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Even Fun Is Sugar-Coated

Up next in the anything-goes world of confection? A pop-out toothbrush with candy.

June 17, 2002|JUDY HEVRDEJS | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO — In the sticky world of Nerd Ropes, Hot Tamales, Warp Hyper-Charged Energy Mints, FizzUrps and Sour Apple Stinky Feet, Jay C. Pearlman has found a niche.

So there he was, amid the 450 candy makers at the National Confectioners Assn. here recently. The young entrepreneur, his mop of curly hair bouncing as he talked, explained to folks exactly why his new gadget--a toothbrush that pops out of a dolphin or shark mouth--comes in a package with a plastic packet of red powder.

"The powder? It's dextrose. Cherry-flavored," says Pearlman, 30. "When you put it in your mouth, everything turns blue."

And then?

"The toothbrush pops out of the mouth of a dolphin or shark and you brush your teeth," Pearlman says.

A toothbrush?

"It's a joke--candy with a toothbrush," he says. "So the kids are going to like it. And the parents won't mind buying something like this because, OK, it is candy but at least they're getting a toothbrush. So maybe they'll brush their teeth."

So how did you come up with this idea? In your garage? In your bathroom?

"On an airplane," Pearlman says. "And then I started working with my contacts in China and we worked on it together."

That Pearlman dreamed up a candy-toothbrush combo doesn't surprise John Stanton.

"Candy has always been on the leading edge of the fun side of the food business," says Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia. "It's almost like consumers have given candy a license to go ahead and be a little crazy."

Indeed, sales of novelty candies (products that combine a toy with a treat) grew 8.7% in 2001 and 68% during the last five years, making its growth second only to the sugar-free gum category in the multibillion-dollar candy business, according to the National Confectioners Assn.

Those numbers--read: $$$--have caught the attention of the rest of the food industry. "All the different [food] categories are trying to get a piece of the fun business," says Stanton, citing purple ketchup and pink margarine.

That ups the ante for the candy business. "If the rest of the [food] industry starts doing all of these things," Stanton says, "the candy industry is going to lose a little of its pizazz."

Not if Pearlman can help it. He plans to launch the Candy Pop Out Toothbrush in July. How it fares in the marketplace remains to be seen.

"If he wants to become a Hershey with a toothbrush and candy, it's not going to happen," Stanton says. "On the other hand, if he can have a really neat idea, and he can do this for three or four years and--guess what?--he comes out with some other crazy thing two or three years later, well....

"There is probably always going to be a niche for novelty," says Stanton, who estimates 90% of all new food products fail. "It's just fun and fun sells. You know, people always say sex sells, but fun sells more. You don't have to be too creative to figure out how to make a sexy ad, but to come up with a novel idea you have to work a little harder. And that's what some of these novelty candy companies have done."

Pearlman has no illusions about challenges in the candy business. "You can't take on an 800-pound gorilla head-to-head," he says. "I can't come out with a candy to try to take on Hershey. I've got to niche my way around them."

And that's why, "I knew I was going to have to own a company," he says. "Listen, when you're a short Jewish kid, you know you're not going get to play second base for the New York Yanks."

He may not have the skills to field grounders, but he has the pedigree for the Candy Pop Out Toothbrush. Born and raised in Cleveland, Pearlman's dad worked for a large novelty candy company. After graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in business, Jay Pearlman joined the candy company where his father worked. The young Pearlman left that company several years ago to start a novelty toothbrush operation (Kabam Products). He holds the patent on the pop-out brush. About a year ago, he started his candy company, Ludo.

But man cannot live on novelty alone. When Pearlman, who runs his Cleveland-based business from Boca Raton, Fla., gets the munchies, he craves "the basic American candies--Snickers bars, M&Ms."

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