Ironically, Annabelle Candy Co.'s darkest hour came just before Halloween, 1996, in a nightmare that cost the San Francisco Bay-area company nearly $2 million.
Although pest control is an issue for all candymakers, the pests in this case included the camera-bearing, microphone-toting variety--right before the company's biggest selling season of the year.
It all started when a woman bit into Annabelle's Rocky Road brand candy bar and encountered an unexpected ingredient: a wriggling meal moth. "Instead of calling us, she called [a local TV station], and they just went nuts," says Susan Gamson Karl, 44, co-owner, president and CEO of Annabelle. When a reporter asking if the company planned to recall the product caught Karl offguard--and unaware a problem existed--she answered, "Well, I have to look into it further."
The evening news that night led with a skewed picture of the small family-run company's goodwill. And to top it all off, making its TV debut in living color, was the meal moth in its chocolatey peanut home. The news then went out on the AP wire, and the damage was done. "It was a siege," says Karl. "We had the media in our parking lot for a week." Health, food and safety experts confirmed the moth posed no health dangers, but, as Karl admits, "It was still disgusting."
The 50-employee company hired a PR firm; refunded or credited all its retailers, wholesalers and distributors; and recalled all the company's candy products and had them destroyed. Then, Annabelle shut down its operations for three weeks; dismantled, sanitized and upgraded its entire facility; and hired a new pest control company (and settled a lawsuit out of court with the prior one). The company accompanied everything with a flurry of press releases describing its revamping efforts.
"We've gotten praise throughout the industry for how quickly we took responsibility," says Karl, whose company projects $15 million in sales this year. "It's behind us."