Workers in a manufacturing facility off a rural road in Medina are bringing to life an iconic part of popular culture — and its Cleveland connection.
For four years, McJak Candy in Medina has had the licensing agreement with Warner Bros. to make and market “Ohhh ... Ffffudge,” an expression made famous by the character Ralphie in A Christmas Story. The iconic Christmas movie is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the house where the movie was filmed is in Cleveland.
“There are a lot of people in Medina who don’t know there’s a candy factory here,” said McJak President Larry Johns of the company founded in 1982 by two Hinckley Township housewives (named McCurdy and LongJak, thus the name) to make homemade lollipops. The women made lollipops in a home kitchen, inserting sticks by hand and hand-wrapping each one.
The company now makes fudge, novelty sour powdered candy for a company Johns keeps anonymous and 1-ounce lollipops under a private label for its biggest customer, Original Gourmet Co., which sells nationally in Walmarts, Walgreens, CVS and Dollar General. The company recently began making fudge in maple walnut and chocolate flavors for Tastefully Simple. Original Gourmet Fudge, made by McJak, is also sold in Macy’s and Staples.
The company is the largest manufacturer in the world of the one-ounce lollipops, in which hot candy is poured into molds for consistency. The lollipops are shipped nationwide and to Mexico, Australia, Ireland, Norway and England, said Johns.
Christmas Story fudge, which comes in small oval single-serve tubs, 8-ounce servings and gift tins in both chocolate walnut and creamy chocolate, sells for $2 to $5 at Walgreens and is new this year at OfficeMax and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Johns said while handmade products and automation co-exist, the principles of what are called deposited candy lollipops still exist. Fudge is a seasonal product and mostly made three months of the year. It is mixed by hand in copper kettles.
Seeking an opportunity
Johns bought the company in 2000 when the former Proctor & Gamble and Kimberly Clark executive wanted to run his own manufacturing business. The two families had decided after 18 years that they were ready to do something else. They are no longer involved in the business that bears their name.
A native of Waupaca, Wis., Johns and his wife and family were living in Connecticut when he employed a broker to help him find a business for sale. At the time, he was a manager designing automation of diaper machines for Kimberly Clark. He said he shopped for everything from manufacturers of signs to loose-leaf notebooks to fertilizer.
“I went from diapers to lollipops,” Johns laughed.
He said the Medina town square reminded him of Connecticut and looked like a nice Midwestern place to raise his family.
The McJak facilities have gone through four expansions, including one this year. Johns said he recently bought a purple velour suit jacket that he could wear when he gives tours.
“It’s not quite like Willy Wonka, but the machines are impressive,” he said.
The company employs about 45, with about 28 temporary staffers. It outsources packaging work to an organization called Windfall, which offers jobs to people with disabilities.
The idea for the Christmas Story fudge came to Johns about 10 years ago from his wife, Francine, as they were sitting on the couch and watching the movie.
“You know,” Francine told her husband, “You should market that.”
After doing some research on licensing and calling The Christmas Story museum in Cleveland, he was surprised to learn no other company had licensed the phrase for a product.
He said the licensing agreement with Warner Bros. was a scary proposition — he would have to sign a three-year minimum agreement with fees plus a portion of the profits.
The fudge is the same as McJak sells all year under its own label. But Warner Bros. had specifics on the box color and images to the fonts used in lettering to ensure everything looked uniform with other movie products and marketing.
The gamble paid off. While the Christmas Story fudge’s market is mostly September through October as retail stores want to get the fudge to their distribution centers in time for Christmas (really, right after Halloween), sales have been good nationally, said Johns.
They started selling the fudge in 2009. “It was a hit. By early into our second season, we had covered our minimum,” he said. The company is now in its second, three-year licensing agreement.
Johns declined to share sales figures for the privately held McJak, but said in a typical week, the company manufactures 1 million to 2 million lollipops and a quarter of a million pounds of fudge during the season.
Private-label sales are the majority of McJak’s revenues, meaning customers do not know the product comes from Medina. Before Johns purchased the company, it mostly had customers involved in fundraising. That continues, but he said the demand is not high. He also said the company’s Internet sales are small.
The company also sells large bags of lollipops that may be broken or aren’t top quality for $3 at the plant at 1087 Branch Road in Medina.
Johns said he would love to be able to develop a fourth product and has dabbled in cotton candy and kettle corn.
Johns said he’s never sure where he’ll see his lollipop trees, where lollipops are typically sold two for $1. Original Gourmet lollipops come in 24 flavors such as cherry cheesecake and blueberry cream, with the most popular being cotton candy.
“I was in Niagara Falls and saw McJak lollipops in a gift shop,” he said.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher