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John Zeno Louisez, Chief Legacy Officer and owner of Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop, walks us through the rich history of his stores. Louizes describes the recent dive into new and different communication channels and his experience with eCommerce and online retail.
Director of Public Relations at IntelePeer
Chief Legacy Officer and owner of Zeno’s Boardwalk Sweet Shop
Content Creator at IntelePeer
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Paula Rivera: Welcome to Take it From Your Peers, a podcast brought to you by IntelePeer. I am your host, Paula Rivera.
Paula Rivera: June was actually National Candy Month and July is National Independent Retailer Month. This is Take it From Your Peers, and I thank you for joining us today. These items aside, I’m more focused on the candy at the moment. The most important right thing is that summer is in full swing, and whether you’re up in Mackinac Island, on the streets of Cape Cod, or perhaps strolling the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore, there’s one thing that goes hand in hand with summer, and that is taffy. Few things that say summer louder than taffy does, is making taffy, and today I am so excited to have with me my guess who doesn’t just know taffy, he lives and breathes it. He’s candy manufacturer and shop owner, John Zeno Louizes of Zeno’s World Famous Taffy. John, welcome.
John Zeno Louisez: Thank you, Paula. How are you doing today?
Paula Rivera: I am quite well. I give John a lot of props. We had a few technical difficulties momentarily, but he persevered, much like his family has done. I think your family’s been in business since 1948.
John Zeno Louisez: Correct, I like to tell everyone we’re the other family-owned business that started in Daytona Beach in 1948. The other one, of course, being NASCAR. So the jury’s still out as to which is more successful, but maybe one day we’ll actually be able to have a true vote and figure out which is bigger, the conglomerate or the little candy owned family business, but it works out pretty well.
Paula Rivera: I see a partnership in your future.
John Zeno Louisez: That’s right, that’s right. It just seems right, 48-48. Yep, so it works
Paula Rivera: Exactly, and it’s actually funny. I think those who really enjoy candy probably have a lot in relationship with those who appreciate NASCAR, because NASCAR fans are die hard fans. They live and breathe NASCAR, as I’m sure those people who like candy, those people who like saltwater taffy, live and breathe candy and saltwater taffy.
John Zeno Louisez: For sure. When the Daytona 500 is here or when they have races during the summer, that tends to be when we’re very very busy, and they are very passionate about their racing, and both companies have been in business as long as we have. You have great grandparents, great grandchildren into our stores, and I’m sure they’re also visiting the races, as well. And we’re just very fortunate to stay in business where I was allowed to be a part of a business that I just absolutely love, because I’m not very good at much things, but I’m pretty good at the candy making side of things.
Paula Rivera: Well, I think that’s an important thing, and you’re basically have taken the torch, you’re running the family business, and I believe you have two young sons. Is there a coach in their future?
John Zeno Louisez: So I’m 3rd generation. My great uncle started it in 1948. My dad, Zeno, took it over in 1963, and then I took it over in 2003. My two sons, they, right now, both have interest in one day taking over the candy business. When they come with me to work, I try not to make them as miserable as possible if I have them helping me out do something, because I want it to be a place where they come and enjoy being at so that they’ll want to take it over eventually, because I’m a big believer when it comes to legacy businesses, that if the next generation doesn’t want to do it, they’re going to lose it. Or if they do it and they do it poorly, they’re going to lose it. If I want to keep my father’s legacy going, it’s super important that I have them on board with it. And so far so good. They’re still very young, but they have their sights taking over the business, and that’s ultimately the dream and why we do what we do.
John Zeno Louisez: We’re up to four Zeno’s locations right now throughout Florida, and we also took over some very well known ice cream and candy shops over on the west coast of Florida as well, called Strachan’s, which have been in business for twenty-something years. And if I had to give you a brief elevator pitch of what it is exactly that I do, in the past I would’ve said I’m a candy and ice cream maker, but the older I’ve gotten, I’ve realized I’m a preserver of legacy, and Mr. Strachan did a great job of running those ice cream shops. My dad and mom did a fantastic job of running the candy shops as long as they did. So it’s my job to hold them, improve them, and make sure everyone remembers where I came from. And then hopefully my children will continue to do the same.
