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September 2005
The Sweet Taste of Success

A Mooresville company, owned by veteran candy makers for over 75 years, has cooked up a successful line of products using not one lick of sugar. In many ways, you might say BestSweet has redefined what it means to make something ‘sweet.’

“We simply don’t compete with offshore entities that can buy sugar cheap,” says Richard Zulman, third generation owner of BestSweet, whose grandfather originally founded the company in South Africa.

The Zulmans, long time friends of Nelson Mandela, originally called their candy company Beacon Sweets. It had wrapped up 38 percent of the sugar candy market in that South Africa before Zulman made the decision to sell it in 1998 as part of an overall consolidation of operations at the company’s 40-acre campus in Mooresville. With that consolidation, Zulman committed the company to a direction where “we don’t compete at a disadvantage with less specialized sugar-based products.”

 

A Candyland that’s sugar-free

BestSweet President Richard Tucker says, “When the company first branched out to the United States in 1976, they settled in New Jersey and actually produced something called the Kojak lollipop for awhile,” referring to the popular TV show at the time. “But sugar-based hard candy sales have decreased steadily,” he adds, “especially as we’ve learned how to perfect the taste of sugar-free sweets. We are at the leading edge in our ability to do that. The trends point increasingly to low-carb and sugar-free, but people just won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste good. That kind of product is difficult to produce, and we do it well.”

Fortuitously, several Zulman family candy processes have turned out to be excellent recipes for sugar-free manufacturing. An example is the company’s relatively new brand called Baskin-Robbins Smooth and Creamy Hard Candies, many of which are made with milk or cream to get genuine ice cream or sherbet flavors. “Milk-based products are very difficult to produce without scorching. My father pioneered a way to do that,” says Zulman.

 

Why Mooresville?

Zulman’s father was a pioneer in other ways. He could see change coming, and decided after 10 years in New Jersey, that a move away from the Northeast Corridor might be the best strategy. In a whirlwind helicopter trip, he stopped in Mooresville on the way to Tennessee, and was so impressed by the friendliness of the people, the terrain and the lake that he said,” We’re not going on to Chattanooga.”

“Not that we were offered any great incentives to come here by the city or the state,” says Zulman. “But my Dad had great vision. He felt it was a healthy environment that would provide a good, steady labor force and a great location in which to attract excellent management.”

That was 18 years ago. Today, BestSweet commands 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space and the same amount of warehousing. There are still 20 acres available for expansion on the property, and Zulman feels confident that will happen. “We believe that within the next five years, we will triple the size of our business,” he says.

 

Three pipelines of products

It wasn’t always so clear what the future would hold, and the beginnings in Mooresville sound rather humble. “We had a cough drop cooker here first,” says Richard Tucker, president of the company. The company made private label cough drops, which they still do. Sounds small, but it has become big.

Today, they manufacture 60 percent of all the private label cough drops sold in the U.S. These are the store brands that contain the same ingredients but are less expensive than the more famous national brands. Retailers buy their private label equivalents directly from BestSweet’s nutritional division, BestHealth. “For example, we exactly match Halls’ cough drops ingredients and flavor to make the Equate product,” says Tucker.

BestHealth products range from calcium soft chews, glucosamine-chondroitin tablets and glucosamine-chondroitin soft chews, to multi-vitamin soft chews, zinc lozenges, vitamin C lozenges, and cough drops.

Because the idea is to produce an exact nutritional and flavor match to the more expensive brands, independent labs double check that BestHealth is producing the exact match of nutrients. And company tasters in Mooresville make sure the flavors are identical.

But forget any notion of a room full of lab coated “tasters” with no other duties. “All of our quality assurance and marketing people have got to be excellent tasters,” Tucker says with a smile. “You would be surprised at how sophisticated they have become, and how sensitive they are to tiny taste differences.”

Besides private label product manufacturing, BestSweet does increasing amounts of contract manufacturing, which involves making a large company’s brands for them. This is necessarily a bit secretive, but is a large portion of their business. “I can tell you that we do some big names,” says Zulman. “But due to confidentiality, I can’t divulge the names,” he adds.

