Two weeks before Valentine’s Day, the Sweethearts candy shortage is acute.
Many distributors have already sold out. And what candy remains is leftover from last year — before its manufacturer, the New England Confectionery Co., or Necco, closed its factory doors.
So now how are we supposed to communicate the important things — like “So Fine” and “Fax Me” — to our loved ones on Valentine’s Day? What does “Be Mine” even mean if it’s not stamped in red vegetable dye on a lump of sugar, corn syrup, dextrose and glycerin?
Lisa A. Pake, a lawyer in St. Louis, said she regularly bought the candy hearts for Valentine’s Day. But then came 2019. “I have not seen the Necco Sweethearts in stock anywhere this year,” she said. “There is a Brach’s version on the shelves, but it just isn’t the same!”
This year, Sweethearts fans like Pake may be forced to turn to Brach’s, the Illinois-based candy company whose conversation hearts have been a Valentine’s Day mainstay for decades. Brach’s hearts come in many flavors and are generally a little thinner and softer than Sweethearts, and they are laser-printed rather than stamped.
Pake used to keep Sweethearts in a glass dish in her kitchen, and in a wooden box at her office. She left them for her husband, Bruce, to find at home, like little love notes.
“To me they’re sort of a nice combination of being sweet, crunchy and powdery at the same time,” she said. But she knows that hers is a contentious opinion. Some people say Sweethearts taste chalky or medicinal, and even Bruce Pake does not like them, she said.
“When I was growing up as a kid in elementary school, on Valentine’s Day the kids would give each other little boxes of them,” she said. “Or if you liked a kid, you’d pick one with the right message and put it on his desk.”
Candy hearts have a long history, and so does Necco. It was one of the oldest candy companies in the United States, and its famous Necco Wafers — sugary disks that were first manufactured during the 1800s — could travel so well that they were shipped to U.S. troops overseas during World War II. Sweethearts appeared around the turn of the 20th century, and in the decades since, Wafers and Sweethearts (which were made from similar, but not identical, ingredients) have earned reputations as quintessential American candies. Before the factory closed, Necco was producing billions of Sweethearts every year.
Tom Hoeck, a founder of CandyStore.com, which sells candy in bulk, said he could understand the interest in conversation hearts. “It’s part nostalgia, because I remember being in grade school and sharing them with friends,” he said. “I like them. I think they’re a cool candy.”
Based on its own sales and some additional information from partners and distributors, CandyStore.com said it found that conversation hearts of all brands were the most popular Valentine’s Day candy in 2017 and 2018 in terms of sales by weight, edging out heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. (The data did not suggest that the hearts were more popular than chocolate overall.)
The company’s blog has covered Necco’s ups and downs and helped to raise the alarm about the Sweethearts shortage. In January, Sweethearts devotees started emailing the distributor about the candy on a daily — and then an hourly — basis, Hoeck said.
But this is not the first time people have panicked about Necco products. The factory in Revere, Massachusetts, struggled to stay afloat for years, and in March, The Boston Globe reported that it was in danger of closing. This led to what CandyStore.com called “The Great Necco Wafer Panic” of 2018, in which customers rushed to buy the small sugary disks in bulk.
Then, as now, CandyStore.com got hundreds of emails, Hoeck said. Some people offered to pay surge prices for wafers, and one woman offered her car in exchange for a shipment, he said. The online distributor ran out of both Wafers and Sweethearts last year.
“People are thinking we’re the ones that bought Necco, and asking when we are going to bring back Necco,” Hoeck said. (In September, Spangler Candy Co., an Ohio business known for its Dum Dums and Circus Peanuts, announced that it had bought Necco Wafers and Sweethearts brands.)
In the meantime, Brach’s was ramping up production of its conversation hearts to meet any extra demand for this Valentine’s Day, said Hans Becher, the general manager of seasonal confections at Ferrara Candy Co., which owns Brach’s.
And for those whose hearts belong to Necco, there may yet be some hope.
In a statement in September, Kirk Vashaw, Spangler’s chief executive, said the company looked forward to announcing that it would bring Sweethearts back in time for Valentine’s Day 2020. But that statement appears to have been removed from the Spangler website, and representatives for the company did not respond to multiple recent requests for comment.
It did, however, leave consumers with a “three-heart response” on its website last week.
“Miss U 2,” the hearts said. “Wait 4 Me.” “Back Soon.”