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This Jupiter man made Peeps candy an Easter phenomenon


Editor’s Note: Peeps candy and Easter go together like bunnies and egg hunts. Every year, the Clay Glass Metal Stone Gallery in Lake Worth holds a Peeps diorama contest. This year, it’s a tribute to Mr. Peeps himself, Bob Born, the unassuming Palm Beach County retiree who put a small regional candy on the map with a simple invention. Here is Barbara Marshall’s profile of Born from 2013.

It was a sweet night for Mr. Peeps.

Immediately after he walked into Lake Worth’s Clay Glass Metal Stone Gallery two Fridays ago, Mr. Peeps, aka Bob Born — a quiet, retired physicist who lives in Jupiter — was surrounded by a posse of new peeps.

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Mr. Peeps’ peeps clamored for his photograph. Some asked for an autograph or just wanted to shake his hand.

Mr. Peeps’ Peeps, on the other hand, stared stoically from their ignominy, where they were forced to “peeple” more than 30 dioramas made by local artists for the gallery’s annual Peeps Show.

“The sense of humor on display here is fantastic,” said a bemused Born, a Jew who spent half a century making these pillowy, pastel animals for children to eat at Easter.

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Eating Peeps he can understand. He never dreamed adults would one day look at his squishy candy and think “artistic muse.”

Sixty years after Born discovered a way to mechanize the manufacture of a seasonal spring candy made only in southern Pennsylvania, his chicks (and bunnies) are hotter than ever, thanks in part to more than 40 Peeps diorama contests held across the country.

Peeps have become such an iconic treat (and art medium) that the company said 2012 was its best financial year ever, with double-digit growth.

And Peeps aren’t just for Easter anymore. Christmas, Valentines’ Day and Halloween motifs have been added. The company’s web site offers tips for cooking and decorating with Peeps.

Peep’s peeps fill blogs with the results of toothpick-wielding Peeps jousting in the microwave (nobody’s a winner), fashion advice (bunnies are easier to dress than chicks) and the optimum time to leave Peeps unwrapped to get a crunchy exterior (2 to 5 days.)

“We hermetically seal them for freshness so people can open them up and let them get stale,” said Born, sighing that his specially engineered packaging was being thwarted.

Peeps seem to attract absurdity the way sugar lures ants.

In 1990, Emory University scientists tested the vaunted indestructibility of Peeps by subjecting them to a variety of tortures using boiling water, cigarettes and liquid nitrogen. Their tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that Peeps are made from an indissoluble substance that resists even powerful solvents, such as acetone.

“We make ‘em for posterity,” joked Born, who said gelatin is what gives Peeps their longevity. Their other ingredients include sugar, flavoring and carnauba wax, which allows the sugar coating to stick.

Becoming a candy celebrity wasn’t what Born had in mind after leaving the Navy in 1946.

An electronics expert with a physics degree, Born thought he would put in a few months at his family’s candy company until he started medical school.

“I loved it and never left,” said Born, 88.

Born’s father, Sam, started the company in Brooklyn after emigrating from Ukraine in 1910. In quick order, Sam invented the hard chocolate coating for ice cream bars, ice cream sprinkles, which he called “Jimmies,” after a man who worked in his factory and a machine to insert sticks into lollipops.

He advertised his candy as being so fresh it was “Just Born.”

The name stuck, even after Sam moved the company to Bethlehem, Pa.

In the early 1950s, Just Born purchased a Lancaster, Pa. jelly bean manufacturer whose workers also made by hand marshmallow chicks called Peeps during the Easter season. Each batch took the women workers 27 hours to laboriously mix and squeeze by hand from a pastry bag.

Bob Born studied the women’s repetitive movements.

During the next year, he developed the machine that today turns out nearly two million Peeps a day, at just seven minutes each, including packaging.

“My skill was, I knew how to solve problems,” said Born, with remarkable understatement.

At the same time, he created the molds for the Peeps bunnies in his basement workshop in Allentown, Pa.

Earlier, the company had started making coated jelly bean candies called Mike and Ike. Hot Tamales, another company trademark, were created from jelly beans that were stuck together and couldn’t be sold.

“I couldn’t throw that material away,” said Born.

But because the rejects were made in a variety of flavors and colors, he had to find a way to cover the colors and original fruit flavors.

He told his candy chef to color them red and add cinnamon. Lots of cinnamon.

He had his marketing chief try one.

“That’s hot,” the man said, and Hot Tamales were born.

“They became one of our flagship products and they were made from rejects,” Born said.

Another problem solved.

The company developed a reputation for making oddball products, Born said. His father once sold laxative-laced blocks of chocolate to the company that melted them down to make Ex-Lax.

During Born’s time, he made dog biscuits with a chocolate-like coating for Hartz pet food, “but they had to be safe for children because we knew kids would eat them, too,” said Born.

He always smelled like sugar.

“My kids loved the smell of me,” he said.

Always, he loved his job.

“I had a lot of fun in this business,” said Born.

Born retired to Jupiter in 1989, sharing a sleek, art-filled home with his second wife, Pat, in the luxury Admiral’s Cove development.

Only a small brass paperweight in the shape of a Peep acknowledges its owner’s alter ego.

Born’s other interests are contained in the books jammed into floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

“This section is history, this is religion and this section with the golf books is what I’m trying to learn to do,” said Born, who has the quiet demeanor of an academic.

Asked about his golf game, he demurs.

“It’s all good as long as you’re on the right side of the grass.”

By the way, Mr. Peeps doesn’t indulge in his company’s most famous product.

Ironically, his favorite candy is chocolate.

“The one thing we no longer make,’ he said.



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