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Tastes Yucky, Sells Like Hotcakes

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It was green. It was vile. Her face turned red, her eyes bulged, and her mouth made a God-this-is-awful grimace. Finally, she spit it out. Then, Patricia Mariani, 4, retrieved the offending gum, ran it under cold water, stuck it back in her mouth, and cheerfully chomped away as her sister Shannon watched. "It's more sour than a lemon," says Shannon, 13, a seventh grader at St. Peter School in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. "I don't really even like it. But it's probably my favorite gum. Whenever I see it, I buy it."

The Mariani sisters are crazy about Cry Baby, a super-sour gumball that's the hottest candy to hit the confectionery market in years. The secret? Cry Baby is awful. "Don't quote me, but it tastes like battery acid," says a worker at Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corp., which makes the stuff.

Sour gum is blowing out of stores: One manufacturer estimates the gum will post $70 million in retail sales this year. That would be a blessing for the $2.6 billion gum industry, which hasn't had a blockbuster hit since Wrigley's Extra debuted in 1984.

EYE POPPERS. "It's the most remarkable thing we've seen in this business," says Martin Pearce, senior vice-president for marketing at Leaf Inc., based in Bannockburn, Ill., which makes the super-sour Eye Poppers gum, as well as Chuckles, Milk Duds, Jolly Ranchers, and Heath Bars. "Our difficulty is we've not been able to satisfy everybody."

Indeed, demand for sour gum is so stiff that a "black market" has developed. Steve Smalley, a candy buyer at Kmart in Troy, Mich., has to wait until July or August for his next shipment of supersour Tear Jerkers, made by Ontario-based Concord Confections. "The supply is almost nonexistent," says Smalley.

But that's not stopping his son from getting into the business. "My 13 year old came home with a bag the other night that he'd gotten out of the gumball machine," says Smalley. "He was going to take them to school and sell them for a quarter apiece."

So what's so great about this sour stuff? It makes your eyes water, heart pound, and body sweat - generally unpleasant sensations. "That's because you're an adult," says A.G. Atwater Jr., president of Amurol, a subsidiary of gum maker Wrigley, which launched a line of sour candies. "Supersour is brutal to begin with. Of course, kids love that."

Why? Although the sour sensation gradually becomes sweet and eventually settles into tastelessness or a mild, tangy flavor, the first minute of chewing or sucking requires Homeric acts of courage. "How brave are you?" dares a package of Mega Warheads, a supersour hard candy distributed by Foreign Candy Co., which is based in Hull, Iowa. A Warheads package intones, "CAUTION: First 50 seconds are EXTREMELY INTENSE. Hang in there!" That type of scare tactic is very effective, says Teresa Tarantino, editor of Candy Marketer magazine. "Kids are challenging each other: 'If you can get through this, you can get through anything.'" She estimates that 50 to 60 companies make supersour confections.

PASSING FAD? There might be another explanation for the masochistic madness. "With sour candies, you can play tricks on your friends," says Ron Sherman, a merchandise manager for Mr. Bulky Treats & Gifts, a 148-store chain based in Troy, Mich., where Tear Jerkers are best-selling items at $5.99 per pound. "You say, `Hey, do you want a piece of candy?' and then watch their faces get all twisted." Sherman expects to sell $7 million to $12 million worth of sour gum and candy this year.

But what's hot today could be totally uncool tomorrow. Chris Burnett, 12, a sixth grader at Lake Bluff (Ill.) Junior High School, started chewing Tear Jerkers a couple of months ago, but he has already given them up. "It's like hot dogs. You stop after a while," he says.

To keep the momentum going, Sherman is test-marketing items such as Spicy Meatball Gum, meatball-shaped gum loaded with red chili pepper. That should pass muster with the grossmeisters. And Kmart's Smalley urges a reporter to try a Warhead. "Trust me," he says. "Warheads take sour and hot to a new dimension." Then he warns: "But be close to a garbage can."By Laura Zinn in New York, with Sandra D. Atchison in Denver

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