Family businesses cater to a tast for tradition

Succeeding in small business

June 29, 1992|By Jane Applegate | Jane Applegate,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

America's new passion for the comfortable and familiar is revitalizing scores of small, family-owned food businesses across the country, according to the author of a book showcasing the tiny enterprises.

"There are wonderful products that have been made in this country for decades," said Allison Engel, co-author of "Food Finds" (Harper Perennial, $16), a guide to 400 companies producing domestic delicacies from smoked lobster to caramel corn. "Almost all these companies are thriving, even in these tough economic times."

Ms. Engel and her sister, Margaret, both journalists, spent about 10 years traveling across the country visiting the small businesses they profiled. Their book dispels the myth that the best food is imported. "Think about how long imported food has been sitting on loading docks," Mr. Engel said.

She said most of the successful food businesses are family-owned and have been around for generations. They generally make one product and make it well.

"The people work extremely hard," Ms. Engel said. "But they are happy, have a lot of control over their lives and take a great deal of pride in what they make."

One of the Engels' favorite businesses is Sifers Candy Co. in Merriam, Kan. Russell Sifers, a former General Motors production worker, resurrected the family's flagship candy, Valomilk, in 1987.

If you grew up in the Midwest, you may remember Valomilk as the chocolate cup that dribbled creamy marshmallow down your chin.

Created by Harry Sifers in the early 1930s, Valomilk was known for its delicious "flowing center," made from corn syrup, sugar, egg whites, salt, water and vanilla. Sixty years later, the sweet, gooey stuff still flows out of a delicious milk chocolate cup.

Hoping to increase production and expand distribution nationwide, the Sifers sold the company to Los Angeles-based Hoffman Candy Co. in 1970.

the 1970s, we were in a merger mania," Russell Sifers says. "The big candy companies were gobbling up the little guys."

For a while, Valomilk seemed compatible with Hoffman's other candies, including Cup O' Gold, a similar confection.

"The sale sounded good to us, but it just didn't work out," Mr. Sifers said. The Sifers resisted Hoffman's desire to cut costs by using less-expensive ingredients. Hoffman stopped making Valomilk about 1980.

A few years later, Mr. Sifers obtained the rights to the Valomilk name from Hoffman. He began making it again in 1987, using the original copper pots his grandfather did.

Richard Hoffman, who sold his trademark candy lines and machinery to Adams & Brooks Candy Co. in Los Angeles, agrees with Mr. Sifers that older brands of candy are gaining popularity.

"There was a period when I thought Mars and Peter Paul and Nestle were going to buy us all out of the market, but I believe we are coming back," said Mr. Hoffman, who oversees production of Cup O' Gold at Adams & Brooks.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Mr. Sifers said he's happy that Valomilk is back on the shelves after disappearing for nearly a decade. Sales are still under a million dollars a year, but he's signing up new distributors every month.

Today, six or seven employees help Mr. Sifers produce about 700 cases a month. Distribution is limited to the Midwest, but sales are growing.

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