, there’s only about a dozen professional sword swallowers today.

Dan Meyer, once a scrawny, soft-spoken kid who was endlessly tormented at school, is now a seven-time Guinness World Record holder and president of the Sword Swallowers Association. It took him several years and 13,000 unsuccessful attempts, but now, he can swallow swords underwater; he can swallow 21 swords at once; he can swallow a red-hot sword, heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. And he has no plans to quit.

“If you can take everything I love to do and put it into one job, this would be it,” Meyer says. “I’m living the dream.”

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The Latte Artist

Jessica Bertin

Jessica Bertin, the administrator of Joe Ed classes, subsists on just one or two cups of coffee a day – a shot of espresso here, a sip of cappuccino there, to test quality control.

“Skim milk. The bane of our existence.”

Jessica Bertin sits in the corner of the Joe Coffee store she manages on New York City’s Upper East Side, eyeing the Sunday morning crowd as the sun streams in. Every large latte with skim order makes the baristas cringe — the thinness of nonfat milk makes it nearly impossible to create the store’s crisp signature Rosetta design.

Joe Coffee, a family-owned business that opened in 2003, has several branches across New York City and Philadelphia. Bertin trains baristas and runs Joe’s public education program, which includes a smattering of about a dozen classes — ones focused on espresso and manual brewing ($60 for two hours) to lectures on direct trade versus fair trade. Then there are the full-day barista workshops ($225 for seven hours) and 16-hour one-week courses, which never fail to sell out. But one of Bertin’s most impressive areas of expertise is  latte art — which, for the record, is much harder than it looks.

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The Pizza Box Connoisseur

Photo: Michael Berman

“People are surprised I’m not 600 pounds,” laughs Scott Wiener, who runs a pizza company. Photo: Michael Berman

To the average American, a pizza box is a disposable, oily compilation of cardboard, taking up room in the fridge until the last slice is gone. But to Scott Wiener, a pizza box is a work of art. That’s why he holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza boxes.

Wiener eats, lives, and breathes pizza. During the day, he runs a pizza tour company, taking groups of tourists to 40 different pizzerias around New York City on a yellow school bus. But the job takes a lot of research, he says. “It’s not just waking up, eating pizza, and getting a paycheck.” 

Nearly six years, 1,500 tours and over 25,000 tour guests later, Wiener is planning a traveling art show featuring pizza boxes around the world, from Brooklyn to Austin, Tex., to the rest of the world. Below, he reveals the country that uses the world’s most intelligent pizza box (not America), how to order pizza the right way, and where his love for dough, red sauce, and cheese first began.

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