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North Chicago Jelly Belly plant celebrates 100 years

Jelly Belly candy President Ronald Reagan made famous has operated plant North Chicago for 100 years. Vice Chairman Bill Kelley

Jelly Belly, the candy President Ronald Reagan made famous, has operated a plant in North Chicago for 100 years. Vice Chairman Bill Kelley, a descendent of the founders German immigrants Gustav and Albert Goelitz, who founded the company in 1869. | Joe Cyganowski-For Sun-Times Media

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Jelly Belly facts

President Ronald Reagan helped make the Jelly Belly the number one jelly bean in the world. He made the candy a staple in the Oval Office, on Air Force One and Marine One.

The Jelly Belly also became the first jelly bean in outer space, when Reagan sent them aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 as a surprise for astronauts.

The Jelly Belly is available in 50 official flavors.

For more information, visit

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Updated: November 24, 2013 3:20AM

The little candy company made famous by the discerning sweet tooth of President Ronald Reagan is marking its 100th anniversary in North Chicago, where millions of Jelly Belly jelly beans are made each year.

Reagan developed a jelly bean habit in the 1960s after giving up his pipe and he soon discovered a gourmet jelly bean manufactured by a company named Goelitz. Jelly Belly candies were first created in 1976 and after Reagan, who especially liked the licorice flavored beans, was elected president in 1980, Goelitz’s fortunes soared.

“When that story hit, all hell broke loose,” recalled Bill Kelley, vice chairman and fourth-generation candy maker. “Orders started pouring in. Up to that point, we were supplying candy stores and a few supermarkets. At most, we had shipped three pallets to a customer. Walgreens called and wanted to order 12 truckloads.”

Kelley, 72, is the great grandson of Gustav Goeltiz, who founded the still family-owned, privately-held, firm with his brother Albert. The company rebranded itself as the Jelly Belly Candy Company in 2001.

“You can make a lot of money going public, but that’s not our goal,” Kelley said. “Our goal is to keep the business in the family. We’re a pretty entrepreneurial company. But you don’t see a mission statement on the wall. Our business philosophy is ‘Let’s make a good piece of candy.’ Candy is the king.”

Jelly Belly also operates manufacturing plants in Fairfield, California, and in Rayong, Thailand.

Trucks from its mammoth warehouse and distribution center in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, arrive every day at the North Chicago factory to deliver 2,000 pound totes of sugar and pick up freshly-made and packaged product.

Kelley recently found the original blueprint for the North Chicago factory that still stands at 1501 Morrow Ave., south of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and that now includes five buildings and employs 140 people.

“We’ve always had a good labor market in this area,” Kelley said. “The Chicago area is a transportation hub and raw materials − corn syrup, sugar, corn starch − are generally available here.”

Kelley greeted hair-netted workers by name as he conducted a tour of one area of the plant. George Popoca, of Waukegan, a 20-year employee, spooned glaze over sugar-free cherry jelly beans dancing inside big stainless steel vats. In another room, valentine confections, including petite sour hearts, jiggled down a conveyor belt. Green apple and other flavored Jelly Belly beans were puffed by machine into compartmented boxes.

“When we develop a new candy, we make it taste as good as possible, which often means more expensive ingredients, and that often means the price of the candy is higher,” Kelley said. “But we’ll still market it and we won’t try to cheapen it. If you follow the candy, everything should work out.”

At its inception, the company specialized in hand-poured buttercreme candies including its then biggest seller, Candy Corn. During World War II, the North Chicago factory was nearly taken over by the U.S. Navy for military production, but the war ended first. Kelley recalls when the polishing drums were made of wood. He worked at the factory during summers in college.

“In the kitchen, in the starch department, the heat was unbelievable,” Kelley said. “The thermostat was at a permanent 120 degrees.”

The plant has undergone many changes, including computerization. But the biggest transformation was brought by the littlest thing.

“The biggest change in my lifetime is Jelly Belly jelly beans,” Kelley said.

The company makes 14 billion of the beans each year. Famously flavored inside and out, the candy accounts for 80 percent of the business. Jelly Belly sells in 77 countries and has a subsidiary in China. The maker of Jelly Belly employs just 740 people total.

“We’re a big brand name, we’re not that big a company,” Kelley said.

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