Last year, the announcement that Sweethearts ― also known as conversation hearts ― would not be present for Valentine’s Day 2019 hit the internet like a painful breakup. There was one silver lining, though: Sweethearts would probably return in time for Valentine’s Day 2020.
The time has come, and Sweethearts are indeed back. They’re in limited quantities at limited retailers, but ― and perhaps quite jarringly ― most of them are missing their signature sayings. The noticeable difference prompts the question: If you don’t have something sweet to say, should you say anything at all?
Spangler Candy, of Dum-Dum lollipop fame, bought Sweethearts producer Necco in 2018. The changing of hands took place too late in the year for Spangler to get Sweethearts out in time for early 2019. HuffPost’s emails, Instagram direct messages to Spangler, and voice messages for its spokesperson went unanswered — the company appears to have a limited presence with a small social media footprint — but the candy maker’s statement on its own website casts Spangler as the hero to Sweethearts’ damsel in distress:
In 2018 Sweethearts were in danger of disappearing forever when their owner went bankrupt and there was no one to save the brand. As a century-old candy maker, Spangler knew how important Sweethearts were to the Valentine season. … In 2020, Spangler was able to return Sweethearts to store shelves in limited quantities after a major effort to relocate and rebuild the production equipment, find the original recipe and return classic flavors to the mix like wintergreen and banana.
Valiant efforts aside, do Sweethearts matter without their messages?
A few stories reporting Sweethearts’ return this year explained that not all hearts would have their sayings, and it seems that hardly any hearts were printed at all. We poured out three boxes and found nary a “Be Mine.”
According to CNBC, the company moved equipment from Necco’s shuttered Massachusetts factory in a whopping 60-truck load, and the printer responsible for stamping Sweethearts proved unreliable. Spangler invested in a new one, which was damaged in production. Instead of holding Sweethearts back another year, Spangler sent the candy out mostly wordless and in smaller quantities to fewer retailers. One of its major accounts, CandyStore.com, confirmed that it would not be selling Sweethearts this year; they are available at Walgreens and CVS.
“It became really apparent to us how much people were going to miss them,” Spangler spokeswoman Diana Moore Eschhofen told CNBC. The question is, should the company have waited another year to make the return a strong one, with regular quantities of hearts wearing the phrases that made them famous?
“It’s better if Spangler waits to relaunch Sweethearts until the company has the formulation and production process just right, rather than rush them to market to meet demand,” managing editor of Candy Industry trade magazine Alyse Thompson said in an email. Waiting a year to get Sweethearts right might have been prudent, but when asked if Spangler made a mistake in trying to release the candy this year, Thompson added, “I don’t think a limited release is a misstep. It allows Spangler to test the waters a bit before doing a full nationwide launch.”
Sweethearts have been a favorite for nearly 120 years. They evolved when Daniel Chase, brother of Necco founder Oliver Chase, developed a machine to stamp the company’s eponymous wafers with messages in the 1860s. Necco started selling the printed wafers in shapes like shells, baseballs and hearts, and formed Sweethearts as its own brand in 1902. Original flavors included banana, cherry and wintergreen — Necco transformed the flavor selection to include blue raspberry, lemon and green apple over the years (and also introduced chocolate and tart variations), but nostalgics clamored for the older assortment that Spangler is now reintroducing.
Necco had also tinkered with the content of Sweethearts’ bon mots. Modern times saw “tweet me”-emblazoned hearts. This move wasn’t a hit with traditionalists. “I’m not super fond of the updated phrases using text message talk,” said Jami Curl, candy entrepreneur and author of “Candy Is Magic.”
Beth Kimmerle, a food industry consultant and the author of “Candy: The Sweet History,” has enjoyed Sweethearts keeping up with the times. “It was always sort of fun to see what they would use. Sort of like Webster’s Dictionary’s ‘word of the year,’” she told HuffPost. Darlene Lacey, curator of the Candy Wrapper Museum and author of “Classic Candy: America’s Favorite Sweets 1950-80,” agrees. “It was fun to see what was new when February came along. As a kid, I was always excited to open the box and pour them out to see what they said. My best friend and I would pick out the ones we wanted to give to certain boys, if we had the nerve, which we didn’t!”
New or old, the messages helped make Sweethearts iconic. When CandyStore.com published sales data revealing the most popular Valentine’s Day candy in every state last year, conversation hearts made the cut in the majority of states. “Along with a heart-shaped chocolate box, Sweethearts are among the most iconic candies of Valentines Day,” Kimmerle noted.
Of course, other brands have produced their own conversation hearts. When we emailed CandyStore.com to confirm it was not selling Sweethearts this year, it offered Brach’s Tiny Conversation Hearts, which you’ll typically see right next to the original Sweethearts on store shelves. When shoppers were informed there would be no real-deal Sweethearts in 2019, some websites offered alternatives — Fast Company suggested Brach’s, Sour Patch Kids Conversation Hearts, Sweet Tarts Candy Hearts, Oreos and … Tums. Needless to say, most are a fairly significant departure from the iconic Sweethearts.
Interestingly, Brach’s version does include the original beloved Necco flavors like wintergreen and banana, but fans can tell the difference. “There are lots of ‘hearts with phrases on them’ candies out there, yet there’s something about the texture of the Sweethearts version that I love,” Curl said. “Not super chalky, yet just chalky enough.” Kimmerle also prefers Sweethearts, saying of the competitors, “They never quite had the appeal of the OG Necco. They always seemed like the copycats.”
The perfect texture, the right mix of flavors, the cherished sayings, the box labeled “To:” and “From:” to make gifting easy — Sweethearts’ status as the Valentine’s Day candy of choice seems safe, especially since Spangler appears devoted to getting them right. All we can do is look to 2021 with hopes that Spangler’s printer issues are sorted and the company is just as dedicated to the tried-and-true formula. “I think that if they maintain the OG integrity, they will be great,” Kimmerle said.
Emily Mekstan, senior manager of retail and owned brand communications at Walgreens, confirmed the chain plans to carry Sweethearts “for the foreseeable future,” adding, “We hope customers enjoy them year over year.”