For more than six decades, little marshmallow chicks have been roosting in Easter baskets. But rarely does anyone get a peep behind the scenes.
A few years ago, I joined candy historian and author Beth Kimmerle and then-brand manager Lauren Easterly at the Just Born factory to witness how sugar in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is spun into the iconic Peeps.
Not everyone gets to tour the factory, so it was easy to feel like kids in a, well, candy store. Our tour began with big vats of marshmallow being shaped and colored. And then, like Willy Wonka, a little noisy magic happens as these round forms come to life.
Easterly explains that noise signifies the eyes are being put on the chicks — until this point, the peeps were just clouds of marshmallow. Once they have their eyes, they take on their Peeps personality.
The eyes are made from “a special ingredient” but Easterly won’t elaborate. Moving into the packaging room, the Peeps go down the automated line and drop into their packages.
Of course, the best part of factory tour is getting to sample the product just off the line.
“The package is still warm, I can feel it,” said Kimmerle. “Oh my gosh, the Peep itself is so springy and lovely I’ve never felt anything like this — hang on one second, let me take a bite! Wow, with the sugar and the freshness, it’s perfectly set. I’d say that’s a fine marshmallow.”
“The longer the Peep sits, the harder it gets,” says Easterly. “It gets a firmer consistency and texture to it — which is how we found most people actually like to eat their marshmallow Peeps.” Some like their Peeps fresh out of the package; others insist on a little aging. While those preferences can be endlessly debated, there’s no debate that when Sam Born started the company around 1920, he couldn’t have had any idea of the longevity of his confections.
Or that, in the mid-’50s, the acquisition of a company for its jelly bean technology would also come with a recipe for a hand-formed confection that would become the Peep.
“Sam Born who started the company was really a forefather of candy — he was a candy inventor,” explains Kimmerle. “He invented thing like sprinkles or jimmies, [the name] depending on where you live in the country, and he invented a really cool machine that inserted sticks into lollipops.” Born’s son, Robert, followed in his father’s footsteps.
“Bob Born was very industrious and a very smart businessman, and he decided to move his company because there was cheap labor and cheap land here,” Kimmerle says. “It was also on the railroad routes to major cities, so he could not only get supplies in but also get product out.”
“Sam Born, when he started the candy shop in Brooklyn, wanted customers to know the candy was fresh, so he put a sign in the window that said the candy is so fresh, it’s as if it is Just Born,” Easterly explains.
In 1953, it took 27 hours to make a single Peep; with today’s technology, it takes just six minutes. The company also makes other candy favorites — Hot Tamales, Mike and Ikes and Teenee Beenies, Several years ago, it bought Goldberg’s Peanut Chews.
And those iconic Peeps now come in flavors and take center stage on holidays all year long.