COCKEYSVILLE, MD -- It's been 21 years since the first simple pressed dextrose dropped from candy-making machines at Koko's Confectionery & Novelty here. Since then, the confections manufacturing division of A&A Global Industries Inc. has become a major force in bulk vending's candy segment.
TASTE TESTERS: A&A Global Industries Brian (l.) and Steve Kovens take a taste-testing break to make sure Koko's products are up to the company's exacting standards.
Koko's has built a reputation by steadily growing a line of offerings that today consists of 50 products. Not only have they become favorites among bulk operators, Koko's popularity is also growing in family entertainment centers and retail stores, and with private-label clients. While pressed dextrose remains a Koko's mainstay, the company has added lollipops, ball gum, taffy, hard candy, packaged cotton candy and squeeze candy to its lineup.
"We started just making pressed dextrose for the bulk vending industry," said A&A's Steve Kovens, who heads the Koko's division. "We were making things like pop bottles and smiley faces. Then we started to buy other equipment and Koko's evolved to make novelty candy. That's candy that also has play value."
In addition to producing and marketing original products -- Dip-N-Lik, Twist-N-Lik, and Sriracha Sweet Fire, among others -- Koko's makes licensed confections. Some of these brands are based on popular frozen products, including ICEE, Slush Puppies, Dippin' Dots and FlaVor-Ice.
According to Kovens, Koko's strategy is to release new products regularly, an approach that satisfies the notoriously fickle nature of its young consumers. The steady release of fresh product is the same gameplan A&A followed in the capsuled bulk vending segment. For its part, Koko's typically adds 10 new candy items to its menu annually, and retires three. As a result, the product list grows with the bestselling brands remaining.
Tradition Of Innovation
To fuel the innovation of the sweet stuff, the company has invested in the creative end to conceive a steady stream of proprietary products alongside its licensed output. An in-house product development team is employed for this effort. "We are probably the most innovative candy manufacturer out there, pushing the limits on the products we offer," Kovens said. "We're not afraid to take a chance, and to think outside the box."
This internal capability has proven successful for Koko's parent in the past. A&A Global, founded in 1938 as the Parkway Machine Co., was widely recognized in the vending industry for creating its own capsuled and flat vending novelties. Over time, these efforts resulted in unique products based on high-profile licenses from comic books, professional sports and the Cartoon Network, as well as proprietary lines based on themes developed by A&A's creative talent. So far, the strategy has successfully transferred to the confectionery business, as suggested by Koko's continually growing line.
ORDER FULFILLMENT: Koko's shipping employees toast a job well done with a ring pop fist bump. Koko's prides itself on making quick and accurate shipments to its customers.
This is good news for many of Koko's resellers, especially bulk vendors. "There is a lot of crossover now with bulk vending operators getting into skill cranes and candy cranes," Kovens said. "They're looking for additional avenues to increase their revenue."
The 22-year-old Koko's division is also aiding A&A's newly launched amusement division, which provides plush and other novelties for redemption centers, skill cranes and merchandisers. "We're just getting started in redemption," the Koko's owner said. "We're trying to bring candy products to redemption that nobody else has, like candy necklaces."
For bulk and amusement operators who are seeking to transition into new types of equipment, A&A Global's redemption merchandise and confections divisions can make that move easier by offering unique merchandise from a known supplier.
Not surprisingly, Koko's is pushing its confectionery lines into new channels. These include big box stores, convenience stores and national retailers. Moreover, Koko's products are now available in eight countries.
Brave New Markets
A&A Global Industries' entrance into the family entertainment center marketplace is a central part of the supplier's blueprint for the future. The company, which in the past provided bulk products aimed at low-priced redemption value, became a high-end novelty supplier in 2014. As that business venture enjoys steady growth, candy fills yet another niche at the redemption counter. "Our redemption division was created to help the FECs," Kovens said. "Now we can go in and set up an FEC. We can fill up the entire counter at practically every ticket level."
What this amounts to is creating a one-stop shop of licensed and proprietary products catering to a wide swath of the coin-op industry, from the dedicated bulk vending operator to FEC chains. A&A's divisions are tightly linked with a salesforce that is trained to handle all product categories. Connecting company segments and making them work together is a familiar A&A operational model. Before candy and redemption, the company created and marketed the distinctive parts of its bulk supply business, which included flat vendables and high-end capsuled toys.
For operators, A&A Global's depth of knowledge of bulk vending and young consumers is no small thing. While Koko's poses no immediate threat to the confectionery giants with their branded products, operators of all sizes can reap the rewards as the company continues to grow.
PACKAGING SWEETS: Koko's products roll off packaging line, heading for shipment across the country and to eight international destinations.