Sweet Treats: North Carolina’s Iconic Soft Peppermint

For more than 130 years, Red Bird has been making this nostalgic, old-fashioned candy in Lexington, North Carolina.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Bert Vanderveen

When you pull up to the Piedmont Candy Co. manufacturing facility in Lexington, it’s the smell that hits you first: a bracing rush of peppermint with a sweetness lingering just behind it.

You may even catch a glimpse of a white-bearded man driving a forklift, wearing a red shirt, who looks suspiciously like Santa. It’s a hint that they’re making something special inside this industrial park — they’re making holiday magic.

Piedmont Candy Co. is the parent company of the Red Bird candy brand. If you’ve ever dipped into grandma’s candy jar for a spicy, melt-in-your-mouth mint, chances are the sweet was made here in Lexington.

These days, you can find the peppermint puffs in big box stores, grocery stores, drugstores and specialty stores throughout North Carolina and the United States. It’s sold in sizes from 4-ounce bags to tubs up to 48 ounces.

But the candy is still made pretty much the same way it was back when the company was first founded here in 1890 by Edward Ebelein, a German immigrant who learned the candy-making trade in Baltimore. 

Historic image courtesy Red Bird

Over the years, the company weathered the Depression and changed hands, passing from the Ebelein family, which ran the business for almost a century, to the Reid family in the 1980s. The Reid family partnered with a private equity firm to grow the business in the mid-2000s, and since then the company has partnered with other financial investors.

Today, the company’s owned by Sequel Holdings and Embassy Park Investment Company (EPIC), a food-focused firm. “Piedmont Candy’s primary focus has always been to provide a quality piece of candy and a reasonable price,” says Heath Cagle, the chief financial officer for the company since 2006.

The first products made here were peppermint sticks, but in the early 2000s, the focus turned to making the soft peppermint puffs. “The stick candy was more labor intensive, so when we built a new facility in 2009, we decided to focus on puffs production,” says Cagle. There are other flavors of puffs — cotton candy, wintergreen, cherry — but the peppermint puffs make up 95% of their business, he says. (They also make a peppermint popcorn, with the crushed candy on top, and peppermint bark.)

The puffs are made with just four ingredients — pure cane sugar, invert sugar (the liquid form of cane sugar), peppermint oil and food coloring — all sourced in the United States. “We use very simple ingredients,” says Cagle. “I think people find it refreshing to look at the back of the package and see just four ingredients; it’s something we’ve really tried to stick to.”

In the olden days, sugar would be poured into a copper kettle to boil, then pulled by hand — the process of stretching to incorporate air — as it cooled. Today, the pulling is done by a machine. As the caramel-colored sugar is pulled, peppermint is added, and it turns white. When it’s ready, this minty sugar is rolled into a large cylinder.

Workers add stripes of dyed-red sugar along the sides of the cylinder, then the whole thing is run through a machine called a taper. This machine slowly rolls the cylinder to make it smaller and smaller (like rolling a “snake” out of Play-Doh).

When the candy is thin enough, it’s chopped into bite-size pieces. In the early days, the company could make about 2,000 pounds of peppermints a day. Now, the continuous cooker can churn out 50,000 pounds of candy a day — 13 million pounds of candy a year — in 100-pound batches.

Annette and Wynn Conrad own The Candy Factory, a specialty candy and antiques store on Main Street in Lexington. It opened in the 1970s and was originally owned by the Piedmont Candy Co’s Ebelein family.

“I remember coming here as a teen, when I worked at a retail store down the street. When we had our lunch or dinner break, we’d go to get ice cream next door, then swing by The Candy Factory for a treat afterwards,” says Annette.

“Everyone in Lexington grew up taking their children here.” In 2018, as the Ebelein family was ready to wind down its ownership, they looked for a Lexington family to take over the shop. “They didn’t want to sell it to someone who didn’t have roots in the community,” says Annette. “It’s been such a joy to get to know children and then grandchildren, as people bring the next generation.”

Today, The Candy Factory carries a mix of old-fashioned candies, like Whatchamacallits, Malo Cups, Zots and Coconut Flags — and, of course, Red Bird peppermints. “People drive in from all over Davidson County and the surrounding counties, especially for gifts around Christmastime,” says Annette. “It’s just a happy place!” Her husband Wynn agrees: “You can’t be sad when you’re here! When little kids start crying, I say, no crying in the candy store!” 

This article was originally published on waltermagazine.com on December 1, 2023.