BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Those little marshmallow chicks and bunnies — Peeps — have been showing up in Easter baskets for 60 years.
On their anniversary, Ross Born, third-generation operator of Just Born Inc., which hatches 5 million Peeps a day at its plant 60 miles north of Philadelphia, talks about the company founded by his grandfather, Russian immigrant Sam Born, in a Brooklyn storefront 90 years ago. Born advertised the freshness of his product with a sign that said "Just Born." The name stuck.
The burgeoning business moved to Bethlehem and acquired the Peeps brand with its 1953 purchase of Rodda Candy Co. of Lancaster. Best known for its jelly beans, Rodda had also introduced a small line of marshmallow chicks and bunnies, employing dozens of women who hand-squeezed them out of pastry bags. "It was really very difficult, and these women were strong," said David Shaffer, Sam Born's nephew and co-chief executive officer along with Ross Born.
Ross Born's father, Bob — a physicist and engineer by training — automated the process in the mid 1950s, and a version of the machine he invented is still in use today, extruding millions of those familiar shapes on peak-Peep production days.
The company, whose other brands are Hot Tamales, Mike and Ike, and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, has never suffered an unprofitable year. But its growth has always been relatively slow, steady and controlled, and a few years ago, Born and Shaffer decided they wanted to accelerate it.
The longtime partners brought in a new management team, spent heavily on marketing and broke back into the chocolate business, introducing chocolate-dipped Peeps as well as Peepsters, small chocolate candies filled with marshmallow-flavored cream. (New for this year is a yellow chick nestled in a hollow chocolate egg.) They also focused on holiday seasons other than Easter, particularly Christmas.
The result: The company had its best year ever in 2012. While Just Born is privately held and does not disclose revenue, he says it posted double-digit growth across all brands. And Shaffer sees more growth potential as the confectioner works to position its products in warehouse clubs and convenience stores.