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They want, but can't find, a Clark Bar

Saved ny New England firm, landmark Pittsburgh Candy can be hard for its fans to track down

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

How bittersweet it is.

The Clark Bar has legions of hard-core fans, all addicted to the 114-year-old chocolate-and-peanut-butter concoction first whipped up by Irish immigrant David L. Clark in a house on the North Side.

But, in the past year, the faithful have transferred their adulation to Cambridge, Mass., home of the candy's newest owner. The New England Confectionery Co. bought the recipes and manufacturing equipment at a bankruptcy auction a year ago.

"God bless the Necco company for saving Clark Bars!" says a Web site created by Mark Harp, a Baltimore musician and Clark Bar connoisseur who can offer a detailed explanation on the flaws of Butterfingers and 5th Avenue bars.

Harp knows Pittsburgh was the birthplace of the crunchy bar. He watched from afar last year as the former owners ran out of money and headed into bankruptcy court. "I cared deeply," he said, in an e-mail interview. His main concern seemed to be that the beloved candy not disappear.

Fans such as Harp are the real assets that Necco bought last year when it paid $4.1 million for the assets of Clark Bar America.

Already, company officials report the candy has proven its sticking power among consumers. Although Necco rushed to get bars out as early as July 1999, the three production lines bought at auction weren't really operational until January. Within months, Necco reports, the business was profitable.

The company doesn't break out figures for individual brands, but said Clark Bar is a solid contributor to Necco's $100 million in annual sales. Next month, Necco will bring back a coconut crunch line from the Clark family and begin offering a new package size of the smaller Clark Bar Jrs.

Sales remain strongest in southwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the bars are a regional favorite.

But fans from all over have hunted down the new manufacturer.

"We get tons of consumer letters," said Lory Zimbalatti, marketing manager for Necco. Many express gratitude for the candy maker's role in feeding their cravings.

Necco has built an entire business on the simple premise that few people are as loyal as candy consumers.

It started with the company's namesake wafers, which have been around for decades. The only gimmick Necco wafers offer is an odd tendency for the wintergreen ones to throw off sparks when they're cracked or chewed under proper conditions. Yet, the company continues to sell more than four billion annually.

About a decade ago, Necco began assembling a counter full of so-called nostalgic brands, long-time favorites that can be hard to find in certain parts of the country.

In 1989, Necco gobbled up Candy House Buttons, those sheets of paper with little buttons of candy on them. At that point, the company was selling a total of about $20 million worth of candy a year.

In 1990, a deal for the Stark Candy Co. snagged the Sweetheart Conversation Hearts that have been in Valentine boxes forever as well as the sticky Mary Jane molasses and peanut butter candies. A few years later, Necco picked up Haviland Thin Mints, formerly owned by Borden.

Clark Bar's resume matches up to any of those. One of its famous marketing hits came during World War I when, for the first time, each bar was individually wrapped to ease shipment to American troops. Soldiers from all over the country then went home with a taste for the crunchy candy.

"We considered it a perfect fit with our other brands," said Zimbalatti.

Lengthy tenure isn't unusual in the candy business. M&Ms were first sold in 1941 and remain a preeminent brand. "You could almost look at the whole candy category as a nostalgic one," said Jim Corcoran, vice president of trade relations for the National Confectioners Association in McLean, Va. He thinks many purchases are driven as much by memories as by taste.

Necco's niche has been finding candies that people will actually hunt out. Many of its brands qualify for inclusion at www.hometownfavorites.com, a Florida-based Web site devoted to supplying fans of hard-to-find favorite foods.

The site carries only products still being manufactured -- "It's just that you can't find it in your area," said President Colleen Chapin.

Customers order everything from Jujubes to Wax Soda Bottles. St. Paul-based Pearson Candy Co., another bidder for Clark last year, also has products on the site, including the Bun Bar bought from Clark Bar America in 1998.

Chapin said Clark Bars have been a steady seller since the company was founded in 1996. Buyers often seem to be people who've lived in Pittsburgh or been through the area. Real estate agents and people marrying Clarks regularly order in bulk.

"I was just on the phone with Necco saying, 'Where is my order?' " Chapin reported, cheerfully.

Distribution outside the Pittsburgh region has long been spotty. The search for a Clark fix helped spur Harp's creation of his fan site in late 1998.

His dad sold the candy in a Baltimore luncheonette, but that closed years ago. Harp said he now receives e-mail from other people trying to find Clark Bars. "It's a nationwide obsession," he said.

The site, which combines adoration with plenty of humor, launches with a Clark cheer and offers up such delights as Clark Bar jokes and haiku (submitted by Clark Barter):

"Those wafers of Clark

Can be sharp if they're not fresh

Chew them carefully ..."

The candy's emotional appeal -- not to mention the 100 or so jobs it supported -- helped fuel at least two drives to keep Clark in southwestern Pennsylvania. Both efforts ended in bankruptcy court.

Necco moved manufacturing to an existing plant in Massachusetts, under the theory that lower overhead expenses would make the balance sheet work.

That's been a major factor in Necco's ability to make a profit so quickly, Zimbalatti said.

In addition, she said, Necco has a few other advantages -- it has enough other products to keep workers busy despite seasonal shifts, and can give customers' a variety of choices.

Zimbalatti couldn't estimate the number of people who now make Clark Bars, since the work varies with the seasons. Winter Clarks, a white version popular in the summer, aren't made year-round. Summer is the busiest time for cooking up the smaller Clark Bar Jrs., which are popular at Halloween.

The workers are represented by the same Bakery Confectioners and Tobacco Workers Union that was active at Clark Bar America.

Necco is aware many fans are still forced to search for Clarks. Its Internet site lists several chains that carry the bars -- Ames, Dollar General, Phar-Mor and Rite Aid, for example.

But even those listed may not offer blanket coverage.

Grocery distributor SuperValu, which supplies many Shop 'n Save and Foodland stores, puts Clark Bar in the regional category. That means the candy isn't carried everywhere, and it's relegated to the candy aisles.

Only nationally distributed candy can negotiate placement by the cash registers.

SuperValu reports selling about 15 cases a week each of Clark Bars and Clark Bar Jr. bags out of its Xenia, Ohio, warehouse. That compares to about 24 cases of the six-pack Snickers bars and about 35 cases of snack-size Snickers cases.

"We are selling slightly fewer than a year ago," said Ray West, spokesman for SuperValu's Central Region. He said the drop has not been significant.

Necco plans to eventually increase the Clark Bar's exposure in the Midwest and even the far West. Already, the Massachusetts company's existing accounts along the East Coast have boosted sales in places such as New York City.

Harp hopes to find more in stores around him. It's still a hit-or-miss proposition at this point.

Even more important is the question of whether Necco makes as good a bar as the last guys. So far, so good, according to Harp.

"I've only had the snack-sized so far, and they were very fresh and delicious," he wrote.

"Nothing worse than a stale Clark Bar. You could crack a tooth."



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