Jelly Underbelly: Q&A with Jelly Belly Creator David Klein
In 1976 lifelong candy enthusiast David Klein had an idea: to take the lowly jelly bean, that reject runt of the Easter basket, and turn it into gold. Jelly Belly, the world's premier "gourmet" jelly bean, was born, and the rest is history.
Katie Moulton Lies! Buyouts! Blackmail! Jelly beans!
Well, not exactly.
When Klein got in touch with Gut Check after we posted Battle Gourmet Jelly Beans, we leapt at the chance to interview him, but we quickly learned that Klein's road to sweets success has been fraught with controversy. We spoke with Klein about the history of Jelly Belly, the 2010 documentary Candyman, how his teeth are holding up after decades in the candy business and his plans for a jelly-bean comeback.
Gut Check: Hi, Mr. Klein.
Mr. Klein was my father! I'm David. Did you know it's National Jelly Bean Day?
No! But happy holidays! Can you fill us in on your history? How did you get into the candy business?
I have no secrets at this point in my life. I'll be 65 in September. I loved candy from the beginning -- it's like I was almost destined to be in the candy business. I knew from seven or eight. My grandparents and aunt and uncle owned a liquor store in Van Nuys, San Fernando Valley, and I used to work there in the summers and help my aunt buy candy to stock in the store.
I used to follow the histories of the different candy brands, made a study of the candy industry. I figured I needed to know more about the business than anyone else. In junior high other kids would say something like "Butterfinger," and I would be able to tell them the whole history of the company and its products.
Later I went into the wholesale nut business, but I always wanted to create my own candy line. One night I was talking to my buddy, and I said, "What if we opened a candy store and we only sold jelly beans?" Of course, I had $800 to my name at the time, was married to my first, only and current wife Rebecca, and we had a little son, Bert. I didn't have enough to open my own factory or retail store, so I had to contact a man who had an ice cream parlor and ask if I could have a little corner of the shop where I could start selling these beans. And I agreed to split whatever we made with him -- so if I made $20, I gave him a check for $10.
Why jelly beans?
Because nobody had done anything with them in the past. I wanted to create a fun item with new flavors, because every flavor of jelly bean tasted alike. My initial concept was to flavor the inside.
So how was Jelly Belly born?
I was fortunate enough to contact Marinus van Dam, the most fantastic candy maker that has ever existed. When I went to him, he created the original Jelly Belly recipe and formula. He passed on about fifteen years ago, but his sons Brad and Troy are now making my new jelly bean 35 years later!
Then I started working with the contract manufacturer Herman Goelitz in Oakland. I was trying to sell the product to the stores I sold nuts to, but none of my existing contacts wanted any. I could not give it away.
Part of that first problem was that the jelly beans cost $2 per pound. Most [others] were 60 cents a pound, but I said to myself: I know this is a good product, and I don't want to give up on it. So I made one phone call, and everything changed.
What was the one phone call?
I knew you were going to ask that! I called up the Associated Press and asked to speak with the editor of the business section. I talked to Steve Fox and said, "I have the only jelly bean store in the world." Which was sort of true -- it was a store within a store. He said, "How's it doing?" A natural question. A good day was $20 to $25. But I said, "Steve, we are doing fantastically well," to keep his attention. He wanted to come out and see the operation, so when he showed up, I had phony customers lined up to buy the product. I slipped them money -- kind of like in The Sting -- and gave them little scripts: "I hope you still have the black licorice" and "I'm flying back to New York and I had to get these for my dad." He [Fox] was so amazed that people were showing up like this for jelly beans, and I said to him, "This is actually a quiet day."
The story hit the wire service within a week - the Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, New York Times -- the whole country. And I never had to do any selling after that. Famous-Barr, Marshall Field's -- all these stores ordered without even seeing samples. It just took off.
Smooth sailing after that?