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.

Age: 33
Based in: Revere, Massachusetts
Graduated from: Fitchburg State University; studied graphic design and communications
Years in the business: Just over a decade, and 3 years at Necco

Previous jobs: Before Necco, I worked at Boston Warehouse designing geeky kitchen gadgets, like rooster-shape mugs. That’s where I learned to embrace my whimsy, which also works well in candy; three months out of the year, I’m looking at a lot of pink. And I started my career in the sports industry.

The redesigned packaging for Sweethearts’ 150th anniversary.

“Creative director” can mean a lot of different things. What do you actually do? I’m responsible for innovating designs for new products and then compiling that look on, say, an 8-oz. bag of candy, a 7-oz. bag of candy, and a 16-oz. bag of candy. It’s a mix of designing new products and new packaging for old products. For example, I might pitch an existing product for a new season, like candy corn-flavored conversation hearts for Halloween.

This is your busiest time of the year. I’m well past Valentine’s Day, though — I’m working on Christmas 2017. We’ll be starting the planning for Valentine’s Day 2017 within the next month or so.

Sweethearts are a delicate balance. There’s a strong nostalgia element, but you’re also responsible for innovating. It was especially tough working with the 150th anniversary, but we bring in new customers through nostalgia. We resurrected a few phrases for the hearts, like “True Blue” from a ‘50s box in the warehouse. I’d love to see others come back, like “Heartthrob” and “Sugar Pie.”

The Cyber Speak box, circa 2000.

What’s the process for adding new phrases to the hearts? I imagine a group of people in a small room saying things like, OK, what are the kids texting each other these days? We review the plates every year. A group of five of us — from design, marketing and quality control — sits in a meeting for a few hours, deciding what needs to go, what needs to be added and what’s on the radar. That’s how “On Fleek” and “Me + You” got added this year. Same with “Wicked Cool.”

“On Fleek” will have a pretty short shelf life. Yeah, I don’t know how much longevity that will have. Last year, we added “143” — that quickly got removed this year. I was also sad to see “Let’s Read” go.

What else is new this year for Sweethearts’ 150th anniversary? We played around with the flavor profile and brought back the banana and wintergreen flavors, which there was a huge outcry for after we got rid of them a few years ago.

The bags are also new. We brought back the classic flavors in new red packaging, which we haven’t had for about five or six years, and there’s a large logo on the bottom that wraps around the edge. The previous bag, which had been around since 2010, was too busy — a lot of Photoshopped shadows and gradients that our print vendors weren’t well-equipped to handle. This one is cleaner and more modern, with a youthful charm.

Most of Bloom’s work is done with Adobe Illustrator.

Your favorite conversation heart: “Wink wink” and the mustache emoticon.

The conversation heart you’d love to see: I want a broken hearts collection, with phrases like “Go Away” and “I’m Washing My Hair Today.”

That’s a fantastic idea. Customers can submit their own phrases to be printed, in 1-pound or 5-pound orders. Some interesting ones come through — things you probably can’t publish in this article. In the past week or so, we’ve gotten “I love Trump” and “Tom Brady Sucks.” We let that one slide, but if it has an expletive, we’ll send them a note that we can’t fulfill their order.

How do you get those phrases on such tiny hearts? Each phrase has a metal-lined plate. The machine can hold 80 phrases, but we repeat a lot of them, so there’s probably only 30 or 40 phrases at any time. Different phrases are printed on different Sweetheart lines, so the sour ones have a more aggressive kick.

Designs for Sweethearts in the 1930s and 40s.

The coolest part about working in a candy factory: We don’t have a chocolate river like in Willy Wonka, but we do have a chocolate room, and it’s really hot in there. So you can say we have a chocolate sauna.

The candy buttons room is also really cool to watch because it moves so quickly. Buckets of colored sugar drop into circular holes, which then move across edible paper. And the Mary Jane line, too — giant taffy machines spin left and right.

How are the Sweethearts made? The dough is loaded in by hand and then stamped, cut and put onto drying racks by machines. It spends a lot of time in those drying racks — when they first come out, they’re super soft. We make the hearts hard on purpose.

That’s a big point of contention. Many people dislike how hard and chalky the hearts are. The chalkiness comes from the starch when they’re being cut and keeps them from sticking together. [Ed. note: The VP of marketing at Necco told me while there’s a new blend this year, the company is not planning to reformulate the Sweethearts recipe.]

Personally, do you enjoy the taste? The sour ones are pretty good. And I really like the new banana flavor we brought back this year.

Most fulfilling part of your job: Candy is a collectable item, so people can save packaging instead of throwing it away. It also makes kids happy; my 5-year-old daughter loves Sweethearts. We used them as an incentive when she was potty training.

That also makes candy a competitive business. For Sweethearts, Brach’s is our major competition. They do another version of the conversation hearts, but they’re not as tasty or brilliant. [Laughs.] I’m always collecting pieces of other packaging that I like.

Left: Sweethearts box from 2000-2004; Right: The big Sweethearts box from 2016.

Most challenging part of your job: A lot of our buyers — CVS, Walmart, Dollar Tree, Dollar General — have different style guides so they can have a cohesive candy aisle. That means we need to create special packaging for what we’re selling to CVS, special packaging for Walmart, and send it to them for approval first. That’s on the more tedious side.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Even in a creative role like this, you have to keep an eye on production issues, sales requests, production deadlines.

Even Willy Wonka had to do paperwork, I guess. We also have these sensory evaluations — reviewing products for taste, smell and texture — at 9:30 in the morning. I don’t want candy that early.


All artwork courtesy of Necco. You can find more of Bloom’s work on his website, Gigawatt Graphics, and follow him on Twitter @GigawattGraphic

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