The Sweetest Family
Texas Coop Power Magazine, January 2024
The people of Lufkin know that a bit of Willy Wonka magic dwells in their midst, but few outsiders know of its existence.
For 92 years, Atkinson Candy Co. has been sweetening lives in all 50 states and several other countries. Some know the company for their hit candies from decades ago: Chick-O-Stick, Slo Poke, Black Cow, Mint Twists and Long Boys, to name a few. But it’s still churning out sweets in East Texas, and it’s still owned by the same family.
Third- and fourth-generation members of the Atkinson family and more than 150 employees crank out candy at their nondescript factory on West Frank Avenue. A shop there sells candy and other merchandise, though factory tours are no longer offered.
Eric Atkinson, the company’s president and grandson of its founders, B.E. and Mabel Atkinson, says his grandparents were seeking a way to make a living during the Great Depression. His grandfather often said that even when money was scarce, nearly everyone had a penny—and penny candy was an affordable extravagance even for those down on their luck.
This mural is a visual reminder of the famous candy produced in East Texas.
SAM HOUSTON EC
Although the company has been around since 1932, Eric is quick to point out the family didn’t start manufacturing candy until the 1950s.
“In 1932, we were a candy jobber,” he explains. “That’s how we started off.” His grandfather made two-day trips to Houston, where he purchased candy and then sold the treats to mom-and-pop shops on the return trip.
Later on his grandfather decided to start making his own candy. He bought machines and started producing confections. At first, it didn’t go well.
“My uncle, Joe Atkinson, stepped up to the plate,” Eric explains. “He was more mechanically minded. And within a few weeks, he made the candy profitable.”
Though Eric was born and raised in Dallas, he spent a lot of time in Lufkin. He has fond memories of visiting as a kid, crawling around on burlap bags of peanuts that would sometimes topple over and spill.
The Atkinson’s star is proudly displayed with oversized candy circling it at the facility where the public can still come in and purchase candy.
SAM HOUSTON EC
Atkinson Candy Company employees make and sort candy in the Lufkin building in an undated photo.
COURTESY ATKINSON CANDY CO.
“Once I got into big trouble because I decided to go swimming in the big vat of roasted peanuts,” he says. “The supervisor, he didn’t know what to do. Granddaddy came over like I was in trouble. I had peanut oil all over me.”
Another time, when he was older, Eric was driving the forklift in the warehouse, stacking pallets and not paying attention to where he was stacking them.
“I didn’t realize I had stacked them all the way up to the roof,” he says. “That was the last time they let me drive the forklift for a long time.”
Turns out he’s a better leader than forklift operator. In 2022, the company produced over 9.5 million pounds of candy.
“We still make our candy using the batch process, in small batches, and we’re still the same family that’s always made this product,” says Eric, who has a son learning to be a candymaker and whose daughter is the executive officer who runs the day-to-day operations.
“That sort of consistency is being lost when the private equity companies buy out family businesses,” he says. “They really aren’t into the manufacturing aspect; they’re into making money. Sadly, that’s when those brands lose their soul because it’s no longer about the quality, it’s about the money.”
Atkinson Candy Co. is still small by comparison, even after opening a facility in Guatemala in 2010 and a 30,000-square-foot expansion of their Lufkin plant a few years ago. The Guatemala plant allowed the company to take advantage of lower sugar prices available in Central America during a time when sugar was becoming more difficult to source in the U.S.
That’s a lot of numbers and business, but there is a magical aspect to the place.
After all, they’ve been creating joy for 92 years—back to when a penny bought a piece of candy. Willy Wonka does make an appearance once a year, during Halloween, when Eric—in costume—and his employees give out candy to the children of Lufkin.
No one can tell those kids that Willy Wonka doesn’t exist.
Jeffree Wyn Itrich
Jeffree Wyn Itrich is a Texas writer who gave up her candymaking hobby to leave it to the professionals.