'95-year-old startup': How the pandemic helped Wolfgang candy rebound from bankruptcy
Wolfgang Confectioners is 101 years old, making it one of the oldest family-owned chocolate companies in the United States, but legislation championed by one former first lady almost killed the candy company 11 years ago, said company President Sam Miller.
In 2010, then-first lady Michelle Obama’s "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" changed nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program by requiring schools to serve healthy foods, and while many people applauded this effort, Wolfgang Candy Company came close to not surviving it, Miller said.
The D.E. Wolfgang Candy Company was founded in 1921 by Delphi Eli and Mima Mae Wolfgang with operations running out of their family home in York. The family sold chocolates at local farmers markets around York, Lancaster and Harrisburg.
Eventually, the company grew, and the family opened a factory in downtown York. Wolfgang had been regionally recognized as a large part of school fundraising programs.
Miller said that if you are from the Central Pennsylvania region, you either “bought, sold, or ate” Wolfgang candy.
But as popular as Wolfgang was, it was forced into bankruptcy in 2012.
Miller said when the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act" passed, Wolfgang's candy was no longer allowed in schools, even as a fundraiser item in some of them.
"Around 90 percent of our sales came from schools and fundraisers in schools, and so essentially overnight that legislation wiped out roughly 50% of our sales,” he said. “It’s no secret in this region, that Wolfgang actually then went into bankruptcy in 2012 because of those specific challenges that the market presented.”
He added that aside from the legislation, fundraising was changing, and more things, such as candle sales and color runs, were becoming popular as money-raising methods.“For 90-plus years, if you were fundraising, you were selling candy, and specifically Wolfgang candy,” Miller said. “But that changed, so the business had to change.”
The Stillman Family Partnership in Lancaster bought Wolfgang in 2012 and they helped by injecting the company with needed cash and gave the company three avenues of revenue: fundraising, retail sales and contract manufacturing, Miller said.
"Essentially, with co-manufacturing, we make it for someone else. We make it with their recipe, package it, then sell it back to them," Miller said.
In spring 2016, Wolfgang ended retail sales and focused only on manufacturing for other companies. While this was hard for the company, Miller said it made the most sense business-wise.
A 95-year-old start-up with big plans
"We joke about it, but at that time we were a 95-year-old start-up," he said.
Also in 2016, Wolfgang opened a candy-making plant in Loganville at 122 North St. when one of their customers asked them to do a large project. At that time, they had 19 full-time employees. They were able to buy, renovate and start operating that facility in three months, which boosted their standing in the co-manufacturing world, Miller said, even though they were only running one line.
At that time, Wolfgang produced 1.5 million pounds of candy, Miller said. In 2021, they produced 22 million pounds. In 2018, Wolfgang Candy Co. rebranded to Wolfgang Confectioners. Miller said it felt like Wolfgang Candy Company was the “corner candy store that sold lollipops, not a 20 million pound a year manufacturer.”
Today, the candy manufacturer has about 400 employees and their operations include an incubator facility at the downtown York factory that helps large brands test out new products and gives entrepreneurs a place to make their own candy ideas. Miller said emerging brands can start in the smaller facility and move to the larger plant as they grow, but many of the larger companies often come in and buy them out.
Additionally, Wolfgang has a state-of-the-art, 137,000-square-foot commercial manufacturing facility in Loganville that now has seven operational lines. They anticipate more growth in the coming years.
Part of the growth they have experienced over the last few years was, surprisingly, because of the pandemic.
Pandemic sales pushed Wolfgang to new heights
When the pandemic occurred, Wolfgang never fully shut down because they are a food manufacturer, and they even had to increase operations to 24-7 production because candy demand went up.
“In down times, the first thing to go up is liquor sales, and then it’s candy,” Miller said. “And it makes sense. You’re not going out and buying a Lexus during uncertain financial times, but you can get a $5 bag of candy. That’s an easy and cheap luxury item.”
For the manufacturer, the transition to COVID safety protocols wasn't too difficult because they were already following many of them before the pandemic. Tonya Nye, vice president of customer care at Wolfgang, said the team is used to growth and change, and they've worked so closely together during all of the various challenges the company has faced, they were able to put the protocols in place quickly.
"It was amazing to see how well we worked together, and it just all fell into place," she said.
But the growth they experienced hasn’t been without challenges. Miller said that, like all companies, Wolfgang did have some trouble attracting new employees. To help with that, they began offering more incentives. One of those is Wolfgang-U, a website where employees can earn their GED or take other educational courses.
“In terms of supply chain issues, though, it’s worse now than it ever has been for us,” Miller said. “We are just managing chaos on a daily basis, trying to figure out what supplies we have, what’s on the way, and how we can get things done with what we have.”
Nye said it wasn't just materials to make candy that have been hard to come by, but also hair nets, gloves, sanitizer and other products that the company had used for years and they couldn't find as easily.
"But we did it, and we keep doing it," she said.
In August 2021, Gov. Tom Wolf announced in a press release that the company plans to expand operations at its Loganville facility, investing more than $3.5 million into the project, retaining the existing 400 full-time jobs and creating 95 new, full-time jobs.
