I Love My Job: The Peeps CEO on the Right Way to Eat the Marshmallow Candy
Real-life Willy Wonka, Ross Born, and his family have been making Peeps for 65 years. He settles the Peeps-eating debate just in time for Easter weekend.
Just Born Quality Confections is the Bethlehem company behind everyone’s favorite Easter accessory — Peeps. The company produces around 5.5 million Peeps every day or about 2 billion every year, and the country’s obsession with the sweet marshmallow candy seems grow stronger with time. This year, fans have launched Peeps-flavored beer, and that’s on top of ongoing Peepshows and diorama contests.
But what’s even more fascinating is how three generations of the Born and Shaffer families have managed to maintain the pristine image of all their iconic brands, including Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Ross Born, Just Born’s CEO, leads the company alongside his cousin David Shaffer, chairman of the Just Born board. I spoke with Born this week and asked a number of questions like, why are Peeps associated with Easter and where does the name even come from? But most of all, what’s the right way to eat a Peep? Born settles the debate once and for all.
I grew up in… the Lehigh Valley, in Allentown. Allentown had flourishing retail downtown and industry when I grew up there in the 60s. There were tens of thousands of people working in the textile and steel industries in the region. But by 1971, when it was time for me to go to school out of state, things started to change. Many of the people who worked at Bethlehem Steel, Ingersoll Rand and Mack Truck are now gone.
I started working with the family business when… I was 25. I was just out of law school, about two weeks. I had intended on practicing law. I was very interested in tax and estate work, and I was planning on moving to Chicago with my wife, where she was from. But, our business was going to be sold, unless my cousin and I wanted to continue in it. We decided to come in. I thought I’d give it three years, and here I am 40 years later.
My earliest memory of the business is… when my dad would come in on the weekends and sometimes take me in to see all the wonderful candy when I was a kid. We made our own chocolate here, so the place smelled of chocolate, and it was really beautiful chocolate.
And when I say we made chocolate, we didn’t just produce products that had chocolate. We actually brought in cocoa bean, roasted the bean and ground the bean. We made our own chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. We blended the chocolate liqueurs to make the right kind of chocolate swerve. The application added the right amount of sugar. Everything was very artistic. We put things together that tasted really great.
I eat candy… on most days. But a little bit. Everything in moderation. We don’t advocate people eating large quantities of our product.
PEEPS is our most widely known candy brand because… aside from the fact we’ve been making them for a long time — we started with Peeps in 1953 — our product has what we have dubbed “peepsonality.” That’s “personality” with a “peep,” and I mean that. When you look at our product and see how they’re produced and decorated, they have peepsonality. The marshmallow has a nice shape to it. The bunnies are flat, and the chicks are 3D. And the eyes, so important.
And people admit that they play with our Peeps. If you think about it, people don’t really admit that they play with their food. I’m talking about adults here. They like to talk about how they eat the peep, how they cure it. Do they like it firm? Do they like it soft? Do they put it in the refrigerator or the freezer? Do they put it in the microwave? Do they eat the head before the tail? Do they decorate things with it? How they make these dioramas? There are these contests.
It is, to my wit, beyond my wildest imagination. If you told me forty years ago when I started in this business that this is what Peeps would become, I would’ve said, “Oh, I think you’re on something.”
The name “Peeps” comes from… the company we acquired in 1953 that was producing marshmallow shapes in Lancaster — the Rodda Candy Company. My father (Bob Born), grandfather (Sam Born) and grandfather’s two brothers-in-law (Irv and Jack Shaffer) bought the company because it was famous in the region for its jellybeans. They were located in Milton Hershey’s first factory building, the American Caramel Company, where they were also making a chick-shaped product by hand. They called them Peeps. I don’t have any photographs of what they looked like but we know the name came from them.
The more fascinating deal with Peeps as a brand, though, is that it wasn’t a brand back then. It was only a chick in three colors — yellow, pink, and white. It wasn’t until 1997 when we came up with a brand strategy to name all of our marshmallow shapes — the bunnies, trees, pumpkins — Peeps. When our marketing guy came up with the idea, we said, “Peeps is our chick for Easter. You mean to tell me you want a Peeps pumpkin, a Peeps tree, a Peeps bunny? That doesn’t make sense at all!” But we went with it and 20 years later, everybody thinks they’ve known Peeps forever. Branding is so important for everyone, certainly for our business.
Around Easter time, our business… is busy. But we’re busy all the time. We also produce Mike And Ikes and Hot Tamales. This is a big season for us. We’re going into spring/summer and also Back-to-School and Halloween. We’re even gearing up for Peeps Christmas items. We’re actually running a little low on our inventory because we have a lot of demand for Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales right now, so that’s really exciting. This is also an exciting time because everyday this week we have to wear Peeps colors to work.
Here's another sneak peep at our amazing entries. If you are a fan of sneak Peaks, join us tomorrow for our very special VIP Sneak Peep party! This event lets you see the show before everyone else and includes Peeps snacks and a wine tasting by Galloping Goose Vineyards! #CarrollArtsCenter #WestminsterPEEPshow #CarrollCountyArtsCouncil #Peeps
The most extreme Peeps obsession I’ve seen… are these exhibits created in Carroll County, Maryland. The community there spends a better part of a year constructing the most unbelievable sculptures and scenes made out of Peeps. Families work on them and they are truly incredible. We had, in our lobby, the Big Bird from Sesame Street. It stood about seven or eight feet tall. We ended up donating it to our local, public television station, but I will tell you, last year, there were close to 200 hundred of these unbelievable sculptures.
