by Mimi Montgomery
photographs by Keith Isaacs
When you walk into the Butterfields candy factory in Nashville, N.C., the first thing that hits you is the smell. Sweet and delicious, it’s like you just stepped into a big bag of the peach-and-coconut-flavored Peach Buds the company is best known for.
“The sugar is just all in the air, it’s everywhere all the time,” says Butterfields president and Raleigh resident Dena Manning, pictured above with son, Harry.“You (always) smell sugary.”
It’s a sweet scent for a newly minted entrepreneur who’s worked hard to bring a beloved North Carolina treat back from the brink of extinction. More than 1,000 pounds of candy a day now come out of a factory that recently sat derelict and in disrepair; every week, Butterfields now sends more than 1,000 boxes to customers all over the world and to retailers like Williams-Sonoma, Southern Season, and Harris Teeter.
Known best for fruit-flavored hard candies, Butterfields has deep roots in the state: Started in 1924 as Cane Candy Co. near Winston-Salem, the business was eventually sold, renamed Wilson Candy Co., and moved to Wilson and then Rocky Mount in the 1950s. In the late ’80s, the company was sold once again and moved to Nashville, where it was re-branded as Butterfields.
Manning purchased Butterfields in 2012 after the previous owner, whom she knew, fell ill and was no longer able to run the business. It was in bankruptcy and had been dormant for a few years.
Manning was undaunted: “I’ve always wanted to do something entrepreneurial,” the former courthouse interpreter says. Plus, she knew how great the old-fashioned candy was, and that its longtime fans missed it – she’d even fed her own mother Lemon Buds as she underwent chemotherapy. Buying the factory 45 minutes from home seemed like an opportunity to bring something beloved back to life.
High hopes aside, ownership came with a steep learning curve. Manning (whose father started an airline company in Honduras) compares it to sitting in the pilot seat of a Boeing 747 without any flight experience. “I knew the basics” of business, she says, “but nothing like doing something like this.”
So she got to work. She re-hired former long-time company employees who knew the ins-and-outs of the confectionary process; conducted market research and talked to wholesalers; and spent hours poring over sanitary codes and regulations. Soon she developed a plan to streamline the company and get it back to its roots and back on its feet.
One early decision was to scale back from more than 20 flavors to focus on the three most popular: Peach Bud, Lemon Bud, and Key Lime Bud. Then she partnered with Raleigh artist Dale Early to create beautiful artwork depicting each fruit for her newly designed packaging. Rave reviews started flowing in: “Immediately, people were calling on the phone just so happy that it was coming back,” she says.
Customers from all over the country reached out to tell Manning their memories of eating the candy back in the day with their grandparents, and others hopped in the car to drive hours to pick up pounds to take home themselves. The response was so effusive Manning expanded to include cherry, honeybell, and muscadine-flavored hard candies, as well as seasonal Christmas ones.
Manning says her company is one of the last candy factories in the country still making hard candy the old-school way. It’s not a marketing ploy: All of her recipes remain the same as they were in 1924, and she’s even using the same machinery to make each piece of hard candy. Dating back to the early 1900s and 1920s, these old-fashioned wrought-iron cooling tables, copper kettles, and boilers ensure that Butterfields is truly a product made by hand. Each batch takes an hour to make. Confectioners lift heavy slabs of molten candy, mix in flavors for nearly 20 minutes, then spin the candy into ropes and cut it into pieces. It then takes even longer to cool before it can be packaged. Nothing is computerized, and everything is made, packaged, and shipped on-site by Butterfield’s eight employees.
Manning is passionate about preserving the history of what she calls “an art,” and creating a new kind of community-based, family-run business that will thrive through the 21st century. Her ex-husband and her son Joseph help with the engineering and mechanical aspects of the business, while her son Harry works in the front office and in the back making candy. All of her employees live in the area. Needless to say, the town of Nashville has heartily embraced the company’s resurrection.
But even while it continues to expand throughout the globe, Butterfields is sure to bring its story back home on both a small and large scale. “We want to let people know this is a North Carolina company,” she says. “Made by hand and by people you know.” That, she says, is “so important, and so unusual.” Tasty, too.