By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Red Bird Peppermint Puffs
Since 1890, the family-owned Piedmont Candy Company has produced peppermint puffs to the delight of generations of children and adults.
For as long as I knew her, my grandmother was a kindly old church lady, and like her peers everywhere she had a candy dish at home and a pocket filled with candy (and wrappers) at all times. My grandmother and her Sunday School class were Red Bird Peppermint Puffs devotees.
Between Sunday School and the regular service, I’d find my grandmother and get a handful of these pillowy peppermint candies to carry me through church hymns, the distribution and collection of the offering plates, announcements, a pair of prayers and, finally, the sermon. As much as my mother, or the minister, would be disappointed to hear this, those candies got me through many a service.
Today, some 30-odd years removed from begging a handful of candies from my granny, there’s a part of my brain where Red Bird Peppermint Puffs live. I know the way they’d melt, the sharp peppermint sting (that I always imagined was stronger in the red stripe), the crinkle and rattle of the wrapper resounding through the church sanctuary; they were the incense and litany of Crooked Creek Church of Christ.
Piedmont Candy Company, the folks responsible for Red Bird Peppermint Puffs, has used the same recipe since 1890 to make the candy 100 pounds at a time in a Lexington, North Carolina, factory. A hundred pounds of peppermint puffs seems like an impossible amount, but it’s a drop in the bucket of what Piedmont produces in a day. Daily, they make 55,000 pounds of candy; weekly, they make 275,000 pounds. During the holiday season, they’ll make some 4 million pieces of candy a day.
But how do you quantify that? Their daily output weights more than a concrete truck. Their weekly output weights more than a Boeing 747 made of peppermint puffs. Who knows how many grandmothers’ pockets that would fill.
As astounding as those numbers are, that’s nothing. This company has been family owned and operated since 1890. They use the original recipe for every batch (minor tweaks – like flavorings – aside). They make the candy by hand… every batch, every time.
Workers heat water and pure cane sugar to 300 degrees, making a thick goo that, after a moment of cooling, a 100-pound mound is separated into two lumps of 10 and 90 pounds. Gloved hands knead red dye into the 10-pound lump while the 90-pound lump is wound around a series of arms on the candy puller (it looks like that wild machine that pulls taffy at the boardwalk), pulled and ladled with peppermint oil. After a few minutes, the peppermint lump is shaped into a long pillow, the bright red 10-pound lump is formed into a quartet of strips and the two are combined. The concoction is then fed slowly into a rolling machine that stretches the candy pencil thin and cuts it into peppermint puffs and peppermint sticks.
There are two reasons Red Bird Peppermint Puffs (and minis and sticks) are made by hand: quality and accountability. According to Jenna Paquin, marketing director for Piedmont Candy Company, accountability is huge.
“We’ve been a North Carolina-made candy for more than 125 years and we’re a large part of the community here,” she says.
Piedmont’s story starts way back in 1890 when the NC Candy Company opened its doors and cooked up all sorts of sugary confections. By the early 1900s they’d changed their name to the Piedmont Candy Company and a young candy apprentice – German immigrant Edward Ebelein – joined the team. Ebelein went on to become the sole owner of the business and made millions of pounds of candy until 1987 when the family sold the business to Doug Reid. Reid was watching North Carolina’s textile industry shrink but saw long-term potential in the form of the peppermint puffs and today, Piedmont is one of a handful of candy companies with roots and production based in the USA.
Which is the long way of saying Piedmont Candy Company is tied to Lexington and Lexington to the Piedmont Candy Company. And that makes one fact odd: Piedmont Candy Company doesn’t have its own retail outlet. Instead of visiting the factory and picking up a bag of peppermint puffs on the way out, you’ll have to visit The Candy Factory, a candy shop in downtown Lexington that’s owned by Edward Ebelein’s granddaughters.
So how does a candy from 1890 remain relevant today? My grandmother would have the answer. She’d dip her thin, wrinkled hand into a pocket and come out with a trio of Red Bird Peppermint Puffs, then place them in your palm. A conspiratorial smile would gleam in her eye and she’d tell you, “Be quiet with these during the service.”