This expansion includes the redevelopment of an underutilized production line and the addition of a new production line that will accommodate increased demand and support the facility in operating all lines 24/7.
To help with this, Wolfgang received a funding proposal from the Department of Community and Economic Development for a $95,000 Pennsylvania First grant and a $50,000 workforce development grant to help them train workers.
“You are hoping you can survive the next week or month,” Director of Project Management Brad McGlaughlin said of going through bankruptcy. “But we could’ve never anticipated this type of growth at that time.”
A family legacy to be proud of
McGlaughlin, who is the great grandson of Wolfgang's founders and grandson of former President Glenn Wolfgang, said he thinks the founders would be proud of where the company is heading.
"I think they’d be pleased the name is continuing and that we’re employing people from York,” McGlaughlin said. “And I think they’d be pleased with the culture of the company.”
In 2017, for the first time since its founding, Wolfgang turned over the reigns to someone other than a family member when Brad's brother Ben McGlaughlin stepped down as CEO and president of the company. He had been president and CEO since 2008. It was then that Michael Stillman, Wolfgang Candy's chairman, took on the role of CEO. Miller then took over the role of president.
Brad McGlaughlin worked in North Carolina with Missionary Athletes International, playing soccer and running soccer camps and clinics, until 2003. He said it was never his plan to work for the family company.
"Then I had a family and I needed a job that paid the bills," he said. So, he came home to work for Wolfgang.
He did have some experience with the candy-making business. In his youth, he'd work for the plant in the summers and one of his strongest childhood memories is of his grandfather, "a strict, hardworking German man," having the entire family make candies on for the upcoming Christmas season on Thanksgiving mornings.
"He would say 'work like you're my grandson' and I did not want to upset him," McGlaughlin said. "And so, after that and packing candy in a warehouse in the summer, I had no desire to to work in candy manufacturing."
McGlaughlin saw the company through some of its hardest times. Now, he is proud of the business he helped to shape - one that is supported by community and one that supports the community.
"A very beneficial part of what we do here is creating a culture for our employees where they feel valued. We want them to be blessed by their work with Wolfgang, and I think we're doing a great job at creating that community," he said.
Living up to its values
When the company rebranded in 2018, Miller said they developed a new set of values for how they wanted to operate and they created a new mission statement.
Miller said the company currently operates, hires and plans future growth on these values:
- Be Willing. Do what is needed for the customer, try new things and push yourself into new areas."
- Be Positive. See the glass as half full. Your attitude is contagious to all you come in contact with.
- Be Consistent. Show up, give 100%, do your job and set an example for others.
- Be Detailed. Focus on the little things and the big ones will take care of themselves.
- Be Humble. Customer, co-worker, and company before self.
"We had to really look at the ‘humble’ part of our values statement and determine if we could put our customers and coworkers, and the company, before ourselves. If we could, then great. We can make this company grow,” Miller said.
And grow they have.
In 2020, Wolfgang was named 4th fastest growing company in Central Pennsylvania by Central Penn Business Journal, and in 2021 it was named Manufacturer of the Year by the Manufacturers' Association.
Miller said they've added 5,000 square feet to the Loganville facility and they have run out of room. If they were to expand further, they'd need to look at purchasing a new facility.
Miller added that Wolfgang's growth is starting to slow, and that when they level off they will be producing 25-30 million pounds of candy in a year.
But they don't just focus on growth. The company's mission statement is "make candy, bless lives." To live up to that, Miller said they have created a 501c3 that gives back to employees and meets needs within the York community. They have also partnered with many area nonprofits to help them with their various missions, and they work with organizations to hire individuals with learning disabilities, those re-entering the workforce and people needing to learn job skills.
Diversity is also a big part of the company's focus.
"We're roughly 38% BIPOC in the whole organization and York County is roughly 14% BIPOC," Miller said. "And so we feel really good about what we are trying to do in terms of diversity within the company."
According to Miller, Wolfgang's workforce is about 50% women, as well, and around 40% of their upper management is made up of women.
Nye said that is significant because women only make up about 29% of jobs in manufacturing around the globe.
She began working at Wolfgang in 2018, and she and other women in the region formed the Women in Manufacturing Central Pa. chapter in 2020.
"You're raising your children, you're working 12 hours a day, seven days a week and I don't know that you realize that you're struggling through this," she said. "And when we had our first meeting I thought 'I would have loved to have this when I was working on the floor, or driving a forklift, or doing any of those jobs that didn't give me the same flexibility that I have now.' So, I wanted to do that here."
Nye helped to form the group Women of Wolfgang in 2020 to support women in the company.
"Whether it be through health and wellness, like a mobile mammography unit, or getting things off your chest, or just appreciating yourself, our intent was to bless ourselves so that we can bless other people," she said.
Nye, Miller and McGlaughlin all said Wolfgang's struggles, rapid growth and the pandemic have taught them a valuable lesson: you cannot create a company with strong values without a strong team to rely on.
"It's like pushing a train uphill. If we're not all back here, it's not going to go," Nye said. "We have to rely on one another. We have to uphold those values for one another, and if we didn't, we wouldn't be here."