This is the story of a little candy heart -- born in a mixer, mushed by a roller, tattooed, stamped, fed through an oven, and stuffed in a huge sack for months. Don't worry, it has a happy ending.
Since the turn of the 20th century, more than 300 billion Sweethearts have rolled off the conveyer belts of the New England Confectionery Company near Boston. Today the company makes 4 million pounds of Sweethearts in the six weeks before Valentine's Day, with phrases like UR HOT and TEXT ME (but no longer FAX ME or LET'S READ).
Here's the ten-part journey of a candy heart from the mixer to the candy box, as told by Hugh B. Albert, production manager at NECCO (all photos courtesy of the company).
(1) GET THE INGREDIENTS: "The ingredients are sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, flavors, gums, and colors. The sugar and the corn syrup are piped in, because they are an extremely large volumes. We've got large sugar silos that hold up to 200,000 pounds of sugar, which is piped throughout the building for all of our products. The corn starch, flavors, and colors are added by hand."
(2) MIX THE 'PLAY-DOH': "What you're looking at is the mixer. We have three of these mixers. They each make 900-pound batches. The consistency I would describe as Play-Doh. It looks and feels like Play-Doh, except it tastes a heck of a lot better. And, yes, having two kids, I've tasted both."
(3) CHUNK THE DOUGH: "Now you're looking at our orange "Play-Doh" in a 900-pound batch. An employee will chunk the dough into 50-lb blocks and they throw the paste up into a tall stainless steel hopper. That's essentially the job all day. They throw paste into hoppers."
(4) FLATTEN THE DOUGH: "This is the sheeting machine. One person stands at the top of a ladder (just to the left of this picture) and pushes the dough down through a roller. This roller flattens the dough out into a sheet."
(5) PRINT THE CUTE MESSAGES. "You can see words written on the yellow sheet of dough (it's a banana flavor). That's because we actually print the words before we cut the hearts. We paint a piece of cloth with red food dye and stamp the sheet of dough with a metal print plate with all of the sayings."
BRIEF ASIDE: MOTHER I'D LIKE TO APOLOGIZE TO. "The misprints can lead to some pretty funny stories. Our Ps sometimes look like Fs, so we can't say anything like "Pucker Up" for reasons you understand. Last year, we received a letter from a parent with a picture of a heart that was supposed to say "Smile." But because of the way the print came out -- no S, a messy E -- it ended up looking more like "MILF." Her son had no clue what that was about, so he asked his mom. She said, "I don't know what you people are doing." Anyway, we do our best to avoid things that have the Ps in them. This is the human element."
(6) CUT THE HEARTS. "The hearts are cut by this machine (again showed below). There are about 130 strokes per minute. A few years ago we were pressing about 200 stamps per minute, but we were getting more and no-prints. So I slowed it down.
"As you can see in the picture [ABOVE], there is excess dough. The stamped hearts drop onto another belt which goes into our huge dryer. The excess dough does not drop. It goes onto a conveyer that takes it across and back onto an inclined conveyer that drops back into the hopper at the top, and so it's essentially recycled. We try to reduce the amount of scrap. Basically, it's all used."
(7) DRY THE HEARTS. "The hearts go onto a conveyer. They move through a wall and into the dryer you're looking at, which is about 30 feet long. The hearts go back and forth across the dryer, end to end, each time dropping to the next level, and then they come out the other end."
"I love the way they taste right when they come out. They're not 100% dry yet. They're dry enough to be stacked. But if you were to bite into them, there is a definite skin around it. If I were to go directly to packaging, they would squish.
"The hearts are put in a hot room overnight to remove the moisture. Next morning, they're left out for an hour in ambient room temperature. Then they're dry."
(8) MIX 'EM AND SACK 'EM. "At this point the hearts are in bunches with the same colors and flavors. They're mixed in a machine we call the "rocket launcher" that blends the hearts. The mixed hearts will go into either a giant supersack or into big metal bins as we get closer to packaging time."
"Since have to produce 7 million pounds of hearts annually, we have to make hearts all year. We're making hearts right now for next year. We hold most of the hearts in these supersacks, which are marked and stored in our warehouse."
(9) 'THE MOST PAINFUL STEP': PACKAGING. "The final step is the most painful step. And that's the packaging step. Our customers all have their own marketing and design departments, and it's very important to them to have the colors that they want. Some are very simple, we just run them through our baggers, and they throw the bags of tiny hearts on the shelves. Other larger stores the bigger names, they want more extravagant display type cases.
"You're looking at a picture of our one-ounce boxes, which are our biggest seller. We have two machines that bump those out. The machines open the box, fill it with candy falling through a shoot from the ceiling, seal the box by glue on the bottom, glue the top flaps, close the flaps, and spray a code date. All this is done at roughly 500 boxes per minute."
(10) EAT. "That's basically it! We've remained true to our heritage. We're using a lot of the same equipment that was used 70 or 80 years ago. Small parts are replaced regularly, but the general framework, recipe, and process hasn't changed for decades. We don't automate everything. We have people painting and chunking and working. There is a lot of love put into the manufacturing of this candy."