Here in Albany, Ga., there's a sucker born every tenth of a second.
This town in southwestern Georgia is home to Bobs Candies Inc., the world's largest candy-cane manufacturer. If you thought those peppermint sticks were made somewhere closer to the North Pole, guess again.
Bobs, a third-generation family business, has held the title of candy-cane king since the late 1950s.
''We breathe a sigh of relief when we fill all of our orders, but we really breathe a sigh of relief when we get paid,'' says company president Greg McCormack, who was practically born with a candy cane in his mouth. He started working for his family's company in the mid-'70s right out of college as a night-shift kitchen supervisor.
The company currently holds about a 40 percent share of the candy-cane market, with $22 million in sales from Christmas candy alone in 1994. (Spangler Candy, based in Bryan, Ohio, is the second-largest producer, with almost $13 million in sales last year.)
Busy as elves, more than 650 workers run the company's plant year round, 24 hours a day, five days a week (and sometimes Saturdays), making more than 13,000 tons of candy a year - 80 percent of it seasonal.
While most of Bobs sales occur during the Yuletide season, the company begins stockpiling candies almost a year ahead of time in its 275,000 square-foot warehouse. Even though the canes are made without any preservatives, they have a two-year shelf life because of their low moisture.
Most of the half a billion canes the company has made for 1995 are already on retailers' shelves.
But with only 385 days left until Christmas 1996, Bobs is already producing the traditional striped goodies for next year's holiday rush - by spring, the warehouse will be almost half full again.
Although it's a sweet business - this year has been especially good - the company's biggest challenge is forecasting exactly how many candy canes consumers will eat up.
''So much of our business is guessing what customers will buy next year,'' says Julie Roth, one of the founder's two granddaughters and vice president of public relations. ''It's a gamble, and occasionally we overestimate.''
The 75-year-old company was founded by Mr. McCormack's grandfather, Bob McCormack, who started out making fudge, coconut bars, peanut butter crackers, and pecan candies. (For you grammarians, Bobs has no apostrophe. Founder Bob and his early partner Bob Mills could not agree where to put the punctuation, so they left it out.)
In 1950, Gregory Keller, Bob McCormack Sr.'s brother-in-law, invented a twisting machine to speed up the production of stick candy. So Bobs began to specialize in seasonal sweets. A few years later, Bee McCormack, Mr. McCormack Sr.'s daughter, developed a patented package to cradle the delicate canes. Bobs became the first company to ship candy canes all over the country.
Many overseas consumers don't associate candy canes with Christmas, but Bobs ships to 16 countries outside the United States, including South Korea and Argentina. Exports make up 3 to 4 percent of the candymaker's year-round sales And depending on domestic sugar prices, it is considering building another offshore plant. Bobs operates a small satellite plant in Jamaica with 20 workers.