'End of an era': Time, inventory running out for NECCO, Clark Bar
News that the maker of the iconic Clark Bar — deeply rooted in Western Pennsylvania nostalgia — may shutter its Massachusetts plant sent many fans on a weeks-long scavenger hunt of sorts for NECCO products as inventories dwindled at regional wholesalers.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook," said David Luehm, owner of Luehm Candy Co. in North Huntingdon. "We've had people come in and say, 'I like the Clark Bar because it was made in Pittsburgh.' Some people want to have the last of something, whether they like it or not."
The New England Confectionery Co., or NECCO, announced in March that nearly 400 workers — most of its workforce — could be laid off if the troubled candymaker could not find a buyer by May 6, according to the Boston Globe .
A post last month on NECCO's Facebook page noted an outpouring of support and encouragement for the company.
"All I can say is that we are unsure of our future but hopeful for a buyer to keep this sweet and nostalgic brand alive for many more decades," the NECCO post read.
The company's web store is "down indefinitely," its Facebook site stated.
NECCO CEO Michael McGee did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.
U.S. confectionery sales in 2015 reached nearly $35 billion and are expected to reach $38 billion by 2020, according to a report at statista.com . The report notes that the Hershey Co. and Mars led the U.S. market in retail-tracked sales for the period ending in October 2016.
NECCO makes its colorful namesake wafers, Sweethearts, Candy Buttons, Mary Jane chews and Sky Bars. Since 1999, it also has manufactured the Clark Bar.
The candy bar, with a crispy peanut butter center encased in milk chocolate, is easy to spy in its bold red and blue wrapper. It remains to Pittsburgh what the chocolate kiss is to, well, that city in eastern Pennsylvania that calls itself "the sweetest place on earth."
Created in 1917 from an original formula by Irish immigrant David L. Clark in Pittsburgh, the Clark Bar became a staple in vending machines, lunch boxes and Halloween bags.
Luehm says he has a 90-year-old customer who buys Sky Bars every week to share with his wife.
The novelty and nostalgia factors may be why the company is faltering, Luehm theorized.
"The whole reason is, (NECCO) made all of the old-time candies for so long and older people enjoyed them," he said.
"It's a big deal to lose it. You don't find those things in bigger stores. People come to us for those nostalgia-type things — 50th anniversaries, class reunions," said Luehm, noting that losing NECCO would affect his business.
He remains hopeful that an investor, perhaps a smaller company with production capability, will revive the brand, should NECCO close.
Gary Halula, president of Keystone Candy Co. in Unity Township, said he's playing a "wait-and-see" game.
A wholesaler who also sells to retail customers, Halula buys his NECCO candy supply directly from the company.
"Clark Bars are very popular. NECCO Wafers are not as popular as they used to be, but they still sell," he said.
The Sky Bar, also a NECCO original, was discontinued this year, Halula said.
His remaining inventory includes the wafers and Clark Bar minis.
Halula is thinking ahead, should his stockpile of NECCO candy sell out.
"There is nothing comparable to NECCO wafers," he said.
But the 5th Avenue candy bar, manufactured by Hershey and which he also stocks, is similar to a Clark Bar, he said.
Piece of the past
Maskas & Sons Inc., a wholesale distributor in Tarentum, recently ran out of full-size Clark Bars and is substituting it with the Clark Bar Jr., owner Randy Maskas said.
"Sales have definitely increased," he said, since news broke of NECCO's possible closure.
"People come here from out of town and buy Clark Bars. They think they are still made in Pittsburgh," he said.
Maskas hasn't had an order from NECCO in weeks but is finding some of those products with other distributors.
"Any time you lose any type you sell, it makes an impact. I would say the Clark Bar is No. 1, Sky Bar is second, (wafers) third. I'm sure we will adjust. It's not the first time we've lost (a brand)," he said, citing the former Marathon Bar as an example.
Maskas also hopes another company may take over at least some NECCO brands.
"I don't foresee Hershey wanting to jump on it," he added.
Jon Prince, vice president of McKeesport Candy Co. and president of online candy purveyor candyfavorites.com , has what he says is some of NECCO's last remaining inventory — and is limiting purchases of the wafers and mini Clark Bars.
"When they are gone, they are gone," Prince said. "It's just been one of the great tragedies in the candy industry, I think. It's the end of an era."
He, too, holds out hope for a return of at least some NECCO candies, should the company stop production.
Love of candy and obsolescence, that fear of "what's next," drives consumer demand for the brand, Prince said.
"I think what people are buying is a piece of the past," he said.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401, email@example.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.