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Ferrara works hard to keep family feeling and candy flowing

September 6th, 2016 1:18 PM

Updated: Sep. 8th, 2016 8:00 AM

Noe Avila inspects candy at the factory. | William Camargo/Staff Photographer

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

Family businesses have a special dynamic. Even when they grow to become manufacturing giants like Ferrara Candy Company. It's true, some of this family feeling was lost when Ferrara Pan Candy Co. merged with candy colossus, Farley & Sathers. However, John Conversa, director of manufacturing, and the new board of directors are trying to keep this family spirit alive.

Conversa oversees the Ferrara facilities in Forest Park, Bellwood and Creston, Iowa. One of the company's leading principles is to share their knowledge, time and resources with the residents of these communities. Recently, for instance, they filled 50 backpacks with school supplies and distributed them to low-income elementary school students in Bellwood. 

At the opposite end of the educational spectrum, the company brought in five college-age workers from a co-op this summer. 

"We showed them every aspect of our operation and hired one full-time," Conversa said. "We hope this comes full circle and they can come back after they finish college." 

The company also made a $30,000 donation to Ronald McDonald House Charities. They gave the residents some hands-on help last April. The chef at their Forest Park facility made meals for the families, which were delivered to the Maywood location to be heated up. 

This year, they are a corporate sponsor for "Boo at the Zoo." 

"We're donating 10,000 pounds of candy and setting up a huge façade of a haunted house, decorated with our candy characters," Conversa said. Ferrara will send busloads of residents from Forest Park and Bellwood to the zoo event. The buses hold 60 people and they will all receive free admission to "Boo at the Zoo." Tickets for Forest Park zoo-goers will be distributed through the park district. Buses will depart from The Park on all four days: Oct. 22, 23, 29 and 30. 

Conversa said they are keep alive the legacy of his longtime friend and mentor, the late Sal Ferrara. Conversa first went to work for Ferrara 20 years ago, after leaving a more corporate atmosphere at Mars Candy Co. 

"I now have Sal's office and I still have his lab coat hanging on the door," he noted. The white coat bears the name "Salvatore." 

"Sal's work ethic was contagious," Conversa said. "We knew he was demanding but also knew he appreciated our hard work." Ferrara, he added, was the classic "work hard/play hard" boss. 

"Sal had no regrets. He knew how to enjoy life. He traveled and drove fast cars. He had the opportunity to enjoy the best and knew that others didn't. I never saw him tip less than $100."

He recalled taking a business trip with Ferrara to Switzerland. Their next stop was supposed to be Poland but Ferrara nixed it and they flew to Rome instead. Of the many countries Ferrara visited, Italy was his favorite. 

Working with Ferrara was great, but Conversa knew it wasn't a "normal" place to work. Ferrara fostered a family atmosphere at the Forest Park plant by giving his workers extra benefits. 

The company used to offer interest-free loans to workers. They received free legal services and free tax preparation. They also ate for free at the cafeteria. Conversa was able to continue the latter perk but, after the merger with Farley & Sathers, in 2012, the other giveaways ended.

"Sal truly felt the merger was best for the two businesses to grow," Conversa said, but it was the end of an era. Even Ferrara had some doubts. "I don't know how I'm going to do this," Ferrara confessed to Conversa. "I've never worked for anyone in my life." He stepped down in early 2014 and went to work for Haribo. It was also a family-owned candy business, located in Germany. Ferrara became the CEO for the U.S. market.

"We had a big going-away party at Sal's home in June 2014," Conversa recalled. A photo of the party hangs on his wall, with Ferrara smiling in the center. "He let us know in July that he had esophageal cancer." Ferrara died on Thanksgiving 2014. He was 63.

"The new owners have a challenge," Conversa acknowledged. "We have a new board and new department heads. We don't want to spoil the family atmosphere that was so important to Sal." 

The company may be more close-knit than others, but the work is still difficult and demanding. 

Ferrara Pan Company first moved to Forest Park in 1959 and occupied the former Borden Dairy at 7301 Harrison. They later expanded west and took over an aluminum-recycling plant. They purchased the alley that separated the two buildings and united the two structures. In the mid-1980s, they added five stories to the plant. The top floor is where the candy-making process begins.

It's hot and loud on the fifth floor, where they do all the batching and cooking of their starch-molded candies. These include Gummy Bears, Fruit Snacks and Orange Slices. There's a heavy aroma of candy here and throughout the plant. Conversa said they were unable to cool this area, because the air-conditioning would be offset by the heat coming from the machines. To keep the workers hydrated, they provide a refrigerator stocked with Gatorade. Making the candy is a seven-day process and the plant uses gravity to send the ingredients from one floor to the next. 

After the candy is cooked, a valve is opened and the liquid candy drops to the fourth floor into depositories where the candy is injected into a starch mold. The candy then sits in drying rooms for 24 hours to cure, then is shaken out from the mold. Some is either oiled in a large horizontal drum, like Gummy Bears, or "sanded," like Sour Bite Crawlers. Workers hit these products with steam then tumble them in a sugar/acid blend. Workers add sugar to these drums as needed.

The candy is dropped down a chute to the third floor, where it is either caught in trays or in bulk cases. It is noticeably cooler as heat is not so central to the process on this floor. In fact, the floor where chocolate is stored is kept at a low temperature. Workers stack the trays on dollies. They hold the candy until it's scheduled to be packed. Packing is the most labor-intensive part of the process because it cannot be fully automated.

When the candy is ready to be packed, workers pour the candy from the trays onto conveyors that feed the combination scales. These scales weigh the candy to the proper bag weight and drop it directly into the bagger on the second floor. Once the candy is bagged, or boxed, workers pack the product into cases. This is fast-paced work, as the workers have to keep up with the conveyor. 

The finished cases are conveyed to the first floor, where they are placed on pallets and loaded into trucks. A fleet of semis is in continuous operation to haul the candy to the company's million-square-foot packing center in Bolingbrook. 

The Forest Park plant is 298,000 square feet and has 430 employees. To guard against repetitive-motion injuries and the sheer monotony of some of the tasks, workers switch stations every two hours. The plant runs 24-7 and produces 2-3 million pounds of candy per week. The sugar is shipped to the plant by rail and they go through a railcar per day — 200,000 pounds. The plant is so efficient, he said, they're very close to achieving zero waste to landfill.

Conversa said there has been no discussion of closing the Forest Park facility. 

"It's a well-maintained old building and the efficiency is solid." The plant has a product line of 16 different candies, including Brach's, Boston Baked Beans and Chuckles. They also have their own line of chocolates. "The candy bar didn't take off," Conversa said, "but the chocolate balls continue to sell well."

Ferrara Candy Company has 11 plants in the U.S. and Mexico. It is the largest producer of candy canes and conversation hearts in the U.S. Lemonheads were introduced in 1962 and they sell 500 million per year. Although the Ferrara, Buffardi and Pagano families no longer own the company, fourth-generation members of these families still work at the plant. 

For the last 15 years, the company has hosted outings for the families that work there. The food is catered by the Original Ferrara Bakery, located at 2200 W. Taylor, in Chicago. The bakery/deli is operated by Sal Ferrara's sister, Nella Davy and her husband, Bill. 

"They are a generous, sweet family," Conversa said of the candy-making clan. 

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