March 27, 2011, - 6:49 pm
Virtually everyone in America knows what a Jelly Belly is. The exotically flavored confections didn’t just elevate plain old jelly beans to gourmet status. It took the entire candy world up a notch. But few people know the name–and the story–of Jelly Bellies’ inventor, David Klein. That story is well told in “Candyman: The David Klein Story,” produced by his son, Bert Klein, a successful animator who also appears in the movie. The movie is now available for purchase on DVD.
If it were up to me, every single business school student and every budding entrepreneur would see the “Candyman” documentary. It’s a great, enjoyable lesson in what to do to make your business idea into a success . . . and what NOT to do. And it’s fun and entertaining, too. But it’s sad to see how David Klein, not a lawyer or shrewd businessman, was taken advantage of and virtually robbed of his success.
In the mid-’70s, David Klein worked at a nut store which also sold all kinds of candy, helping out in delivery. A brilliant, geeky type, his mind was always working. He came up with all kinds of ideas. One day in 1976, he came up with the idea to make jelly beans with specific flavors that weren’t your run-of-the-mill sugary blobs tasting like sweet medicine. He tested his strawberry flavor on kids, who told him it tasted like cotton candy. Voila, the cotton candy flavor of Jelly Belly was born.
In order to create, mass market, warehouse, and deliver his Jelly Belly, he needed investors. And soon, his nut store employers were his investors, owning half of the newborn company. As many successful businesses do, David Klein started out locally, his Jelly Bellies were sold locally at only a few places, and they quickly ran out. He sought out the Herman Goelitz Candy Company, which today owns Jelly Belly, to produce the various flavors of Jelly Belly on a mass basis. He convinced them to make his prototypes and ultimately full production of the product.
At first, the product got off to a slow start. It was expensive relative to the other jelly beans on the market. But Klein knew better. He wasn’t just an inventor, but a marketing genius, going on the “Mike Douglas Show” in a hippie-esque Uncle Sam outfit laden with candy. Then he posed for People Magazine in nothing but boxer shorts and a shower of jelly bellies all over his chest and lap. His investors and the Goelitz company were taken aback, but Jelly Bellies took off. The Goelitz factory couldn’t keep up. Orders were such that the factory was a year behind, and more money was needed to expand production.
Soon, in 1980, Goelitz execs flew out to Los Angeles, where Klein still lives, to meet with him and bluff and strong-arm him out of the company, out of the genius product that he dreamed up, for a mere pittance. It was just before Ronald Reagan was about to be elected, bring Jelly Bellies to the White House and make the gourmet candy into even more of a skyrocketing market sensation.
Klein is a mensch, perhaps too much of one. Even today, though not the multi-millionaire the inventor of Jelly Bellies should be, he spends his money to drive an ice cream truck to a house in the neighborhood where children are having birthday parties. Then, he just gives away the ice cream treats for free. Nothing makes him happier.
And maybe that’s why he wasn’t hard-nosed enough to say no to the Herman Goelitz people, to at least bring a lawyer to the meeting at an L.A.-area hotel. Instead, he gave in, after the Goelitz people told him that they wanted the company and would stop production and steal his flavors and product concept until and unless he sold it to them. They told Klein that even if he sued them, they had an army of lawyers, and he wouldn’t be able to afford to fight them. They warned that even if he did fight and win, it would be too light. By the time the battle was over, the Goelitz people told him, Jelly Belly would be over and he would lose everything.
Klein gave in. It wasn’t just that they bullied him and he was too nice–too nice not to bring in his own army of lawyers and say, “see ya in court.” It was that he had his aging partners, his former nut store employers who were growing older and wanted to cash out. They, too, pressured Klein into the deal. True, he didn’t have to sign the agreement and could have gone and gotten lawyers, but this was 1980, and he was an entrepreneur, not a litigator. He felt he had no choice and didn’t know better. You know nothing illegal went on here, but you feel bad for him.
Klein sold Jelly Belly to the Herman Goelitz Candy Company for just about $4.2 million. And he had to split it with his partners. His $2.1 million was paid in $20,000 per month installments. All of it is now gone, while today, the Jelly Belly product generates about $200 million per year in revenue. The product is so successful that the Herman Goelitz Candy Company changed its name to The Jelly Belly Company. Klein’s ownership stake in the product, today, would have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the movie goes beyond the big mistake and shows what happened since. In that, it’s also the story of a father and his son, and how they grow closer after strife. Klein’s son, Bert, talks about what life was like as the son of the Jelly Belly inventor. The family had a “bean room,” where they had all the flavors. We’re shown a picture of Klein, his wife, and their daughter at Bert’s Bar Mitzvah. We’re also told that David fell into a deep depression, and it was tough for Bert growing up with his father so sad about the one he didn’t let get away, but sold away for nearly nothing. His biggest disappointment, though, was not the money, but how his name is never mentioned, is nowhere on the box. A 2008 New York Times story about Jelly Bellies, doesn’t mention the very man who invented the product and made it big.
Ultimately, though, David came back from it. He moved on and began inventing other candy, including “Sandy Candy,” with his daughter. They have their own candy factory in California. And, as David tells me, making this movie helped bring him and his son closer. That, to me, is the best part of the story. That, and the genuine warmth you feel from David Klein that comes across the screen. David Klein’s tremendous generosity and kindness–giving everything away to others–is mammoth. It’s not just the ice cream truck once a year. All of the candy business people interviewed in the movie, and plenty of other entrepreneurs, tell us how Klein helped make them into successes. He generously gave freely his advice, his time, his ideas, some of which made his business acquaintances into millionaires. As he told me,
If the original agreement had not been changed, I would have received at least 200 million dollars more. This would not have changed my lifestyle at all, but can you imagine the people I would have been able to help with that money. The documentary brought Bert and myself much closer and for this I will be eternally grateful.
The man is a true mensch. And that fact alone makes you feel for him and the fact that he really didn’t get his well-deserved reward for his incredible idea.
If there is one thing I didn’t need in this movie, it’s Weird Al Yankovic’s commentary, including his ridiculous (but thankfully brief) attack on Ronald Reagan. But other than that, I recommend this movie for a fun, quick trip through the birth and development of a candy that’s a part of American pop culture, and an interesting look at the life of a quirky, genius entrepreneur, who is also a very altruistic, kind human being. As documentaries go, this was a good one.
Watch the trailer . . .
Tags: Bert Klein, Candy Man: The David Klein Story, David Klein, documentaries, Documentary, entrepreneurs, Herman Goelitz Candy Company, jelly beans, Jelly Bellies, Jelly Belly, Jelly Belly Candy Company, Jewish-Americans, movie, movie review, Movie Reviews, Weird Al Yankovic