November 29, 2004
Rob Nelson (B '88) thinks inside the box. And he's proud of it. "The old boxes of chocolate had 30 different types of candy," says Nelson, president and chief operating officer of Elmer Candy Corp. in Ponchatoula, La. "Most of them, people would press their fingers in the middle and say, 'I don't like this, I don't like that.' Instead of making 30 blah pieces, we want to make five or six outstanding pieces." Chocolate is serious business to Nelson.
Elmer Candy Corp. is the nation's second-largest manufacturer of heart-box chocolates and a leading supplier of boxed chocolates to national chains. In the Deep South, however, the company is probably best known not for Valentine's Day but for another candy-coated holiday. Generations of New Orleanians have grown up with Elmer's Gold Brick, Heavenly Hash and Pecan Eggs as an essential part of their Easter holiday.
"The candy business used to be much more regional than it is today," Nelson explains. "You had companies around the country that had brands that were well-recognized in that area. For us, it was Gold Bricks and Heavenly Hash. Easter was the really big thing for this company."
Elmer Candy Corp. is the oldest family-owned candy company in America. The forerunner to Elmer was founded in 1855 by Christopher Henry Miller, a German immigrant who had moved to New Orleans to make his fortune. Miller's daughter married Augustus Elmer, and in the early 1900s the company became the Miller-Elmer Candy Co. In 1914, with the addition of Augustus Elmer's sons to the company, the business became the Elmer Candy Co.
In the early 1920s, Elmer purchased the recipe and trademark for a concoction of chocolate, marshmallow and toasted almonds from a New Orleans department store. Marketed as Heavenly Hash, the confection originally sold as a boxed chocolate. In 1936, Elmer introduced its Gold Brick, a bar of milk chocolate and chopped pecans with a price tag to match its name.
"Back then, all candy bars sold for a nickel," Nelson says. "Gold Brick was the first candy bar to sell for a dime, and it still sold." No one remembers exactly when Elmer began producing Easter egg versions of its most popular candies, but Elmer's Easter candy took hold as a ubiquitous part of the New Orleans holiday season. "Locally, we've got the top three items in the market, which is amazing given the power of national brands," Nelson says. "From Beaumont to Mobile, we control somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the Easter market."
In 1963, Roy Nelson, a Chicago native who married a New Orleans woman, purchased the company from the Elmer family. Two years later, he recruited his son, Allan, a physicist with McDonnell-Douglas, to help run the business. In 1970, faced with aging facilities and a space shortage in downtown New Orleans, the Nelsons moved the company to Ponchatoula, about 40 miles from New Orleans. Rob Nelson, Allan's son, began working at Elmer as a teenager, doing everything from making candy to boxing it and delivering it to retailers.
When the time came to choose a career, however, Nelson wasn't sweet on the candy business. After earning a degree in business from Tulane, Nelson enrolled in law school at Louisiana State University and planned to practice law for a living. A few months before his graduation, his father, who currently serves as chairman of Elmer, asked him to help run the company, which was then undergoing a period of rapid growth. Nelson, who had participated in a number of the company's sales and marketing initiatives throughout college and law school, accepted the offer.
Throughout its history, Elmer, like most regional candy companies, manufactured an eclectic range of treats, everything from Coconut Haystacks to Chee Weez, a crunchy cheese curl, but beginning in the 1980s the company began to re-examine its business plan. "In order to remain a viable company, you have to be the best at something," says Nelson.
That something is Valentine's Day candy, specifically heart-box chocolates. Beginning in the 1980s, Elmer vertically integrated its facility, enabling it to design and manufacture its own packaging as well as warehouse its products. Elmer has expanded three times in the past 10 years, most recently this summer when it added 76,000 square feet to its facilities.
Elmer now occupies 300,000 square feet and employs 300 people, making it the largest employer in Ponchatoula. As for the most stellar chocolate, after extensive testing, Nelson and his company have figured out the top-five best-tasting flavors most everybody will like--creamy caramel, chocolate truffle, chocolate fudge, strawberry cream and orange cream. Now they've pared down their chocolate-box assortment to these morsels. "Every flavor is distinctive," Nelson says. "We hope people will remember and go back and buy it because they enjoyed every flavor in the box."
Favorite comfort food?
3-way tie: Our chocolate raspberry truffle, a big block of dark chocolate, or a po'boy from Parran's on Veterans Boulevard.
Greatest food fear?
I have been extensively trained in what makes a clean, sanitary, food-preparation environment [hence, the hair net, worn by Nelson in the photo]. My fear is seeing a substandard food-preparation environment in a place where I have just dined.
John Rowland (A&S '82) of Southern Hospitality Catering. Each year he brings soft shell lobsters (or shedders), mussels and scallops from his home in Maine, and we have a large dinner party. It ranks as the top gastronomic event of the year.
Who would you like to see walk through your door?
With the key word being walk, my 7-year-old daughter Sydney (who is still battling her way through a brain injury), and her older sister, Regan.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org