Paula Rivera: That’s interesting, and I will touch upon that momentarily. But first off, let’s do some stats. In 2021, chocolate and candy sales were up 11% over 2020 from what I understand, which is amazing because I think most of us sat on our couch in 2020 and comforted ourselves with all kinds of food that perhaps should be eaten in moderation. These stats are actually from the “State of Treating” report that’s published by the National Confectioners Association, and they actually found that in 2021, candy sales were up 15.4% over 2019. So 11% over 2020 and 15.4% over 2019.
Paula Rivera: Now in that report, interestingly enough, they found that 78% of adults believe it’s perfectly fine to occasionally treat themselves with chocolate or candy, something I concur in.
John Zeno Louisez: Of course.
Paula Rivera: Seventy two percent of consumers believe that physical health and emotional wellbeing are interconnected, and again, you can’t argue with that. And 91% of consumers report that taking road trips, something we all love to do in the summertime, quite apropos, report that taking road trips, and 80% of consumers sometimes or always include chocolate or candy in their travel. So we have road trips, travels, and lots of people comforting themselves with chocolate and saltwater taffy. So what did this say about the role that confections play during the pandemic, and how did your store, in particular, weather that storm?
John Zeno Louisez: One thing I did notice with COVID is a lot of people, even though we were stuck away doing the normal day-to-day routine, work, school, and all that stuff, I feel a lot of people exercised a lot more, as well. I feel a lot of people did more walks, got out and about. So when they felt they need to reward themselves, they would reward themselves with some candy or ice cream. And then as for road trips, oh my goodness, you hit it right on the head. My family and I are huge road trippers. We go up to Pennsylvania, I’d say, at least three times a year. We have family up there, and I’m not a particular big fan of flying. And I think deep down inside, I’m always going to be, I might not look it, but I’m a fat kid on the inside, and I think deep down, I just want the snacks. I think that’s why I like the road tripping more than anything because we just – from donuts to cakes to cookies to candy to everything – we know our stops all along 95.
John Zeno Louisez: Florida was an anomaly because we opened up faster than most of the other states, so we were extremely busy once we were able to go back into things. So our numbers were up big time. It also helped us expand. So that two month period of COVID when the world was shut down, and my wife and I were stressed out as everyone else was, had I known we would turn out the way we turned out, I would’ve actually enjoyed those two months a little more, as opposed to wondering if we’re ever going to survive this. And just fortunately for us, we have a business that’s a low budget item. Even when people weren’t working, they’ll still take their kids to go get candy or ice cream, as opposed to a fancy steak dinner. And we have that business, that’s not, I would never say recession proof, but it definitely is recession tolerable. And from that, we were able to bounce back and survive.
Paula Rivera: Recession tolerable, I love it. Talking about the pandemic, you may not know this, but I actually became a self-anointed candy-making pro with my overindulgence of the Insta Reel. So, I think I’ve spent more time than I care to admit watching various folks online make candy, and a lot of it, I noticed, seemed to be made from hand.
John Zeno Louisez: Yes.
Paula Rivera: Do you still pull your taffy by hand or have elements of the process been automated?
John Zeno Louisez: So, if you ever visit a Zeno’s location, you’ll see a traditional taffy puller in the windows. I don’t know, I’m sure if you’ve been anywhere, you’ve seen what those look like. The puller actually makes a Z shape, which is the Z in our logo for Zeno’s. But right now, in the last 15 years or so, we changed from pulling our taffy to a whipping process, and this is what makes our taffy, I believe, very soft and chewy and fluffy, as opposed to the harder taffy you may remember during Halloween or if you go anywhere else.
John Zeno Louisez: Taffy does have a stigma against it in terms of it being pull your fillings out, it’s hard. Ours is not that. So, I made sure we did something completely different, and it’s more of a chew than it is a saltwater taffy. It’s got a really impactful flavor. We make the most flavors in the world, I believe, at 101, ranging from vanilla, banana, to maple bacon, to beer, all kinds of different ones. We just introduced pickle this year, which is actually pretty good. And so we’ve had a lot of fun creating candy, and just like you going down the candy wormhole of Instagram, we all did that with our different passions that we found out during the pandemic. And I’m sure you’re having just as much fun learning about candy as I am learning about jujitsu and guitar. So, we all have our own things and you picked candy, which I love.
Paula Rivera: So, the whipping capabilities. Have you implemented any other kind of manufacturing technologies automation into the process to modernize the back end of the shop, shall we say?
