American Fork • There was a time when nearly everything used to decorate a Christmas tree came from natural products. Trees were illuminated by candles and often decorated with garlands made from popcorn and cranberries. Many ornaments were crafted by hand. Candy canes hung from branches, and visiting children were often invited to take one down as a treat.
American Fork-based candy maker Kencraft and Southern California resident Robin Reichelt are trying to recreate some of that nostalgia with the introduction of a candy product called Linkydoodles.
The product, which comes in a box and tastes like a typical peppermint or cherry candy cane, is formed by hand by some of the 90 employees at the Kencraft plant and individually wrapped in plastic. It is designed to hook together to form a candy garland to be hung on trees.
Reichelt said she and her son were decorating their Christmas tree when they noticed that candy canes could be hooked together. Having made paper chains for the tree in the past, they began working to shape a garland made from candy.
Mass producing the product and keeping the price at about $20 a box proved more challenging than inventing it. It was at first made in Southern California one at a time, but the capacity was limited.
"We needed a candy person, someone who could make more for me," said Reichelt. "We were looking for a domestic manufacturer. It was important to us to make it in the U.S., but there are only a handful of choices."
That's when she discovered Kencraft and its president, Greg McCormack.
McCormack has been involved in the candy business for 35 years. His family founded Bob's Candies in Georgia, a company that is one of the largest manufacturers of candy canes in the world that has moved its production to Mexico. His great uncle, a Catholic priest, invented the first machine that made mass-produced candy canes, an invention that has changed little to this day.
McCormack sold Bob's in 2005. He knew Kencraft owner Taz Murray and was familiar with Utah because he and his family enjoyed skiing and outdoor activities. He came to head up Kencraft's operation four years ago.
"Coming to Kencraft was like going back to my roots," he said. "We make the product by hand and sell it to small, independent retailers."
McCormack said that Reichelt found Kencraft because she knew his background. He liked the concept of Linkydoodles and how they were received at retail stores. So the two came up with an idea on how to pack and manufacture Linkydoodles.
Linkydoodles sell for $17 at Kencraft's factory outlet store that is part of its manufacturing plant in American Fork. The company makes candy sticks in 30 different flavors, 12 flavors of candy canes, lollipops and NCAA-approved candy with logos embedded into the candy. For example, University of Utah, BYU and Utah State candy Christmas ornaments are on sale. Local high schools such as Lone Peak, Lehi and American Fork also have custom candy.
In fact, Kencraft has developed a process where photos can be put on suckers or ornaments. On Friday, Santa will be at the store, located at 708 S. Utah Valley Drive in American Fork, from 4 to 8 p.m. Youngsters can have their photos taken with him and, in 20 minutes, receive a sucker or ornament with that photo on it.
Kencraft's biggest holiday seasons are Christmas and Easter. Ironically, those who watch candy being made these days won't see Christmas treats being made but Easter suckers and eggs. The company was originally founded in 1969 making panoramic sugar Easter eggs, a product workers are busily making these days.
So how exactly are candy canes and stick candies made?
McCormack says the product starts with 65 percent sugar and 35 percent corn syrup. Flavors and the color of stripes are added. This mixture is formed into a large 130-pound loaf or batch. The candy comes out an amber color, but when it is put on a taffy puller and air is added to it, it turns it white.
This 10-pound white mass is formed into a square, with big stripes located on the outside of that. It is put into a batch roller, where the product is narrowed down to the size of a human wrist. From there, it goes into sizing rollers, which further narrows it diameter. Belts twist it and then it is cut to the needed length.
The product, still hot, is wrapped, and then cooled as fast as possible.
Much of the work, though, is still done by hand. Workers in the factory decorate lollipops, make and shape the sugar panoramic Easter eggs or turn gum balls into some of the popular signature characters Kencraft sells.
McCormack said the process hasn't changed that much since his family invented it years ago.
He said the company is proud of the products it makes.
"I like the quality and even more than the quality, I like having the comfort factor of where it is made," said McCormack, a surprisingly slender man for someone who runs a candy factory. "We are not going to be in Wal-Mart or competitive with Bob's. That's not who we are. We are handmade and American-made, and we can try things like Linkydoodles."