The Peeps shapes are trademarked because… they’re part of our intellectual property, and we’ve spent a lot of time developing the market. We’re very vigilant. We don’t just have the trademark and sit back and say this is great. We have a lot of folks that copy or use the shapes. When we find out, we don’t don’t send them a cease and desist letter, though. And I know how to write those. I’m a lawyer. But instead, we reach out to them. We tell them how much we appreciate the fact that they enjoy what we do. We frequently send them some candy. And many of these folks end up as customers because they weren’t previously aware that we make things like t-shirts. And they end up just getting them from us instead of making their own.
The right way to eat a peep is… whatever way moves you. Eat them however you like, as long as you enjoy them. People ask me what is my favorite candy and I say, “My favorite is your favorite.” If you like it and we make it, that is fantastic.
My grandfather, an immigrant from Russia, got into the chocolate and confections business because… he was a student in the former, former Soviet Union, in the old Russia. He was actually a rabbinical student. He left his home in the very early 1900s, as many Jews in that area were doing, and he made his way to Paris. There were no jobs for rabbinical students, but he got a job in a candy store and that was the beginning of his interest in candy. He was a very smart young man, and he learned as a clerk in the candy store how to make candy, how to make chocolates — specifically, French chocolates. When he came to this country, he had no money, but he did understand how to make candy so he set up a little candy operation in Brooklyn, New York.
My father and grandfather taught me that… relationships are everything. And we believe here at Just Born in building relationships and sustaining those proven relationships with all of our stakeholders.
Our manufacturing plants have changed over the years with… continued investments in our people. The training, and getting good people and having them be motivated and feel that they make a difference and that they’re appreciated. I wouldn’t say we’re perfect, but we really work hard at that.
We certainly are working hard on automation, too. We haven’t permanently laid off people here as a result of any automation. We just find other opportunities for the people that may have been working on a particular line or a particular system that is now more automated. The people that were doing manual work are now operating computers. If we don’t do that, we’re out of business.
The Goldenberg’s Peanut Chew factory is in Northeast Philly because… that company has been around for a long, long time. We bought it in 2003. The family had been running it for four generations since 1890.
The UPC code on the back of the Peanut Chew is the Philadelphia skyline because… we had a clever package designer on our staff who came up with that idea.
Peanut Chew remains a regional brand because… we had to learn the hard way what the brand really was. Two years after buying the company, we did a national launch of the peanut chew. We created modern packaging that removed the family name and started selling it all over the country. But it didn’t work. We didn’t understand the power of the family name. That’s what people recognized and enjoyed. They wanted the old-style packaging. So we went back to the company’s roots.
We’ve been doing a lot of work with Wawa, and they’ve been opening stores in Florida. We’ve been doing well down there with them outside of this region. And because of Wawa, we’re now also a sponsor of the Eagles.
We’ve chosen to remain a privately held corporation because… the Born and Shaffer families are very proud of the fact that we’ve been around for 95 years. We’re proud of what we’ve had here and created. As two families that were blended for purposes of the business, we want to maintain our independence and focus on the things we believe are the right things for our business, rather than have somebody else decide for us.
A challenge our businesses is constantly up against is… I typically don’t use the word challenge. I use the word opportunity. We take challenges and convert them into opportunities. There’s a lot of consolidation of producers of products. Recently, Nestle brands were purchased by Ferrero. Now about 50 to 60 brands have been acquired by what is now the No. 3 confectionary company in the world, Ferrero.
Hershey’s is acquiring confectionary brands and snack businesses. Mars as well. The big are getting bigger, and it’s a concern because as you get larger you have more influence over retailers, the customers, the distributors. Then you have e-commerce putting a lot of pressure on traditional retailers. There’s a lot of movement. Things are changing quickly. Our responsibility is to keep up, be ahead, and continue to anticipate the changes.
We recently created an independent board of directors in order to… maintain the family business structure. But you’re probably wondering, what does an outside board have to do with the family? At the moment, there are no family members looking to assume the leadership of our company in near term. The third generation, that’s my cousin and I, as much as we love this business, think it’s only right and fair for the company to get new leadership over time. So we need to look at non-family members. The family has to rely on a board of directors that’ going to oversee the business.
And there’s a lot more accountability with an outside board. It’s very easy in a family business to just think, “well, it’s family.” But that’s not enough. One of the marks of our success is that the profits we make as a business go back into the business. Our families don’t use the business as a personal piggy bank.
Leading this company with my cousin is… a great decision. My cousin and I are very close. We’re of the same generation and age. Different backgrounds. He has a background in finance. Our fathers told us, get along and you’ll be good. That’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve never had words with one another, and next month it’ll be 40 years.
If I weren’t in this business I’d be… practicing law. I really enjoy the law. I keep my license up. I try to keep my hand in it.
A new product we have coming up… is something we’re launching exclusively at Wal-Mart. It’s a Mike and Ike mega mix. It’s ten flavors in a box, and it’s sour. Our food tech folks did a great job with it.
The most innovative thing we’ve done recently is… what we’ve done with Peeps, with the ones that have flavors inside and a chocolate fudge base.
In my free time I like to… make my family a priority. My wife and I have four grandchildren.
My day-to-day schedule typically involves… waking up at 4 a.m. and being very busy. I work out every morning to keep my energy up. I view the CEO as the heart and soul of our business. People look at me from both the inside and outside as the leader of the business. We have many leaders here, and that’s great, but my name is on the door. And my cousin’s, he’s the chairman of the board. All eyes are on me. I have to be on all the time. My role is to be a relationship builder. I have to act in ways that keep with the values and philosophy of our family.
In 10 years I hope Just Born will… continue to grow and prosper, and continue to put more smiles on more people’s faces.