How Armenian Immigrants Built an American Candy Empire

 

By Liana Aghajanian

 

This is a story about how six Armenian immigrants escaping looming atrocities in the Ottoman Empire, came to America and created a candy empire in small town Connecticut, winning a permanent place in confectionary history forever. It is a story about immigration, ingenuity and the quintessential American dream, except its coated in chocolate and filled with shredded coconut, of course.

Armed with a huge bout of naive ambition, Peter Halajian's intrepidity gave America two of its most "indescribably delicious" inventions: The Mounds bar and Almond Joy.

Yes, an Armenian-American immigrant is ultimately responsible for the single most contagious TV commercial jingle: "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't."

Born in 1873 in Turkey according to United States Census records, Peter Halajian set off for America in 1890, just as large scale hostilities were increasing in Anatolia against the Ottoman Empire's Armenian community, in what later became known as the Hamidian Massacres.

Peter Paul Halajian

 

As he settled in New Haven, Connecticut, Halajian found work in the rubber factories of a small community called Naugatuck. He realized that the local towns people were having difficulties in pronouncing his last name (sound familiar?), so he made the decision to legally change it to Peter Paul.

But ever the entrepreneurial and stubborn Armenian, Paul wanted to make a name for himself running his own business, instead of working for someone else. After he finished his day at the rubber factory, he'd sell fruits and confectionary goods with his daughters by his side.  There was enough fanfare around his products that he decided to open his own shop in 1897 selling ice cream, sweets and an assortment of fruits.

 

Newspaper advertisement from 1897

 

"Although fruit is scarce and hard to get, Peter Paul has a large supply and the prices asked are very reasonable," read a 1901 newspaper ad.

Though he had reached an unprecedented level of success, Paul's dreams were bigger and sweeter than just a fruit and confectionary shop in small town Connecticut.

So in 1919, he gathered five of his closest Armenian friends who had also emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Armenian Genocide, and persuaded them to get into the candy business.

George Shamlian, Cal Kazanjian, Jacob Chouljian, Harry Kazanjian and Jacob Hagopian agreed. The Peter Paul Candy Manufacturing Company was born.

It was Shamlian, a chemist, who came up with the recipe in 1920 for what was to be known as the Mounds Bar - a dark chocolate bar with a creamy coconut filling named after the way it looked.

 

 

Just as the company was growing, Peter Paul Halajian passed away due to ill health in 1927. His brother-in-law Cal Kazanjian soon took over.

Despite the fact that they were competing with other emerging candies on the market like the Oh Henry! bar and Milky Way, Peter Paul Manufacturing continued to expand - moving from cramped quarters to a big candy factory employing over 500 people. The company decided quickly that it wasn't interested in competing with other candy manufacturers by coming up with new products, but sticking to what it was already doing well: making the best coconut bars anybody could buy for 5 cents. Its products were generally sold through brokers who worked on commission.

"Mr. Kazanjian used to carry a little box of 'Mounds' around with him,"wrote reporter Wesley S. Griswold in a 1935 article in the Hartford Courant, "When he entered the broker's office, he would take one of the coconut bars out of his pocket, remove its tinfoil cloak, deftly break the chocolate-covered confection and offer the broker a taste. Invariably this routine was awarded with an order."

 

Calvin K. Kazanjian

 

Peter Paul manufacturing plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut, 1930.

 

During the depression, the company took a risk and doubled the size of the Mounds bar at a time when many others were cutting back on products. They also repackaged the bar in cellophane rather than tinfoil to save money without compromising the quality of their product.

The strategy was a massive hit. But by the early 1940s, another series of events forced the company to take another direction. Literally.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied the Philippines - where Peter Paul was sourcing its entire supply of coconut - the company turned to the Caribbean. In order to evade German submarines, they used smaller, more discreet boats to transport coconuts - their most important raw material - to Florida.

