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Jelly Belly creator sour over lost legacy but sees sweet future

David Klein now gives midday $5 tours at his no-frills candy factory in Covina while he brainstorms ideas for a new line of gourmet jelly beans in exotic flavors as he seeks what he craves most: recognition.

June 22, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • David Klein, 64, who created the Jelly Belly jelly bean, finds an opening in a sea of jelly beans at the Garvey Nut & Candy headquarters in Pico Rivera. Klein, who was known as "Mr. Jelly Belly" in the early days of his candy career, sold the rights to his product in 1980 and has regretted the decision ever since.
David Klein, 64, who created the Jelly Belly jelly bean, finds an opening… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

His hair is disheveled; his red polo shirt stained. He's prone to shuffling when he walks and wears an oversized cowboy hat embroidered with jelly beans.

"Now who here likes candy?" he asks, his voice both raspy and childish.

The group of preschoolers who arrived with their mothers stare at the peculiar stranger and realize he is speaking their language.

David Klein leads the way through his small Covina factory, where giant bags of dextrose and malic acid line the hall.

PHOTOS: The man behind Jelly Belly jelly beans

As he points out the barrels of powdery sugar "sand," he tosses chewy sour balls, licorice wands dipped in sugar nuggets and candy shaped like sushi into the children's plastic sacks.

It's the tame end of Klein's inventory — around him are specimen cups brimming with lemon-flavored candy urine, anatomically correct gummy hearts that gush cherry-flavored "blood" and fruity sugar pebbles called "Farts" — fare that he sells wholesale.

Midway through the tour, Klein stops and his tone shifts. He can't resist.

"Does anybody know what candy I created a long time ago?"

They wait.

"Jelly. Belly. Jelly beans."

An awed oooh is the response from the mothers who know well the confection that had America falling in love.

And then come the confused looks.

The man who inspired the Jelly Belly empire is now in this no-frills candy factory, giving midday $5 tours to stay-at-home moms and their tots?

The way Klein tells it, it's a frustrating tale of a legacy lost.

Now, years out of the limelight, he's convinced a comeback is right around the corner, arriving in the shape of that old friend: the jelly bean.

But this will be no ordinary bean. So spectacular and scrumptious, he believes, it's bound to turn a foray gone bitter into something marvelously sweet.

::

They once were unremarkable globs of pectin coated in sugar, known for their ability to last for months in candy dishes.

In the spring, they surfaced to line the bottoms of Easter baskets. The rest of the time, they lived a life as simple penny candy.

Then, in 1976, Klein was living in Temple City and working as a distributor for Garvey Nut when he dreamed up a mini version with shells and insides that would burst with flavors like cream soda and watermelon — exotic at the time. It would be marketed as a gourmet treat and sell for $2 a pound, a costly sum for a jelly bean.

To bring his vision to life, Klein, 30, ordered a batch from the Herman Goelitz Candy Co., a Bay Area manufacturer whose products he sold. Goelitz developed recipes for his desired flavors, made the beans and shipped them to him. He dubbed the candy Jelly Belly — inspired by folk and blues musician Lead Belly.

Klein rented a corner of Fosselman's Ice Cream store in Alhambra to hawk his beans and commissioned the niece of one of its owners to design the logo: a bright-red bean with yellow highlights and its name across the middle.

The ice cream shop had a flow of steady customers, but Jelly Belly was considered ludicrously priced. Klein had 300 pounds of candy and no takers.

"As soon as you walked in the door it was to your right and that man would pounce on you," recalled Alhambra resident Rose Marie Turney-Markus, a frequent customer at the time. "He was so energetic and wanted you to try this and that."

Klein was a showman. After persuading an Associated Press writer and photographer to visit the ice cream shop, he arranged for family and friends to form a line snaking out the door.

Within days, customers began calling Fosselman's. Candy boutiques clamored for bulk orders, the gourmet jelly beans were tucked into gift baskets and sought out for Mother's Day presents. Aficionados mixed flavors to create jelly bean cocktails

Klein was suddenly on talk shows and posing shirtless in a tub filled with jelly beans for People magazine. Inside his home was a dedicated "bean room" with boxes of orders to be shipped.

And then Jelly Belly got its biggest boost. A devotee became president of the United States.

For years, Ronald Reagan had eaten ordinary jelly beans after initially turning to them to curb his pipe smoking habit. While governor of California, he received shipments from Goelitz. Then Goelitz began producing Jelly Belly and Reagan became a fan.

Goelitz shipped 7,000 pounds of red, white and blue beans to the White House for Reagan's inauguration in 1981.

For Klein, it should have been a brilliant moment. Except by then he had given up all rights to the candy.

::

Even Klein has trouble comprehending why — why someone who studied economics at UCLA, earned a law degree and was obsessed with candy agreed to relinquish his own flourishing product.

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