Business

Family candy-maker Sconza finding friendly welcome in Oakdale

OAKLAND -- Candy-making at the Sconza factory still relies on many of the old-fashioned techniques family members mastered during the company's 69 years of operation.

Blackened caldronlike pots of nuts and caramelizing sugar are heated over a flame, the contents then tossed onto a conveyor belt. The master candy makers watching over the process don't use gauges or computers, instead mixing ingredients based on their well-honed knowledge of the craft.

"It is as much an art as it is a science," said Ron Sconza, vice president of operations, during a tour of the 70,000-square-foot candy factory, situated in an industrial park about a mile from the Oakland Coliseum.

Sconza Candy Co. churns out about 120,000 pounds of candy a day. That includes Sconza brand confections, private-label candies and bulk products.

The Sconzas are closing shop in Oakland and moving to the former Hershey Co. plant in Oakdale, where they will begin production in October. They will bring with them all of the equipment now tightly squeezed inside a factory the family business has outgrown.

Since making the announcement, the Sconzas have been flooded with e-mails and messages from Stanislaus County residents welcoming them. A retired Hershey mechanic even offered his services -- free of charge -- if it would help the company with the transition, Ron Sconza said.

"We've been overwhelmed with good wishes," he said.

The company has hired seven former Hershey managers. It will introduce itself to the community at the Oakdale Chocolate Festival in May, and a job fair at the plant is planned for this summer.

Sconza's 100 employees in Oakland are members of The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union. They will be offered transfers, although it is unclear how many employees will make the 80-mile move to Oakdale.

It began with peanut brittle

Sconza Candy Co. is run by the son of its founder, President James Sconza, along with third-generation Sconzas who serve as vice presidents.

James Sconza's father, Vincent Sconza, was 17 when he left Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1922. He began the company by making peanut brittle in the kitchen with his wife, Mary Sconza. They rented a small storefront in Oakland in 1939, adding a few other candy items to their line.

In 1948, they moved their growing operation to Berkeley, where they began "panning" candy, a style of candy-making that is used to make some of Sconza's signature products.

Sconza Candy Co. bought Hromada Candy Co. of San Francisco in 1967 and combined the operations at a plant in Oakland, where they have remained for 41 years.

The operation is spread over three buildings in Oakland, including a 25,000-square-foot warehouse down the street from the manufacturing plant. The firm also has a distribution center in Chicago that serves its East Coast customers.

The Sconzas say the company has remained successful because of its ability to adjust quickly to changing consumer tastes without compromising the quality of ingredients or its artisan candy-making techniques.

The firm previously specialized in hard candies, such as lemon drops and ribbon candy. But that market lost its popularity as its core customers grew older. The Sconzas changed their focus to panned candies such as jawbreakers and chocolate-covered nuts and fruits.

"That's the niche we're in now," said Janet Sconza Angers, vice president of customer relations.

Sconza Candy has 130 panning machines of varying sizes that can each hold a 320 to 900 pounds of candy. The machines resemble a large clothes dryer, slowly spinning the core of the candy to coat it with layers of flavor, color and various ingredients.

It can take several hours to make some chocolate-covered confections. Others, like the novelty giant jawbreakers require two weeks of panning.

Ron Sconza said the company is the only giant jawbreaker manufacturer in the United States that hasn't moved production overseas. It is also one of the largest producers of Jordan almonds, a fresh nut in a candy shell that is popular at weddings.

The Sconzas have followed other trends, such as the move of consumers toward dark chocolate and natural or organic products. The company makes organic-certified candies on a custom basis for customers.

Room for product experimentation

In moving to Oakdale, the Sconzas say they will have room to experiment with different techniques for new products, such as peanut or almond clusters. They also will be able to fulfill large private-label requests that previously they had to turn down because of space limitations in Oakland.

James Sconza has a dream of making peanut brittle again in honor of his father, who continued to walk the plant once a week until he died seven years ago at the age of 96.

The privately held company does not release sales figures, but the Sconzas say their products can be found in locations across the country, under their own brand or other labels. Many grocery chains carry the products, including Raley's, O'Brien's Market and Village Fresh in Turlock, as well as a number of speciality shops and airports.

"There's hardly a store we can't walk into and find our candy," said Greg Cater, the vice president of sales and marketing. He is married to James Sconza's daughter Julie. "The public may not know us well, but their kids do."

Sconza Candy will use about half of the space in the 417,000-square-foot main Oakdale plant to start, but has plans to expand and add to its work force. Eventually, the firm will open a visitor's center at the plant where the public can buy Sconza products.

"In addition to being able to consolidate everything under one roof, it will allow us to grow our company," Ron Sconza said. "This (Oakland) facility has been good to us, but we can't leverage any more out of it."

The Hershey signs and kiss-shaped lampposts at the Oakdale plant were taken down from the South Yosemite Avenue building earlier this week.

The Sconzas say that while Hershey's image has taken a beating for moving production to Mexico, the company was instrumental in ensuring that a good successor moved into the vacant plant.

"(Hershey's) two concerns were the employees and the community," Ron Sconza said.

It was clear that Hershey accepted the Sconzas' bid on the plant over two others because it would bring jobs back to Oakdale, he said.

The sale price was not disclosed.

The Sconzas praised Oakdale's officials, who "aggressively" worked on bringing Sconza to the community.

They said they had been searching for a larger facility for a long time, with an eye on properties west of the Rockies. They learned the Oakdale plant was for sale after reading a newspaper story about the Hershey closure last summer.

They moved quickly, and within a week the Sconzas had a contract to purchase the building.

"We knew what our needs were," Janet Sconza Angers said. "Not only is it the right location and size, but the infrastructure is already there."

She added: "We are going to have plenty of room to do any of our dreams."

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.

ABOUT SCONZA CANDY CO.

  • Products: Jordan almonds, chocolate-covered nuts and fruit, Boston baked beans, jawbreakers, toffee nuts and other confections
  • Employees: About 100
  • Daily volume: 120,000 pounds of candy
  • Labels: Markets products under the Sconza brand, private labels and bulk candies, such as those found in supermarket bins.
  • History: Founded in 1939 in Oakland. The company moved to Berkeley in 1948, then relocated back to Oakland in 1967 after purchasing Hromada Candy Co. of San Francisco. Bought the former Hershey Co. plant in Oakdale in 2008.
  • Web site: www.sconzacandy.com
  • MEET THE SCONZAS

    JAMES SCONZA, 71

  • Title: President
  • Relation: Son of founders Vincent and Mary Sconza
  • Quote: "We're delighted to be a part of the Oakdale community. We like the small-town feel. Everyone has been very welcoming."
  • JANET SCONZA ANGERS, 45

  • Title: Vice president of customer relations
  • Relation: Daughter of James Sconza
  • Quote: "With a family company, there is a great desire to succeed."
  • RON SCONZA, 40

  • Title: Vice president of operations
  • Relation: Son of James Sconza
  • Quote: "It is important to us how we treat our employees. They are the most important part of what we do. They are the primary drivers."
  • GREG CATER, 51

  • Title: Vice president of sales and marketing
  • Relation: Married to James Sconza's daughter Julie
  • Quote: "The products we make are very different than what we made 10 or 15 years ago. To ensure we grow and thrive, we realize we also need to change."
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