LUFKIN, Texas – You don’t have to travel the Milky Way to find pieces of candy that have a connection to our great state. You don’t have to spend 100 grand getting there either, because in Lufkin you’ll find the Atkinson Candy Company, and they’ve got a big hunk of good candy.
Eric Atkinson runs the candy factory his grandfather, B.E. Atkinson started during the Great Depression. You see, Eric wasn’t the kid in the candy store growing up; he was the kid in the candy factory.
“A relative told him that he ought to get into candy distribution, because nobody had any money, but everybody had a nickel,” Eric informed us.
In 1938 Atkinson started production on their own candy, and according to Eric East Texas had about 450 candy companies at the time. Today Atkinson Candy is the largest family based candy company in Texas.
“Even though we manufacture candy, what we make is happiness,” Eric says.
Known for their Chico Sticks, Peanut Butter Bars, black cows, and long boys Atkinson makes an assortment of candy that could please the palate of just about any Texan. You might even say Eric is the Willy Wonka of Lufkin.
While at the candy factory, we got transported into a world of pure imagination to see how this candy is really made. The first thing you notice, the temperature.
“In a candy factory you want your kitchen to be warm, so it’s not necessarily at a temperature that everyone would prefer, but the candy loves it,” Eric explained. “It keeps it from getting too hard while we’re processing the candy. As long as it’s in this room, the product stays above about 260 degrees. That makes it soft and malleable, although damn hot. We’ve made candy like this since day one, 85 years.”
From bubbling hot caramel to peanut butter bars being stretched and formed, these big blobs of sugar don’t look like candy until they get to the end of the line. It’s amazing to see such a big piece of candy continue it’s way down the line.
“You look at the batch and you think, ‘How on Earth are you going to get that batch into that little bitty piece?’” Eric said. “ This is how right here. They take in that rope of candy, they give it it’s final diameter, they cut the candy off in its final shape or length, they feed in film, wrap the film around the candy, cut the film, twist it not once, but twice, and spit it out at around 750 pieces a minute on this machine.”
The entire process is like an orchestra dedicated to the sweet sounds of well, sweets. While watching this symphony that serenades the taste buds, the one question that churned in my mind was how’d the name of the Chick-O-Stick come to be.
“The single most asked question I get,” Eric said. “I wasn’t alive when that came around, so I don’t have first hand knowledge, but here’s what I do know. Candy like this back in the day was originally called chicken bones. In about 1950 when we started selling outside the state of Texas is when we learned what a trademark was, and somebody had the trademark for chicken bones, so we had to come up with another name for our candy. Somewhere in that process we came up with the Chick-O-Stick, and my best guess as to why they were ever called that is because they kind of look a little bit like a piece of fried chicken.”
Now enjoying this Texas treat is easy and inexpensive, you can find it just about anywhere in the country but you can also come to the factory and visit the candy kitchen for a chance to get treats that didn’t quite make the cut at wholesale prices.
Every piece of candy that comes out of here has something to be proud of.
“This is candy that was born here in the state of Texas and built for Texans, built for the heat that Texans experience everyday in the summer time, so therefore it’s candy we should all enjoy,” Eric said.
For Eric, being a part of this family tradition that has lasted so long in East Texas is a source of pride.
“Oh it becomes a part of you,” Eric said. “It’s a since of pride that we have been able to succeed and take something that my grandfather brought up from the ground and make it a player in the world of confection in this country.”