Finally, there are BestSweet’s own sugar-free brands, comprising 30 percent of total sales. These have Zulman and Tucker smiling like kids at Halloween, because both men feel these are the ingredients of a very sweet future. The Baskin-Robbins hard candy is an example, produced as BestSweet’s own brand under licensing agreements with Baskin-Robbins.

“You know, we really pioneered the sugar-free market. Years ago, we petitioned the FDA to get GRAS status, which is an acronym meaning ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’, for many of the raw materials in sugar-free candy. In addition, we have a patent on soft chew products, which go into our chewable antacids and our BestHealth Calcium supplements,” says Tucker. “And also a nutraceutical product that we’re very excited about.”

 

Fitness drink without the bottle

GRAS status is crucial for being able to manufacture nutraceuticals, or nutritional supplements made with botanical blends that target fitness or anti-aging. To illustrate, Tucker explains that aspirin and antacids are classified over-the-counter, or OTC drugs; supplements like Vitamin C are classified as food supplements.

Now, BestSweet is poised to take a bite out of the nutraceutical market in a whole new way, and it is one we will be able to witness firsthand in the Charlotte area over the next month or so. The company is about to officially introduce what it calls its most exciting product ever: a soft chew targeting the booming fitness drink market, where the craving is for fitness supplements paired with energy ingredients.

“The energy drink market didn’t exist eight years ago. Now everyone, particularly young people, want these cocktails of supplements,” says Tucker. “It’s one of the fastest growing markets there is. We’ve figured out a way to provide a fitness drink without the bottle. We’re introducing a soft chew called XLR8 Energy Chews – just one stick is equal to two cans of Red Bull,” he grins, referring to those small cans that pack a stimulant punch. “But you can control your dosage since of course you don’t have to ‘drink’ the whole thing.”

XLR8 comes in NASCAR-inspired packaging and through special licensing, features Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s face and signature. About the size of package of gum, the product will be available in stores at the beginning of this month at a suggested retail price of $1.99.

Zulman says, “This marries nutraceuticals with one of the fastest growing markets and NASCAR. We’ve been very lucky to get Dale Earnhardt Jr., who transcends NASCAR and matches the energy drink demographic. With his fast-paced lifestyle, he personifies what the XLR8 Energy Chew brand is all about.”

They seem to be enthusiastic at Dale Earnhardt Inc., where the Vice President of Licensing Joe Hedrick says, “This is the perfect opportunity for DEI and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to extend our brand into new product categories. We’re excited to partner with an established organization like BestSweet that has been introducing new products to the marketplace for the last 70 years.”

“We gave these chews to Dale’s pit crew, and they came back a week later asking for more,” observes Tucker. The ingredients include caffeine, guarana, and ginseng for a burst of energy, and other nutraceuticals like taurine and Vitamin B6. The company plans a big kickoff Oct. 14th at Lowes Motor Speedway.

 

XLR8 into the future

Zulman is pleased with the direction his company has taken, refusing to “take on the big guys” of sugar candy, and concentrating instead on creating tasty sugar-free products. Long gone are the days of saccharine and its after-taste. He feels BestSweet is redefining what sugar-free means. He intends to be a leader in nutraceuticals as well.

“We have a pipeline of products right now that will double our contract brands and our own brands. I can tell you this much: it will involve three of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world,” he says with a sparkle in his eye.

“Very few, if any, of our products have competition from the international market. We don’t make ‘me too’ products. And we don’t compete at a disadvantage as we would do with sugar candy.”

When Richard Zulman steered company direction away from the traditional sweets that had been part of his family business for decades, he says he pictured a direction that would be increasingly hard for others to imitate. And it looks to be working. BestSweet’s gross sales are at a 24 percent increase over last year. Zulman can really see his vision paying off.

“We have a good flow of new products and a great deal of diversity. We are very capital intensive, very sophisticated, and very automated. You will see us triple our size, count on it.”

Sweet, indeed.

 

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