Los Altos Mayor Ron Packard says that of all the confectionary delights at the candy company, his favorites are the chocolate-covered blackberries. JOE HU/TOWN CRIER
Los Altos Mayor Ron Packard wears many hats, as lawyer, elected official and chairman of the board - of a candy factory.
Marich Confectionery Co. in Hollister produces candy sold all over the Bay Area and throughout the world. Have you tried a bright red, chocolate-covered dried cherry at a local coffee shop? That was a Marich invention, which it sells under private labels for area retailers. But high-end goodies with the Marich label are also to be found at the factory store and fine-food stores on the Peninsula.
"When I was young, any chocolate was great," Packard said. "As I get older, I can taste the difference." His current favorite: the chocolate-covered dried blackberries, which pair a tart, rich flavor with the subtle snap of berry seeds.
A visitor to the Marich factory, which offers tours, will hear the rumble of the panning room from the distance. The cacophony of millions of candies tumbling and spinning in the pans (which look a bit like clothes dryers) provides an overwhelming sensory experience. Marich made its name in panned candy, which spins for an hour or two or more, sprayed with consecutive layers of chocolate and candy coating. Some products can take a week to make, from start to finish, but the final effect is higher quality than one can achieve in an automated process, Packard said.
Bridge mix and Jordan almonds, two traditional candies in that style, are only the tip of the iceberg for Marich. The largest producer of panned candies in the nation, Marich does 70 percent of its business selling to private labels, including some top chocolate makers, but also sells under its own name at gourmet food stores.
Despite its impressive hold on the market for chocolate-covered comestibles, Marich is still a distinctly family-owned business, run by Troy and Brad van Dam, the sons of original candy creator Marinus. It was he who approached the Packard family about financing a fledgling candy business 25 years ago, and founded the company's great strength, developing new (delicious) products ahead of competitors in the industry, Packard said.
The red apple caramel combines a biting shock of fresh apple with a warm, buttery glow. The delicate burn of the cinnamon Holland mint, with crunchy layers of dark chocolate, candy and mint, will win over even those who avoid mints in general.
Shortbread enrobed in lemon-blueberry white chocolate, chocolate-covered pistachios and cookie-mint maltballs are just some of the surprising combinations that, with the van Dam's finicky fine-tuning, manage to pair modern flavors with old-fashioned, high-quality style.
Guava juice goes into the guava jelly bean, giving flavor that bursts in the mouth. While Marich will probably never get an edge on Jelly Belly, the behemoth of the bean market, Australia and South Korea are big jelly bean buyers, Packard said.
Large national chains (most of which have confidentiality agreements with Marich) order the candy in packaging that uses their own brand name. Stroll into a big-name coffee shop in downtown Los Altos, and the chocolate espresso beans, chocolate toffee almonds and chocolate-covered dried cherries you spot came from Marich. Some of the newer, hipper products did too, such as fragrant, summery pectin tea candies, which come in jasmine green tea, hibiscus and black currant flavors.
The van Dam brothers are constantly developing new products to tap into freshest flavors. Dark-chocolate blueberries are getting the addition of acai, an anti-oxidant-rich tropical fruit with a chocolaty berry flavor.
"We can develop a unique candy recipe based on a business' request," Packard said. One Marich invention about to hit the market is from Sunsweet. In an attempt to rebrand its prunes as dried plums, the company is set to release dark-chocolate dried plums, which taste (no surprise) like candy, rather than your grandmother's stomach remedy.
"They decided they needed something that was more 'with it,'" Packard said. Chocolate was the solution.
Savory flavors represent an increasing trend in confectionery, and Marich is experimenting in products like a dark-chocolate chipotle almond, a sugar-butter glazed almond paired with an earthy, chili taste.
"You will swear you've never eaten a peanut in your life," Brad van Dam said, describing the salted giant peanuts that go into "the finest chocolate peanut in the world." A family in Virginia hand-cooks the peanuts in giant pots of peanut oil before shipping them to Hollister.
Chocolate is trending darker, and while van Dam resists some of the faddish extremes (like boutique varietal chocolate and extremely high cocoa percentages), he said that on the whole, Marich will be blending darker chocolates in coming years.
"We have a fairly light dark chocolate, enough to coax people to the dark side," van Dam explained with a smile. "Dark chocolate is like a red wine - lots of fractions of flavors can be picked out."
Marich has had an exclusive relationship with Guittard, another local family-owned business, from the very beginning. The San Francisco chocolate importer provides the pure chocolate with which the van Dams work their art.
The company's sales have maxed out the Hollister facility, which is in the process of expanding. It is a big enough player in the industry at this point to buy futures in chocolate on the commodities market, van Dam said.
Packard said the recent economic downturn has not been all bad news for the candy business.
"If the economy does really well, people celebrate by having confections," Packard said. "If it's doing real bad, people won't spend on big items, but they feel they still deserve small pleasures."
Marich products sold under the Marich label can be found at stores such as Draeger's, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Whole Foods. Products sold under individual businesses' brands can be found at some of the coffee chains in downtown Los Altos.
For more information, visit www.marich.com or call (800) 624-7055.