John Zeno Louisez: Sure, so we have the four retail locations, but we also have a facility that’s just shy of 11,000 square foot where we make all our candy at, and we have machines that cut and wrap each individual piece of saltwater taffy. These machines have been around since the ’50s and ’60s, and they wrap around 350 pieces a minute. And if I had to hand cut and wrap every individual piece of taffy we had, I think I’d have to charge $4,000 a pound because it would take forever for me to do that. So thankful we have these automated machines.
John Zeno Louisez: Now there are candies that are still very much labor intensive, and I don’t know a way that they could be automated, like pulling peanut brittle on the table, or caramel we still do in small batches of about 30 pounds or so, which to the homemaker, that’s a huge batch, but for a candy business, that’s a very small batch of caramel. But I’m a big believer in the things that need to be made in small batches, because I think they’re better where you just can’t simply double the size of the recipe or triple the size, because it affects the integrity of the candy, I don’t do that. So, it’s super important that everything is as great as it should be all the time, because we’ve got high standards to live up to. We’ve been in business, it’ll be 75 years next year, and we didn’t do that by not putting out the best product out there.
Paula Rivera: Well, it’s funny as you were talking, I had visions of Lucille Ball and her friend, Ethel.
John Zeno Louisez: Yes, yes. So, we just got one of those machines. So, we used to always hand dip our chocolates and hand temper our chocolates by hand, which always made me hate doing chocolates because everything else, we caught up to speed with any bigger companies, and it just makes life a lot easier. So, in the last two years, I bought one of those I Love Lucy lines, where you remember her stuffing the candy in her shirt and her mouth and all that. And that’s the best way to explain what the machine does, because if it’s not in operation and people are coming in for a visit to check us out, they’ll go, what machine is that? I’m like, “You ever see the I Love Lucy episode?” And they go, “Yes.” I go, “That’s the machine that does that.” So, that was a great reference.
Paula Rivera: So, talking about the pandemic, talking about automation and whatnot, have you implemented any technologies to help either the employee or, equally important, the customer experience, as we like to talk about nowadays?
John Zeno Louisez: When it comes to the retail locations themselves, I wouldn’t say we’ve made any major improvements when it comes to the technological side of things of communication, because all of our locations are pretty much in tourist-driven areas, like you mentioned the boardwalk before in New Jersey. So, our flagship store’s on the boardwalk in Daytona down here, and our other stores are in very heavy walking area streets, where people are just… Once they come in, we know we got them.
John Zeno Louisez: But I can definitely say when it comes to manufacturing and wholesaling side of things, I’ve never really made… We ship out… I should say we make about 500,000 pounds of just taffy every year. Of that 500,000, I’d say 400,000 of it goes to other businesses that aren’t Zeno’s, that we ship all across the country. And that is due to the invention of the internet and technology, because while I can sit and talk with you, Paula, all day about candy, and I love doing it, I’m very gun shy when it comes to actually making a sales call. I don’t like rejection. I don’t like any of those things. But on the internet, LinkedIn, Facebook, these social media platforms where I just put videos of us making candy or us producing candy or shipping candy out, it’s amazing how many people approach me, because once they’ve approached me, I’m very comfortable. I can talk to them. I can tell them exactly what it is we do. So, I’m very fortunate to live in a time and an era where customers can find me, and I don’t have to go out to find them, and that is definitely due and driven to technology.
Paula Rivera: I’m assuming through your Facebook channel, your Insta channel, and all of those channels, the average consumer, are they able to purchase via those channels?
John Zeno Louisez: Correct, so, we’re just recently getting into a heavy Facebook social media advertising campaign. And then we’re also starting to bump up our e-blasts, which are those emails you get from…
Paula Rivera: So, with technology, with the internet, we have Facebook, we have Instagram, we have all these different channels, and I believe you enabled your consumers, your customers, to order directly from the company. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that is actually one of your many channels using social media to actually sell your product, correct?
John Zeno Louisez: One thousand percent. We just had a meeting in the last month. I deal with a company that I’ve been working with, actually right when the pandemic started. They were the company that started helping me out with our website and social media and all that other good stuff. We just had the conversation where we want to focus more of our advertising budget to the Facebook ads, the social media ads, eblasts, which are those emails that go out to all the consumers that you get from different companies all the time, just so we can announce the different promotions, products, and all the other things that we want to get the word out for, because we’re constantly doing some new weird candy just for a month just to try it out. I like to stay very active in the candy kitchen, and I’ve made everything probably five million times, so I always like to try something new just to see how it works. But just thankful we live in a time that we do that people can find us through these different platforms.
