McJak Candy Company started out in the early 1980s in the kitchen of original owners, Bob and Karen McCurdy and Bill and Sue Lonjak. They made lollipops by hand for events and school fundraisers. After production kicked up, other neighbors joined in on the candy making, eventually leading the owners to rent a small building in 1984 for a larger scale production.
In 2000, the McCurdys and the Lonjaks made the decision to sell their business to a new family: Larry and Francine Johns.
From its small beginnings with handmade lollipops to its large retail-based production today, McJak has grown substantially. Throughout the years, McJak has added to its products, including fudge, kettle corn and cotton candy.
Made in Medina County recently chatted with Larry Johns about why he entered the candy market and how the company has been successful.
Note, answers have been altered for clarity and brevity.
Johns: I was an electrical engineer, previously working at places like Kimberly Clark. I went back to school in the 1990s to get my MBA because I always wanted to own my own business. I looked all over the country to find a viable company. Location was a factor for us. We had visited another business and the town was just not a place where you’d want to live and work in.
A broker contacted me to tell me about McJak Candy Company. We are from New Milford, Connecticut and had never been to Medina before, but had friends in Columbus and Mentor, so I somewhat knew the area. My wife, Francine and I came out and saw the town and we loved it. It really goes to show you how important places like Main Street Medina are to upkeep an area.
With McJak, we saw significant growth potential on the business end. The McCurdys and the Lonjaks did a great job with the business with the fundraising campaigns, but it started to dwindle down as candy became less popular in schools. But there was so much growth potential in the retail space that I wanted to get involved. And, personally, we could see us happily living in the Medina County area. So, we took the leap.
Johns: Fundraising was 80% of the business when I came onboard and now it’s about 5%. A lot of schools have opted out of candy selling as a fundraiser. And there are just a lot more options out there. It is just done differently now. You think about it, you don’t really see kids going door-to-door to sell product anymore. Even the catalogs that used to be a big seller of our fudge, are not as popular anymore. We had to adapt to the market. We’ve tried to reinvent it and haven’t given up on it, but it’s just not the driving force it once was.
Now it’s more about the retail space. When I entered the business, there were not a lot of direct competitors out there. There were some chocolate companies who would do fudge as an extra, but not as a main product like we do. Marketing toward retail businesses, from convenient stores to department stores, is more of what we produce for now.
Johns: We made a lot of changes. The shift from fundraising to retail took us several years to really turn the company around, but we did it.
A lot of success comes from being open to market needs and not just focusing on what your initial vision is. When I bought McJak, I was all about building the brand. Coming from big brand companies like Kimberly Clark, if you are not in the Top 3 names, you should leave the market. That was my initial mentality, but now 80% of our business is in private labels.
Private labeling started because people would call up and ask for it. While I never intended for that to be such a large market share for us, more customers kept calling. We kept producing and that part of the business kept growing. We let it grow instead of trying to fight it.
While I had gone into the business thinking it would be one way, it wasn’t difficult for me to let that idea go and allow the private labeling to grow. I am a pretty flexible guy, so that wasn’t as big of a challenge for me as it may be others. However, I have learned to be more selective. If someone calls up for an order that diverges too much from what we are good at, then we don’t make money. I’ve learned more about the times you need to turn down work when it isn’t worth it for you in the end.
Johns: The biggest single thing to affect the business is a chance meeting about 14 years ago with Original Gourmet at a trade show. They have become our biggest partner. You just never know when you will come across someone that can have that kind of impact.
Secondly, in 2010, we added our first automated lollipop line, which was a huge game changer for us. Previously, the process was very hands-on and having automation moved us forward significantly.
Lastly, there comes a time for any business where you need to make the decision to hire on a full-time executive staff. You are reluctant to staff up because of the initial cost, but at a certain point, you really need to. When I finally made that decision, it was well worth it.
Johns: That’s a funny story. My wife and I were watching A Christmas Story one year and she told me to consider making fudge with Ralphie on the box saying “Ohh…FFFFudge.” I didn’t even know where to begin because Warner Brothers is a huge company.
So, after the third year of my wife bringing this up over the holidays, I told her I tried to reach out, but didn’t know where to go. She told me to call A Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland because they’d probably know who to contact for licensing. Of course, they knew immediately and the rest is history.
We debuted the boxes in 2009 and they have been very successful. Having a licensed tie-in like that gives us credibility.
Johns: McJak has made kosher products since before I became owner. It’s been a differentiator for the company for a long time, and it’s well worth it. For the limited additional costs for upkeeping the kosher certificates and using kosher products, it opens opportunities for us. It broadens our customer scope, which is a great business avenue.
Learn more about McJak on its company website.
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