The classic line-up of candy bars made by Hayward’s Annabelle Candy Company. Photo: Annabelle Candy Company
The classic line-up of candy bars made by Hayward’s Annabelle Candy Company. Photo: Annabelle Candy Company

Gary Gogol, owner of Annabelle Candy Company in Hayward, keeps a watchful eye on a conveyor belt bearing white taffy as it slides underneath a metal dispenser squirting peanut butter — something the head of the family-owned company has been doing most of his life. Minutes later, a finished Abba-Zaba bar drops off the conveyor belt.

Soon, the candy bar with the peanut butter center will make its way from the manufacturing plant into the hands of shoppers, one of the 101,000 pieces of candy the 67-year-old company makes every day.

The privately held firm, which makes treats such as Abba-Zaba, Big Hunk, Look, Rocky Road and U-No bars, has been based in Hayward since 1965. Founded by Gogol’s grandfather, Sam Altshuler, in San Francisco, the 60-employee company sold 32 million regular size bars and 22 million miniatures in 2016.

“My grandfather started this company in the 1940s, selling candy bars door to door. It’s named for Annabelle, my mother,” Gogol said during an informal tour of the plant in June.

With his passing in 1971, Altshuler left the company to his daughter. Gogol was the next family member to take the reins in 1988. His sister Susan Gamson Karl took over in 1997 and Gogol stepped in again in 2014.

Sales at Annabelle are up this year, Gogol said, although he would not give details as to the company’s annual sales.

On the national level, U.S. retail chocolate sales hit approximately $18 billion in 2015. Over the last 10 to 15 years, these sales have been growing consistently at around 3 percent per year, slightly better growth than conventional food sales, according to research firm UBS.

Things at Annabelle have changed a lot since Altshuler first cooked up Rocky Road bars, the original product, in his kitchen at home.

From 1971-1988, Annabelle Altshuler Block was the owner, president and CEO of Annabelle Candy Company. Photo: Annabelle Candy Company

In 1965, Annabelle moved from San Francisco to 27211 Industrial Blvd. in Hayward. In 1972, Annabelle Candy bought Golden Nugget Candy, maker of Big Hunk and Look bars. In 1978, Annabelle bought Cardinet Candy and its U-No and Abba-Zaba bars.

Gogol said one of the biggest changes is the ramp-up in government regulations.

“In the past, the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) would inspect us, but it’s a lot more stringent now. We have to trace every item,” Gogol said. “A tremendous amount of time and effort goes into it.”

The candy itself hasn’t changed that much, he said. “A lot of it is still handmade.” And the company’s most popular bar is still Rocky Road, he said.

The Annabelle Candy Company factory in 1972 and company founder Sam Altshuler. Photos: Annabelle Candy Company

One of the most notable events in Annabelle’s history, at least in the employees’ eyes, was setting a Guinness World Record. Almost exactly a year ago, in April 2016, Annabelle set the record for the world’s largest taffy, producing a 524-pound strip of the sticky confection.

Even more than in the past, the company faces competition from big companies like Mars Inc. and the Hershey Co.

Within the U.S., Hershey has 32.2% of the confectionery market, making it the largest chocolate company followed by Mars, with 26.4%, according to a 2016 report from research firm Euromonitor.

Compared with Hershey and Mars, who together own more than half the entire market, Annabelle isn’t even a blip on the radar screen.

Douglas Yu, a business correspondent at industry publication Confectionery News, said small businesses do have some advantages.

“Smaller-scale companies in the sweets and snacks industry have more flexibility to innovate their products. Some of them who are independent chocolate makers have more leeway. That gives them an edge,” Yu said. It’s not necessary to go through many layers of management to get approval for new ideas, for one thing.

Current Annabelle Candy Company owner Gary Gogol is the son of company’s namesake. Photo: Janis Mara
Current Annabelle Candy Company owner Gary Gogol is the son of company’s namesake. Photo: Janis Mara

Annabelle’s newest product, a dark chocolate sea salt Rocky Road bar, is an example of such innovation. Rocky Road bars are basically marshmallow with cashews, held together — or, as the cognoscenti put it, enrobed — with chocolate. The classic Rocky Road bar uses milk chocolate. The new bar was created in response to the dark chocolate and salted trend, Gogol said. Annabelle plans for the new bar to hit the market in 2018.

In other ways, though, Annabelle is sticking to the tried and true. While Yu noted, “Sugar and calorie reduction is really big in the confectionery industry right now,” Gogol said he has no interest in altering the family recipe.

“We make candy the old-fashioned way. Our formulas have not changed,” he said.

Striding across the 60,000-square-foot manufacturing room floor clad in a white coat, hairnet and yellow hard hat, Gogol pointed to two 15-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide vats holding tens of thousands of gallons of chocolate. “The chocolate is piped to various areas in the plant” to be used in the candy, he said.

Annabelle employee Jaime Galindo mixes taffy. Photo: Janis Mara

On the other side of the room, Jaime Galindo, a longtime employee, was overseeing the production of the taffy as it emerged from a metal mixing machine.

“His son is on the Peruvian national soccer team. I met him during a visit,” Gogol said.

The room is suffused with the aroma of chocolate, but Gogol, who has worked in the Industrial Boulevard facility since childhood, said he doesn’t notice it.

“I don’t smell a thing. To me, that’s what air smells like,” he said.

Wiry and whip-thin, Gogol made no bones about his struggle to retain his trim figure while working at a candy factory. “I became a cycling fanatic,” he said. Making it clear he’s not tired of his own product, he added, “The temptation is endless.”

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Janis Mara covers East Bay real estate as a freelancer for Berkeleyside. She has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based...