Though it had its international equivalents, the Mounds bar never appeared in the overseas market itself - except for one very unusual incident involving a Nazi prisoner of war extradited to the U.S. in 1945.

 

"German General Is Found to Be in Possession of Peter Paul Mounds,” read the headline in 1945.

 

The general, whose name remained unknown, was found to be in possession of the iconic red box after being searched by American officials when he arrived in New York, on his way to a prisoner of war camp.

"Sticking out like a sore thumb among the array," the Naugatuck Daily News wrote, was [sic] A BOX OF PETER PAUL MOUNDS!!!!"

One possible explanation for why a Nazi general would be in possession of an American candy bar could be encounters with Peter Paul's biggest customer at the time. The company was almost exclusively producing Mounds for the army, instead of civilians. Because the United States military regarded chocolate as both a morale boost and high-energy treat for personnel, Peter Paul was supplying 5 million Mounds bars to the U.S. army during WWII.

The Centralia Enterprise and Tribune in Wisconsin soon called the firm the "largest manufacturer of coconut candy in the world."

By this point, the company had achieved the kind of success that seemed impossible for a group of immigrants who came to America with nothing. But Peter Paul had more work to do.

In 1946, they added a new product that would rival the Mounds bar and make the company one of the most successful candy manufacturers of the 20th century: Almond Joy.

 

 

Made with milk chocolate, coconut cream filling and a toasted almond on top unlike the plainer and darker Mounds, the Almond Joy turned out to be its predecessor's biggest rival and made Naugatuck synonymous with chocolate - instead of rubber factories - forever.

Having long been considered candy manufacturing pioneers in the advertising world, Peter Paul recruited marketing jingle maven Leon Carr who came up with the lyrics,"Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't," an ear worm that has been going strong since it was debuted in the 1970s.

 

 

By 1976, the Chicago Tribune reported that the company had sales topping $87 million. But two short years later, Peter Paul was sold to British confectionary firm Cadbury. When Hershey acquired the U.S. operations of Cadbury, Peter Paul went along with it too. Thus, a once independently thriving company from Connecticut is now part of one of the largest candy manufacturers in the world.

In 2007, the Naugatuck plant that had been running since the company's earliest days closed after more than 84 years, but the Mounds bar and Almond Joy are found across the country, having maintained their popularity for close to a century. 

The company's mantra, "give the consumer top quality and honest value and your business will thrive," as quoted in a 1959 edition of the Naugatuck Daily News has proven true.

And while other chocolate bars now seriously rival the creations of Peter Paul, the state where the company was founded has stayed loyal to the now long gone enterprising Armenian immigrants - Almond Joy is indeed the number one candy in Connecticut.

This post is part of a new, ongoing series called "Dining in Diaspora: The Armenian-American Experience Through Food." Got any interesting food stories dealing with Armenians in America? Please get in touch

 

Written by Ara the Rat

Comments

Love the story proud to be an Armenian

Satenik Tovmassian on Apr 11, 2019

Thank you for this article, I am looking for my biological father Paul Halajian ( whom I’ve never met) and is a descendant of Peter Paul Halajian. I was born in 1969 and he had to be between 16 and 18 yrs old. Am hoping some of this information may lead me to who and where he is.

Sue Bree on Mar 16, 2019

Thank you for this enlightening saga of our Armenian heroes.
My husband and my favorite candies, Almond Joy and Mound Bars were our
sweets for many years.
God bless.

Adrena Clemmer on Dec 01, 2018

Thank you so much for sharing that story very interesting it seems all of my relatives have gone into business for themselves including me now I know where we get it from again thank you love the story

Haig Terkhanian on Oct 27, 2018

My dad worked at Peter Paul for almost 50 years. Family lore states that dad invented the machines that dropped the almonds on a bar that created the almond joy. Dad started as a machinist at Peter Paul in 1947.