Paula Rivera: Yep, definitely. Now I have to ask, were you the man behind the maple bacon?
John Zeno Louisez: I would like to say I was. It’s so funny. The maple bacons, the beers, we try to keep our… Our taffy is gluten free, and we try to keep it gluten free because we don’t want to limit some people to not being able to protect. If it was up to me on the maple bacon, I would actually have real bacon bits, real made bacon in it, but the shelf life would be, what, a day? So, the maple bacon has more of a smoked flavor.
John Zeno Louisez: And I tell everyone… So, it’s a funny story. If people come in the store, we always offer them a please help yourself to a sample of taffy, try it out. And some people say, “Well, I don’t like taffy.” I’m like, “Well, just try it, put it in your pocket and throw it away if you don’t want to eat it.” But it’s funny because five out of 10 of those people walk back. They’re like, “Oh it was very good. I’m glad I tried it.” But whenever they grab maple bacon or beer as their sample, I go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” I go, “Put that in your pocket, eat it later. Pick any other flavor besides those three.” Because we had one person buy four pounds of maple bacon one time, and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I have no problem selling you this, but that’s 280 pieces of maple bacon taffy, and I would strongly advise against it,” and they still got it, and they loved it.
John Zeno Louisez: So, what do I know? We all have different tastes. I’m just not a big fan, and I love bacon. We’ve made a bacon ice cream before that was outstanding. But the taffy, it’s just different. The beer is different. The pickle actually tastes, I think, very much like pickle. But those are, the maple bacon and beer, just two flavors that we have out there just have for fun. They’re not ones I’m going to be able to sell the business on but are just two of 101 flavors that we have out there on the wall.
Paula Rivera: So, one last question, if I may be so bold.
John Zeno Louisez: Sure.
Paula Rivera: Tell me about the craziest order you had. It may be the four pounds of the maple bacon, but how did you deal with this? What role did communications play, whether it was on the customer end or dealing with vendors within your supply chain?
John Zeno Louisez: So, I would have to say, back in 2010, 2011, right around there, I got an email from a customer in South Korea that wanted to buy our taffy to sell in their movie theaters, I believe it was. And they wanted to buy 10,000 pounds of candy. Now at the time, I think we were only making 60,000 t 70,000 pounds of taffy. We weren’t into wholesale, so this was a big deal for me. But that was right around the same time of all those scandals where it’s like, “Hey, send me social security,” all those scams that you hear about all the time. And then I’m like, “I think I’m getting scammed,” because the gentleman’s name was Hak Kim. So K-I-M, which is a very popular last name, but it was H-A-K K-I-M. But in my mind I’m hearing H-A-C-K H-I-M, so I’m getting hacked.
John Zeno Louisez: I’m basically trying to not let him buy any candy from me because I’m afraid somehow I’m going to get screwed over in a deal somehow. But sure enough, I was like, “All right, man, wire me this much money, wire me this, do this, do that.” And they did it all, and we shipped the candy over to them. And I couldn’t believe that it was a real person this entire time. You couldn’t have made it up, that name. I was like, “Oh my goodness.” And I would definitely have to say that is up there with the craziest order. And communication, it was all based on emails because they were overseas in another country, and I believe he was typing through a translator app. So, I couldn’t speak Korean, he couldn’t speak English, so it was amazing the deal went through.
Paula Rivera: Wow, that is amazing.
John Zeno Louisez: Yeah, it is. It was fun, and I’ve got a story forever because that name. If it was any other name, it wouldn’t have been as good. But the fact that that was his name, that was just an incredible foreseeing of what was going to be happening.
Paula Rivera: Definitely, definitely. Well, John, thank you. I want to thank everyone for listening. If your mouth is watering for some saltwater taffy, and it should be because it’s beach time, visit worldsmostfamoustaffy.com and order up some wonderful taffy.
Paula Rivera: Thank you for listening to IntelePeer’s Take it From Your Peers podcast. For more information and resources about this episode, please visit intelepeer.com/podcast. A special thanks goes out to my producer, Tyler Scott, and to all of our listeners. We appreciate your joining us.