WESTBROOK – Meet the girls at Haven’s Candies: Shakira, Betty Boop and Daisy.
Workers agree that they are pretty high-maintenance, but keep in mind that they’re also about 100 years old.
Shakira, Betty Boop and Daisy are the names bestowed on three taffy-wrapping machines at this Westbrook-based candy store, part of a tradition of using tried and true techniques to turn out such signature candies as truffles, turtles, nonpareils, toffees, peanut butter cups and nut clusters.
A dedication to what works, even if it’s old-fashioned, has helped the company deliver profits nearly 100 years after it was founded, according to owner Andy Charles.
“What I love about Haven’s is that we are 96 years old, and although we have expanded our size and scope, and adopted some technology, we still make candy by hand,” Charles said. “We are sticking to our roots. That’s the soul of the company.”
On Thursday, employees at Haven’s Westbrook plant were busy finishing a Valentine’s Day production.
Using wooden dowels to push a thick liquid through handheld steel funnels, two workers formed hundreds of cream mints — colorful, multi-flavored sugary wafers made only this time of year.
In another room, a staffer dipped plastic Easter basket moldings into liquid chocolate, holding each in the swirling liquid just a moment to fill every nook.
On a nearby table, chocolates shaped like starfish, champagne bottles — even flip-flops — cooled.
Nearby, workers assembled chocolate lobster dinner plates, complete with a 1-pound chocolate lobster, a chocolate side of butter and chocolate shells and pebbles.
“There’s not a lot of instruments used,” Charles said of Haven’s processes. “It’s visual and it’s about feel. It’s a craft — a science-based craft.”
Charles estimates Haven’s buys roughly 100,000 pounds of chocolate every year and makes 200,000 to 250,000 pounds of confections. In addition to chocolate products, Haven’s sells taffy, roasted nuts and hard candies, including candy canes.
The company has three retail stores — in Portland, Scarborough and at the factory in Westbrook — and sells candy to corporations and regional distributors.
Charles said he uses high-quality and expensive ingredients, such as cashews from Brazil and Westbrook Dark, a proprietary dark chocolate blend made by a Pennsylvania subsidiary of international food company Cargill.
“(Charles) uses top-quality ingredients. He doesn’t buy Hershey’s, he buys a much better brand. … The quality is exceptional,” said Barry Boyd, president and CEO of Bobrow Distributing, a Clifton Park, N.Y., company that resells Haven’s candies to other retailers. Bobrow also supplies Haven’s with some candy, such as jelly beans, gummy bears and foiled chocolates.
“Haven’s is considered an upscale candy operation. (Charles) provides a product a lot of candy shops can’t provide for themselves,” Boyd said.
Haven’s was founded in 1915 when Herbert Haven moved from Boston to Portland with his wife and launched Haven’s Candies from their Forest Avenue home.
COMPANY HAS HAD SIX OWNERS
Over the years, the company has had six owners, including Shelby Putnam, now 76, who owned Haven’s from 1970 to 1990.
Today, Putnam works part time as Haven’s plant engineer. He described Haven’s as a respected “old Portland” company that is “well-embedded in the community.” For instance, he said that during World War II, Haven’s sent candies to U.S. soldiers around the globe.
Haven’s reputation and deep Portland roots were reasons Charles bought the company in 2001 from the previous owners, Bill and Molly Webster.
“I saw this as an opportunity to get involved in an existing, well-respected brand,” Charles said. “I consider myself a caretaker of a Maine brand.”
He declined to discuss the purchase price, but said he bought the company partly with loans from Norway Savings Bank and the Small Business Administration.
Charles said Haven’s has revenue of roughly $2 million per year, and the company has been profitable every year since 2001 except 2008, when the recession drove down sales.
NO LAYOFFS DESPITE DOWNTURN
But there have been no layoffs — not on Charles’ watch. He has deferred raises, limited his own compensation and allowed employees to take unpaid days off.
Boyd, the distributor, said Haven’s quality has improved since Charles bought the company.
“It is more consistent — always the same as it was last month or two years ago,” he said. “That is so important to a distributor.”
Today, Haven’s has 28 employees, and Charles is hiring two more retail staffers.
He chooses employees carefully, looking for workers willing to do many tasks, like packing boxes, ringing up sales, stocking merchandise, answering the phone and helping make candy.
Charles said new staff must complete a half-day, on-the-job trial period to make sure it’s a match.
“We put them to work. It’s a chance for them to chat with (staff) and it gives them a chance to get to know us. … Chemistry is really important,” he said.
BROUGHT LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE
Charles said he meets weekly with two other executives, Director of Retail Operations Terry Works and Art Dillon, who wears hats of production manager, master candy maker, finance manager and tour coordinator.
Charles came to the job with years of business and leadership experience, having served in the Navy and Navy Reserve and worked for corporations in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Still, he underestimated some ownership challenges.
The Haven’s environment was less hierarchical than at other places, and he had never managed a small team at a small company. To get things done with a small staff, he soon learned, everyone must help.
And there have been other challenges. In 2005, Charles opened a store in Windham. The store didn’t do well and was relocated to Scarborough in 2008.
And the seasonal nature of candy sales is “part of what makes this business so damn frustrating (and) challenging,” said Charles. “We do half of our business in 8 weeks.”
He said the busiest two days of the year are Feb. 13 and Valentine’s Day, when some 4,000 to 5,000 customers shop at Haven’s three retail stores. comparison, on an average winter day some 30 to 50 customers might visit each store.
EASTER, CHRISTMAS BOOMS
Business also booms before Easter and between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a period Charles calls a “four- or five-week marathon.”
At those times, employees often work six or seven days a week. The production crew works a special midnight to 8 a.m. shift before Valentine’s Day, dipping 30,000 fresh California strawberries in chocolate.
One of Charles’ goals is to stabilize sales throughout the year, which he started doing with a corporate sales program. Haven’s sells chocolate logos, chocolate business cards and other chocolate treats to corporations across the country and overseas. The corporations give the treats as gifts to customers and employees.
Corporate client G.H. Bass & Co. recently ordered 5,000 pairs of 2-inch-long chocolate “Weejun” loafers — packaged in miniature shoeboxes — to mark the brand’s 75th anniversary.
Charles said corporate sales grew 50 percent to 75 percent since he bought the company, and represent 15 percent of yearly sales.
In addition, Charles expanded Haven’s wholesale business, selling candies to distributors who resell them in six states. Local stores selling Haven’s candies include Old Port Candy Co., Maine’s Pantry, Zeb’s General Store in North Conway, L.L. Bean and Yummies Candy & Nuts.
Twenty-five percent of revenue comes from the wholesale side.
Like other companies, Charles said he faces increasing health care costs. Between 2001 and 2010, his health care expenses increased from about $25,000 to $60,000, even though he switched to less expensive plans.
“Health insurance is a huge struggle, and it is still going up,” he said.
ACTIVE IN BUSINESS COMMUNITY
Charles has been active in the business community, sitting on the board of the Maine Merchants Association, and has served as the board’s chair.
In 2010, he went to Washington with MMA executive director Curtis Picard to lobby Maine’s congressional delegation for regulations limiting so-called credit card “interchange fees” paid by merchants to credit card companies.
Charles said the fees cost him $20,000 last year and are largely used by credit card companies to supplement the rewards they kick back to consumers, like frequent-flier miles.
MMA Executive Director Curtis Picard called Charles “exactly the type of member every association wishes they have.”
“He was willing to be a vocal (industry) ambassador and talk to the press,” he said. “Andy is never hesitant to dive in and learn the issues for himself.”
Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: