The famous flavors of the Jersey Shore are as well-known to visitors and residents as the top U.S. corporations.
Mack and Manco's Pizza, James' and Fralinger's taffies, Johnson's Popcorn and Country Kettle Fudge seem as old and established as the sand and waves themselves.
But age alone doesn't explain their iconic status. Longevity and fame are like the chicken and egg - they develop together.
Create an iconic product and you'll enjoy decades in business. Sell your product for decades by the sea and you'll become identified with happy trips to the beach and boardwalk.
The owners and guardians of these famous shore flavors credit vintage recipes (usually tweaked at some point), hard work, competitiveness and even an act of God.
One value common to them all is consistency - doing what it takes to give customers the same quality product, year after year, decade after decade.
Yet even icons must stay current and grow, so to maintain their status the famous flavors have taken fresh approaches, modernized, and often developed national marketing and sales programs.
Once icon status is cemented, the foundation is set for business expansion.
From fixture to icon
Johnson's Popcorn started in Philadelphia in the 1920s and came to the Ocean City Boardwalk in 1940.
Owner John Stauffer, 68, of Ocean City, said the famous seller of caramel corn wasn't yet an icon when he bought the business in 1974, just the maker of a successful product.
Stauffer was a teacher returning from Venezuela who couldn't find a job, but had experience with running ice cream carts in summer. He said he sees divine guidance in his time with Johnson's Popcorn.
"I think it's a blessing from the Lord. I've been very blessed first of all by getting a good product," he said.
Popcorn was popular in the resort in late 1970s and early '80s, he said, and several competitors sold lots of flavors.
Johnson's stuck with caramel, and Stauffer made one crucial change: He increased the ratio of caramel to popcorn as the product is mixed by hand in large copper kettles, something previously done only late in the season.
Another important innovation was in packaging.
"I introduced the plastic tub, the Stay Fresh tub. Plastic is expensive but with it, the popcorn keeps for at least three or four months," he said.
The containers did some important marketing work, too, with customers carrying big tubs mounded high with the irresistible smelling caramel popcorn up and down the Boardwalk.
As long lines formed at the Sixth Street store, Stauffer expanded with another near 14th Street in 1988, and then another near Eighth Street in the mid-'90s.
Last year Johnson's Popcorn bought another space next to the 14th Street store, for a gift shop and its corporate headquarters.
Marketing the product at Christmas turned out to be a hit, too, as did regional and national marketing. Now Johnson's Popcorn is available at several ShopRites (though none near Ocean City), Acme supermarkets and many Hallmark stores, and nationally by mail order.
Stauffer said a key part of company's success was turning its management over to Rebecca Juzwiak, of Ocean City, who at 28 has already worked for the business for 14 years.
A crucial component the product's marketing has been the firm's charity work, which also acts as a sampling program.
The company sponsored a Family Fun Fest on Father's Day, for example, and annually sponsors a concert at the Music Pier.
"Almost weekly we give Johnson's Popcorn to the troops, and once a month the American Legion sends it out," Stauffer said. "The policeman's association gives a small tub to every child at the primary school, and the fire department gives it to kids at their safety program in the fall. We give it out for door prizes to nonprofit organizations."
"We try to be generous that way, and then people can try the product," he said. "If they try it, 97 percent of people love it, I'd say."
The James Candy Co. is as old as the shore experience itself, starting in the 1880s when Atlantic City first put boards on the sand.
Since the early 1990s, the company has also owned the Fralinger's brand, giving it the two famous flavors in Atlantic City taffy.
"They were the original seashore companies that capitalized on the desire for souvenirs from one of the first seashore resorts," said Lisa Glaser Whitley, executive vice president for sales and marketing, and member of the owning Glaser family. "When people came to Atlantic City, they always had salt water taffy so it became synonymous with a seashore vacation."
The companies were started by Enoch James and Joseph Fralinger, whom she called "very hard working businessmen who knew the art of candy making and really fought to each establish their own brands and customer following."
Since buying James in the 1940s and then Fralinger's, the Glaser family has continued the hard work to maintain and revitalize the brands, and keep existing customers while reaching out to new ones, said Glaser Whitley, 39, of Linwood.
That includes unusual marketing opportunities, as when Fralinger's was featured in the "Boardwalk Empire" series on HBO after director Martin Scoresese remembered the brand from childhood. The taffy was also recently in an episode of the TV hit "Glee."
More conventionally, a new website launching at the end of the month and a Facebook presence serve national mail orders and permit targeted marketing, for example for sugar-free taffy, she said. And Fralinger's taffy is sold at the national Cracker Barrel restaurant chain.
James' and Fralinger's taffies have kept their distinctive flavors and shapes, even as the recipes have been updated to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats, Glaser Whitley said.
In 2004, the family added a third iconic brand, Bayard's Chocolates, which started in 1939 and is famous on the other side of the state for its chocolate houses in Cherry Hill and Cinnaminson.
"We feel like we are the keepers of three brands that very innovative businessmen started," Glaser Whitley said. "It's a very fun way to make a living."
Focused on basics
Pizza shops may come and go, but for more than half a century, Mack and Manco's Pizza has been the place to go in Ocean City for traditional thin-crust pizza.
Chuck Bangle of Somers Point, who with wife Mary and inlaws Frank and Catherine Manco of Ocean City own the company and its four stores, said the key to its iconic status and success are fairly simple: Having perfected the "original pizza experience" when Anthony Mack and Vincent Manco founded the first Boardwalk store in 1956, the staff works hard and attends to details to make sure the shops and products stay that way.
"The thin crust plain original pie is by far the most popular item on the menu," Bangle said. "That wasn't a magical formula, but our special recipe of dough, sauce and cheese play a role."
One key is Mack and Manco's pies are lighter than thick, loaded and even stuffed pizzas that leave people feeling the same way.
"Our customers love the thin crust. They're not getting that full on two slices," Bangle said. "Myself, I could eat eight slices, the whole pie, with no trouble at all."
Delivering that classic tomato pie inexpensively has been especially important lately.
"What's helped us deal with the economy is our price point is reasonable. A family of four can have a whole pizza meal for less than $25 and still enjoy a unique dining experience," he said.
A highlight of that experience is seeing the pies made, with dough tossed and twirled right in front of the customers. Bangle said all the pizza makers start out in other jobs and take two or three years before developing the necessary skills.
The business does offer customers variety, especially at its Mack and Manco's II in Somers Point, where there are 15 pies you can't find at the Boardwalk stores, he said.
Ensuring high levels of performance at the stores has also important for the three generations of the family who have worked the business.
"We work hard at keeping the image of the store the same, with a clean staff, white uniforms," he said. "You won't find any employees with visible tattoos or multiple piercings. We run a clean shop and people comment on that as they come back year after year."
Bangle said the owners are in each shop every day, ensuring the quality of the sauce, dough and cheese and the effectiveness of the operations.
"That how to maintain consistent quality," he said.
John B. Maschal, who oversees his family's famous Country Kettle Fudge in Beach Haven and Surf City on Long Beach Island, said one key to 50 years of success is the smooth consistency of their product.
"A lot of other fudge places just put the fudge on a slab and flip it over, while we whip it up and make it creamy," Maschal said, referring to the hard work of stirring 28-pound batches of fudge in large copper kettles.
Besides giving customers an entertaining look at their sweet treat being made, whipping the fudge gives workers such as Maschal and his father and business founder, John R. Maschal, formidable arm muscles.
"My dad and I always won the canoe race at the summer camp," said J.B. Maschal, of Beach Haven. "They would hold us back at the start, and we'd still win."
Country Kettle Fudge still uses J.R.'s original recipe, but it has kept the brand fresh by constantly introducing new flavors, often with the help of suggestions by customers and staff.
This summer, for example, it's developing four new spicy flavors: Triple X Chocolate, Orange Kick, Killer Bee Sting and Mexican Mole, John B. Maschal said.
"The Orange Kick was maybe a little too hot," he said. A couple of seasonal workers back from school tried it "and proceeded to drink a gallon of water."
The staff preferred another new flavor, cherry fudge with chocolate chunks. With about 25 flavors available, most people can find a favorite.
Fresh flavors and marketing keep the fudge fun. For example, the Marshals hired a guy to wear a chili pepper costume to draw attention to the new flavors. It has also helped Country Kettle expand to stores in Newport, R.I., and Rockport, Mass.
As with the other iconic businesses, though, the key is working hard and nearly nonstop during the summer.
J.B.'s wife, Martha Maschal, said living close enough to the business to ride a bike there helps.
And it's temporary.
"We're seasonal, so it's doable. Otherwise, you'd get burnt out," she said.
The test of time
_James' taffy founded 1880s
_Fralinger's taffy founded 1880s
_Johnson's Popcorn founded 1940
_Mack and Manco's Pizza founded 1956
_Country Kettle Fudge founded 1961
Contact Kevin Post: