The last gumball maker in America has a long history in WNY

Jun 18, 2018

Many people have childhood memories of buying gum from a gumball machine. But they're not as common in stores as they used to be. So will gumballs be sticking around much longer? There's only one company in the United States still making them. It's right here in Western New York - and they've been expanding their lineup to keep up with changing tastes.    

In the relatively quiet Village of Akron, about 25 miles northeast of Buffalo, a sweet aroma is wafting through the air outside Ford Gum and Machinery. Stepping inside the classic looking hundred year old factory is like entering a museum. Old advertising posters line the walls up the stairs to the second floor office - where it's dead quiet. But with a variety of machines in the waiting area visitors can get right down to business.

President George Stege says the company got its start about 1913, when Ford Mason, a 20-year-old roofer in Buffalo, started leasing gumball machines for extra money during winter. But, Stege says, Mason found the leased machines didn't hold up. 

Ford Gum President George Stege on a recent plant tour
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

"And so he envisioned that if he could build a better mouse trap, or in this case a better gumball machine, that would be his way to a fortune," Stege said.  

A floor to ceiling display case, in the office, is filled with the machines Ford made over the years. The first one was patented in 1916.  
"But he discovered, at a very early time, that the real money in gum is not in the machines because they last too long if they're built right. The real money is gum because you have to constantly replenish it. So he actually started making gum as well as gumball machines," Stege said.   

They became a staple in businesses coast to coast. And, at one time, more than a half million Ford gumball machines were in service nationwide.

Now outside contractors make the machines - and the focus is on gum. Lots of it. In fact, the company employs about 150 people and the plant runs three shifts a day, five days a week, producing nearly 22,000 pounds of gum, every day.

Mark Wagner, Director of Operations says, they make about 100 different flavors.
"After a while your senses become desensitized to the smell," and
Wagner says, about 20 ingredients go into making the center of a gumball.

Director of Operations, Mark Wagner, shows off some individually wrapped Big League Chew gum balls during a recent tour
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

"The center has to be correct otherwise it won't carry the flavor. It'll collapse. It'll be too soft. It'll be too hard. So the consistency of the batch leading into the forming process is one of the most important aspects," Wagner said.
After they're formed, gumballs have to cure for several hours before going into big mixing cylinders for a several coatings of sweeteners, flavors, coloring and polish for added crunch.
"It's a combination of automated machinery that forms the gumball. But the process of finishing that gumball, I classify as a craft. Where the people that do the coating have been doing the job for a long time and they've mastered exactly how much sugar to add, how much flavoring to add, how much coloring to add," Wagner said.  

The whole process takes about 48 hours start to finish.

Finished gum balls are ready to packed and shipped to customers
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

Back up in the office, Stege says, when he joined the company, in 1980, there were about a half dozen U.S.-based gumball makers. But a Depression-era subsidy - that continues jacking up sugar prices for Americans - has taken its toll.  
"Because it's cheaper to produce gumballs, because of their reliance on sugar, in a foreign country, two of them moved up to Canada," Stege said.  
Chief Financial Officer John Kennelly says the vending business has been dwindling over the past 5-10 years. So, Kennelly says, they've gone from just selling gumballs in bulk to making several products for retail.    

"Mainly with the Big League Chew and the different variations of that. We do Big League Chew in the gusset bags, as well. The original's the shredded style. And then we have other brands that we have licenses for like Smarties," Kennelly said.

Their packaged products are now sold in 15-20 countries around the world. But, Stege says, online shopping is changing buying habits in the U.S. and he's not sure how much longer they'll be selling gumballs in bulk.

"There are very few people that woke up this morning and said, 'I gotta buy a gumball in a gumball machine.'   

Despite the challenges, Stege's confident about Ford Gum's future.
"Because we were able to evolve and get involved in other businesses and we were able to adapt to a changing economy and adapt to what the consumer wants, I think the other two parts of our business, retail sales and that's where Big League Chew comes in. That's our biggest division. And then we also do private label. We are the only private label gum company in the United States as well. And I think that these divisions is what will sustain us in the future," Stege said.   

And Ford's future could be a bright one. According to the latest research report from IMARC, the chewing gum segment is anticipated to grow over the next five years by $4 billion worldwide.