Ed Eigenbrot on Sep 06, 2018

Thanks for writing this article. My father is Lloyd Elston and my grandfather was Calvin Kazanjian. I never met him as he died in 48. Lloyd just passed August 1 2018.
A few things in your story I learned. Thanks

Calvin Elston on Aug 02, 2018

Loved your article including some background history that I haven’t heard. My grandfather was Jacob Chouljian, one of the founders of Peter Paul and I’m proud of him and this company!

Thanks for writing about this piece of Armenian-American history.

Jan Chouljian on Mar 17, 2018

Loved the article ..it was sent to me,by an Armenian. Friend of my,cousin from Istanbul…My father Nubar Hanessian left Istanbul in 1923 lived,in Mexico and came to Nogales Arizona,in 1943..married my mother In Nogales Arizona.I AM VERY PROUD TO BE AN ARMENIAN

Suzette satenik hanessian on Oct 29, 2017

Excellent, well written and very interesting…

Bruce Anthony on Apr 12, 2017

Please tell me why ARMENIAN names end in IAN and some in YAN ????

BEN ZAKARIAN on Apr 10, 2017

Thanks for a detailed history of this company. I have heard that in 1966 the annual stockholders meeting was held in the church hall of The Armenian Church of the Holy Ascension, then in Bridgeport, CT. Is this true? From the priest that was the priest of the church where I attended as a child, Holy Cross Church of Armenia, Washington Heights, Manhattan, we learned that the Peter Paul families were kind people.

Check out the NECCO web site, too for Deran Hintlian. I remember eating Deran’s and Havilland candies. Another Armenian in the candy confectionery business.

You readers might also be proud to know that the “Father of the Automatic Transmission” as he called himself was Oscar Banker whose original name was Asadour Sarafian. His first installation was in 1926 into a Nash limousine. His improved model was installed in 1928 into another Nash limousine. General Motors took his idea without paying royalties and installed automatic transmissions as an option for the 1938 Oldsmobile. Yet it was also GM that reluctantly filled an order for Chicago Transit to have 500 city buses built between 1935 and 1938 equipped with Oscar Banker’s automatic. GM demanded that the transmissions not fail for 250,000 miles. They did not and were used in Chicago and New York City until as late as 1955! Chicago Transit at the time also owned Fifth Avenue Coach in New York City. Almost every automatic transmission built today still runs on Oscar Banker’s design principles. Only the CVT does not and the no longer used Buick Dynaflow. Impressive yet our unsung hero Asadour Sarafian, an immigrant from the village of Moonjoosoon in Gesarya (today’s Kayseri) needs to be known for what he has contributed to the world. In the 1950’s he fought ardently to have a standardized and safe shift pattern which GM was not using, He championed the P-R-N-D-L system that we all use.

Thomas Merjanian on Apr 09, 2017

Armenians , wherever they immigrate after The GENOCIDE, they
Build and boost the economy of the country they seek refuge in.
They created jobs by venturing in businesses in manufacturing or
Food industry and several other fields.
Armenians are builders ,not destroyers.
In general, wherever Armenians take refuge in a country, that country being a Moslem or Christian, they always did good then bad.
Guetseh hayeh.

Jack Tcherkezian on Apr 07, 2017

Wonderful article , Thank you for sharing!!!

Ashley on Apr 05, 2017

My father, Melkon “Mal” Varadian, addressing counselors at Camp Haiastan in Franklin, MA in June, 2012, spoke about five moments when he felt “Ten Feet Tall”… (He was 5’2"!). He told the story about attending my graduation from Babson College in Wellesley, MA in 1973, where the Commencement Speaker was Lloyd Elston, then president of Peter Paul Candies. Mr. Elston spoke for thirty five minutes tracing the history of how the founders of Peter Paul were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. He relayed their toils and how he knew how much the Armenians had suffered, and that he was very proud to help the Armenian founders continue the success of Peter Paul. The theme of Mr. Lloyd’s commencement address was why the company’s commitment to “Following the Golden Rule” (…Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…) was an important component of success in business. After the speech, my father presented Mr. Elston with the Armenian Flag pin he was wearing that day. Mr. Elston wrote back to my father and told him that when he returned to the company, he passed that pin around to the employees at work who told more stories of their Armenian Heritage.
Thank you, Liana!

