We spent the night in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. We loved the quaint Blowing Rock village, with its small shops and eateries, and the looks of a mountain ski village.
But we weren’t impressed with the Ridgeway Inn. It’s listed as the ‘Ridgeway Inn’, but ‘Ridgeway Motor Inn’ would have been more accurate. Not sure if the bed spreads, or the air conditioner was musty, but something sure was.
Today, our Made In America factory roadtrip takes us to Hospitality Mints in nearby Boone, and with the help of Google Girl, we find our way through fields and neighborhoods to their front door.
Angie and Richard the production manager meet us and share the background of Hospitality Mints. The company started years before on Mitchell Minges's kitchen table, with his grandma’s candy recipe. Mitchell eventually developed a way to automate the process and package the items in a custom-imprinted film.
Now the company has about 160 employees and produces 1.6 billion mints annually, which find their way to grocery stores, hotel and restaurant lobbies, or customized with the logos of hundreds of American organizations.
It’s definitely a success story for the American entrepreneur.
Now we’re ready for the tour and they explain the rules since we’re about go into a food-safe clean room: no loose jewelry, we need to wear hair nets and smocks, and absolutely no touching anything.
That's not easy to do in a candy factory.
We check out the very beginning of the candy-making process, where about five smock-clad men pour sugar into large, two-story machines at one end and pull out taffy-like streams on the other. Flavoring is added depending on the batch: peppermint, cinnamon, spearmint, etc -- today, a powerful peppermint scent fills the air and makes our eyes water. The taffy is pulled and combined repeatedly through a mechanized process and finally, cut and shaped into little half-inch balls.
Then it all finds its way into two rooms. The first room, with high humidity to add moisture to the raw candy; the second which is intensely dry, where the moisture gets baked out, leaving the candy full of miniscule air pockets, and giving that buttery-soft, ‘melts when you bite’ sensation.
If the balls are to be chocolate coated they move into another room where they roll through huge vats of top-grade chocolate. The room is full of the smell that you might imagine. I'm guessing this is what Willy Wonka's Candy Company smells like.
We pass more folks who are tending the chocolate process. Many who work here have been here for years, and have family that works here, too. They know when the coatings are just right – what temperatures the chocolate needs to be, how fast to roll the candies through the vats – all the details.
We travel into the printing center. Here we meet Bill and his staff of twelve who are setting up presses and printing on long streams of clear or colored film each with an organization logo or promotional message. One press might be printing the ‘Hyatt’ logo, another might be printing the ‘American Airlines’ logo.
From here, we walk into a large area with a dozen machines, and someone working each one. Here the custom-imprinted film is sliced off, wrapped and sealed around each individual ball of candy, all at lightning speed. The finished batches are quality checked one last time, then packaged 1000 candies per case and labeled for shipment.
For a small ball of candy, the entire process could take a day or two. Then it’s out the door via UPS to a real estate agent, a trade show, or a customer service agent somewhere in the US.
One of Hospitality Mints' largest markets is restaurants. Why do restaurants give a promotional candy at the end of the meal? Simple: sure, it's a nice gesture of thanks -- but it also helps increase tips. One study shows that it could increase tips by up to 20%.
And why, you ask, is Hospitality Mints located here In Boone? Because the family who started it is located here. And their employees, and their families, who’ve all become the secret ingredient of Hospitality Mints are all located here. They enjoy the climate, the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, the fishing, and the local culture that is relaxed, wholesome and family-driven.
I realize that by buying something Made In America we help to preserve these small American companies, and their employees, and their local communities. We help to preserve the fabric created by these communities – and keep what it is to be American.