I'm used to unusual assignments. After all, I'm a reporter. But this one took the cake. My editor called me into his office early one morning. He said he had an important assignment. He wanted it done pronto.
"Valentine's Day is coming up," he said, leaning back in his chair and putting his feet on his desk. "I want you to get into that candy factory down the street and find out how they make Sweethearts. You know the candies I'm talking about. They say things like 'Be Mine' and 'Love You.' "
I drive past the New England Confectionary Company in Cambridge, Mass., all the time, but I'd never been inside. Around Valentine's Day, that place makes the most popular Valentine candy in the country.
I needed to get in there. I needed to talk to the King of Hearts. Walter Marshall is a vice president of planning at NECCO. He also decides which sayings are printed each year and which sayings must go.
When I arrive, I can smell the sweet aromas of orange, lime, and peppermint pouring out of the factory's 30-foot brick smokestacks. Mr. Marshall meets me at the front door, wearing a white lab coat and a baseball cap. He gives me a puffy white cloth cap to keep my hair out of the candy. "Don't worry," he says. "Everybody's wearing them, so you won't feel funny."
The factory floor doesn't look at all the way I'd expected. Tall steel machines rattle, hiss, and whir, and Marshall has to shout so I can hear him. The room seems gray except for carts full of neon-bright pink, orange, and yellow candies.
Making 8 billion pieces of candy a year is not too different from baking cookies at home, I discover. You add ingredients to a bowl, stir, and put them into the oven.
At one side of the factory, workers in white uniforms dump cans of powder into a large steel funnel. One fellow with large muscles pounds the funnel with a hammer to help it sift down into a long metal trough. A light powdery dust is stirred up in the air and settles on the floor.
"This is where the ingredients are mixed," Marshall says, pointing to the trough. A long spiral bar turns at the bottom of the trough, mixing the various powders and syrups into a smooth, spongy dough. A single batch of dough weighs about 550 pounds and makes about 288,000 pieces of candy.
"The recipe is the same thing you would have eaten 75 years ago," Marshall says. "It's just sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, a little gelatin, a little gum to hold it together, and then your flavors." Only the slogans change. They're updated every year.
Workers cut the dough into blocks and lift them into a machine to flatten them into sheets. A belt carries the sheets to another machine that cuts out the heart shapes and stamps the words. "It's like those grocery stamps you see," Marshall explains, "except we use food coloring instead of ink."
He reaches out to the conveyor and picks up an orange heart that says, "Hug Me." He squashes it between his fingers and hands it to me. "These still have to go through a drying process," he said. To his surprise, I put the squashed heart in my mouth. It is sweet and chewy like a stale marshmallow.
Batches of hearts drop onto a conveyor belt at the top of a drying oven. It's about 12 feet high and 40 feet long. The hearts ride the belt from the right of the oven to the left, then drop to another belt below it, then to another, and so on. Drying takes 50 minutes.
Now the once-spongy hearts are almost indestructible, Marshall says. "We found a roll that was made back in 1952, and it was still fine." Generally, he adds, the shelf life of Sweethearts is three to five years.
The final step is perhaps the most important. Workers mix all the different-colored hearts on a table before they are packaged. Workers make sure there's a little of each color in each bag, but there's no way to guarantee you will get a favorite saying.
Marshall gets letters from children all the time. They tell him they prefer to eat some words more than others.
"School kids just love them. Sometimes they'll make a classroom project out of it," Marshall says. "They buy a bag of hearts, and count out how many pinks there are, how many greens, and so on. Then they'll look at the sayings and put those into categories." Some kids are disappointed when a favorite saying doesn't show up in the bag. For these letters, Marshall has a standard reply: Sorry, the bags are randomly packed. There's no telling what you are going to get.
Sometimes people order candy hearts for special occasions. One group, for instance, ordered hearts that said "Don't Smoke." NECCO charges $7,500 for them. And you wind up with 1.5 million candy hearts, weighing 3,500 pounds (nearly two tons).
At the end of our tour, I thanked Marshall for his time as we walked to the door. And I was truly grateful for his final words to me. "One more thing," he said. "You can probably take off that hairnet now."