Michael Varadian on Apr 05, 2017

Like so many others who have commented, Mounds was also my favorite ever since I remember. It’s great to learn that it was created by an Armenian. Thanks for a lovely story.

Nurel Beylerian on Apr 05, 2017

Enjoyed the article. Grew up hearing how my paternal (Jewish) grandfather, also in Naugatuck, declined an early opportunity to invest some small amount in the candy kitchen! One of those “coulda woulda shoulda” family stories!

Mike on Apr 05, 2017

I love this story! My grandfather was a Freedom Fighter for the Armenians and I am so proud of my Armenian roots! My Uncle Hagop Manjikian started the March in LA 52 years ago, and I marched in April, 2015 to honor the 100 yr commemoration 2 yrs ago. So much great ( and sad) history!

jan Tamble on Apr 04, 2017

Great Story! I am so proud of my Armenian Ethnic Background.

Sandra Vartanian on Apr 04, 2017

It’s of great value and comfort to know more about my heritage of Armenian people. I’m blessed to be born an American and to have Armenian blood in my heart.

Robert Sunukjian on Apr 04, 2017

Thanks for story , any time I read something about Armenians , I em proud to be Armenian

Andranik Jabakchourian on Apr 03, 2017

Great Story!!!!
Just another reason to be proud of our ancestors and of course proud to be Armenian,thanks for sharing !!!

Maggie Minassian Haladjian on Apr 03, 2017

Thank you very much for this article
I’m a very proud Armenian and now even prouder Haladjian

Hourie Haladjian

Hourie haladjian on Apr 03, 2017

Thank you for a very interesting story. Another reason to be a proud Armenian!!! P.S. Love that candy!!!

Michele Tourigian Benedik on Apr 03, 2017

When I was 10, my Mom said we were going to Connetticut, to meet a childhood friend of hers from the old country, who was married to the founder of Peter Paul Candy Bars….we got lost on the way, and my Dad got stopped by a traffic cop.He told him ,“we got pushed out of our lane”. We were trying to get to Naugatuck, but with his Armenian accent he said," na-gut tick….the officer took pity on dad and pointed the way…We came home with a bag of Mounds and Almond Joy…..thanks for posting this story! Mounds uses dark chocolate and Almond Joy , milk chocolate. now. yummy!

Nancy Nazarian Reed on Apr 03, 2017

When we first immigrated to America mound bar was our family’s favorite. It was closest candy to our middle eastern taste. Now I know why. Proud of our aintebtzee Armenian ancestors. I will keep on eating them until I die.

Silva Elmedjian on Apr 03, 2017

Thanks for a great article and giving insight to various branches of my family.

Joyce Sulahian on Apr 03, 2017

Mound bar has been my favorite chocolate since we immigrated to America, no wonder why, you can’t run away from your blood, roots, and from the taste that is so relative to you!???

Arutyun Chiroglyan on Apr 03, 2017

Mound bar has been my favorite chocolate since we immigrated to America, no wonder why, you can’t run away from your blood, roots, and from the taste that is so relative to you!???

Arutyun Chiroglyan on Apr 03, 2017

“Blood will tell…” My whole life, 65 years, Mounds has been my favorite candy bar and l never thought about why, until this story. Coincidentally, today, l also learned the difference between ian and yan. There definitely is another dimension out there directing us. ?

Kathie Kurkjian on Apr 03, 2017

First of all I’m very proud Armenian. And my favoret candy. In all buch of candys. I dig to find Almond Joy. Candys I’m so happy i read and knew now I’m going to eat more until I die.

Araxi Ghazarian on Apr 02, 2017

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