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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: Candy Man, the Documentary about Jelly Bellies

After reading my review of the Jelly Belly Factory tour, the producers of the documentary film the Candy Man contacted me asking if I would review their film. The documentary is about the rise and fall of the Jelly Belly inventor, David Klein. Because I love stories of how things get started, I was game. And I was intrigued. Years ago, when I posted the review of the factory tour, I got a comment from someone saying he was the inventor of the Jelly Belly. I started doing some research, because why would the inventor of the Jelly Belly comment on my blog post? After looking through a bunch of websites, including the man's 13 year old candy company website, I realized it probably was him. 

The film was released last fall, and is out on video. The timing was interesting, though, since we recently went to the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour in Vermont. And after watching a documentary about the Ben & Jerry’s story while eating ice cream there, I was struck by some of the similarities and differences.

To start, Ben, Jerry and David were all chubby Jewish kids born in New York state (though David moved to Southern California as a toddler). After producing their treats, they became wacky marketers, dressing up as characters and acting funny to get press attention for their products. Ben and Jerry drove a van around the country giving out samples. Jerry dressed up as a guru, carried around on a plank while sharing his vision with the masses. David made numerous television appearances dressed as the Candy Man (he had various outfits). You do what you gotta do to sell!

As their products became successful, larger companies tried to run them out of business. For Ben & Jerry’s, Haagen Dazs distributors threatened the mom and pop stores, saying that if the stores bought Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, they could no longer sell Haagen-Dazs. B&J fought back staging a one-man (Jerry) strike in front of Pillsbury (owner of Haagen Dazs) headquarters. Media sensation created – and eventually they won – Pillsbury distributors backed off (yes, there was a lawsuit or two thrown in there too).

Ben & Jerry’s was bought 10 years ago by Unilever, though the founders did not want to sell (it was already a public company by then, since they sold shares to raise funds to grow; the founders no longer held the majority of shares). Ben and Jerry made millions from the sale, an estimated $40 million for Ben, and $8 million for Jerry. They may or may not retain some brand control. It’s a long story.

As for Jelly Belly, the manufacturing and distribution partner (Goelitz candies) negotiated with David to sell them the trademark – essentially selling them ownership. He sold, for various reasons. It was a mistake he regrets.

He thought when selling that he’d come up with the next big product, but that hasn’t happened. Though he continues to make candy, many of his novelty candies came and went as fads. Though if you look at the Nifty Candy website, you’ll find some really fun things. Like make-your-own-sushi candy, fried rice candy, His daughter Roxanne (who only appears at the end of the movie – we were wondering if they had a falling out until she came on screen toward the end), came up with Sandy Candy, a powdered candy-version of sand art. Great idea, successful, and we may buy some for my daughter’s birthday party (they also sell it for school fundraising carnivals, to rave reviews).

And that’s part of the story behind the movie Candyman. The movie paints David as a bright, eccentric guy (he uses paper plates to take notes - they don't get lost, and you can fling them), who made some really bad business decisions. Did he fall victim to Goelitz’s tough negotiations? Goelitz did have a plan B if he didn’t sell, though in retrospect it’s not clear what they would have done (would they cut off the deal with Klein, and produced the beans themselves under a different name, knowing they’d be sued but that they had bigger guns?).

Though David admits he went into the meeting knowing what they wanted, he also went in without a lawyer. This from a guy who went to law school and didn’t want to sell the business. He also apparently hadn’t explored his other options, like moving the manufacturing to another company, or coming up with royalty agreements. The beans were booming, so much so that they couldn’t keep up with orders (which is why Goelitz wanted the trademark – it needed to build a new factory to handle the volume). While the film goes into more on the business sale, in the end, after one day of negotiations, Klein and his business partner sold the trademark for $4.8 million, in payments of $20,000 a month for 20 years. Of which he split that with his partner and had to pay taxes.

The documentary left a few gaps, and I found answers in this Inc.com interview, like what his arrangement was with the manufacturer (Goelitz) and exactly how he got the Associated Press to cover the Jelly Bellies, when his business was so slow he couldn’t give them away. I also couldn’t figure out why Weird Al Yankovic was featured so much in the film. Are he and David Klein friends? Is Yankovic friends with Klein’s son, the movie's co-producer? Yankovic certainly provided some funny moments (and he’s a well-loved singer/composer in our family), but the connection left me baffled, since everyone else interviewed in the movie had an understandable connection.

The movie tries to end on an up note, and other reviewers of Candy Man seem to feel it was a positive ending. However, I was still left feeling that though Klein has a good legacy, it was still a little depressing. In terms of legacy, Klein is still the inventor of the Jelly Belly (though not well known for that), and lots of business people (mostly those in the candy business) credit his mentoring with their own business success. And on his birthday each year, he rents an ice cream truck and gives out free ice cream. That makes him happy. Somehow even with all this, and a happy family life, I was still left at the end of the movie feeling like I should feel sorry for him.

There’s a whole other storyline in the documentary, of why his son Bert made the movie (he’s co-producer). Bottom line for that – he wanted to clear up any father/son issues they had over the years and get closer to him.

If you want to watch the video, you should be able to get it on Netflix, buy Candyman at Amazon, or “rent” or buy it at indiepixfilms.com, 

1 comment:

  1. This is a great documentary. I just watched it on hulu.

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