This Valentine's Day is going to be a little less sweet.
SweetHearts, the colorful, heart-shaped candies with sugary messages like "Kiss Me" and "My Love" will be scarce this year. If you're lucky enough to find them, they'll be from last year's batch.
It's kind of a historic moment. These candies have been a mainstay of Valentine's Day since 1866. The candies are so entwined with this special day that they ranked as the No. 1 candy for Valentine's Day in 2017 and 2018, according to data from CandyStore.com, an online bulk candy store.
The candies may not be going away forever. But the reason they're not around this year has to do with the demise of America's beloved New England Confectionery Co.
In addition to SweetHearts, NECCO also made many other candies such as Mary Janes, Mint Julep chews and Sky Bars. Unfortunately for fans, the company went out of business last May following several warnings from the Food and Drug Administration citing food safety violations, including "significant evidence of rodent activity" and unsanitary conditions. Yes, we're talking about rat poop. In candy-making equipment.
During the bankruptcy, NECCO was initially purchased by Round Hill Investments, the company known for reviving Hostess. In July, that company abruptly closed the NECCO candy factory and resold NECCO to an unnamed buyer. And then that buyer sold off many of the less popular candies, such as Mighty Malt milk balls and Haviland thin mints.
But the more popular brands, including SweetHearts, along with Canada Mints and NECCO Wafers, ended up in the hands of the Spangler candy company, which is best known for Dum-Dums and Candy Canes.
But ensuring SweetHearts are made in a new, larger, cleaner and safer environment is proving a bit time consuming. Spangler said it bought 20 acres next to other candy-making facilities it owns to make room for the new candies. "Significant renovations have to happen ... to bring it up to food grade standards," Spangler CEO and Chairman Kirk Vashaw said in a statement.
And that's why new bags of SweetHearts won't be in the candy aisles of grocery stores and pharmacies this year.
Candy is a big business, and Valentine's Day in particular is a boom time for candy companies. The National Retail Federation says consumers spent an estimated $1.8 billion buying candy last year for Valentine's Day.
And the amount of SweetHearts consumed each year is so eye-popping that NECCO used to make about 100,000 pounds of SweetHearts each day for 11 months, according to CandyStore.com's data. That's about 8 billion SweetHearts per year.
Spangler CEO Vashaw states that "it's just not possible" to have that quantity of candy ready for the 2019 Valentine season, adding that "doing it right takes time."
But SweetHeart fans are not impressed.
"If they can put a man on the moon, they should be able to get little words on those hearts if they really wanted to," says 64-year-old Hannah DeRousseau.
Others have mixed feelings on the absence of the candy this Valentine's Day. "I'm torn because I think they're pretty gross to eat, but they are such a big part of Valentine's Day. It's a tradition to see them and they're cute," says 23-year-old Megan Kuwashima of California.
Many also turned to Twitter to express this.
Why am I so sad that #Sweethearts won't be available this year? I never actually enjoyed eating them.— Nerdy Momma (@nerdymommablog) January 24, 2019
Despite the nostalgic social media response, SweetHearts are not guaranteed to come back anytime soon. The company deleted an earlier press release which stated that SweetHearts would return for Valentine's Day 2020, causing speculation as to whether the product will be returning next year.
"I'm mad. It's just been around since I was a kid. Now they're not going to be around anymore. I think it's a tragedy," says 62-year-old Shirley Goulart.
Let's hope these candies do come back next year, so they won't break many more hearts.
Janhvi Bhojwani is an intern on NPR's business desk.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For more than a century, those little, brightly colored, chalky candy hearts have helped people share their messages of love.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're talking about Sweethearts. This is a candy made by Necco, the New England confectionary company. Even Martha Stewart loved them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTHA STEWART: And in my hand, I just happened to randomly pick out a handful. Miss you. Yes, dear. You are a 10. And, my pet, my love. So romantic.
INSKEEP: But this year, the romance is in short supply. Or, at least, the little hearts are. Necco, which was one of the oldest candy companies in America, abruptly shut down in 2018. And while a different company has purchased the Sweethearts' brand, it did not have enough time to produce enough candies for this Valentine's Day.
SHIRLEY GOULART: That's terrible. That's a staple. They're getting rid of the conversation hearts.
MARTIN: She's so upset. That's Shirley Goulart (ph). We caught up with her and Hannah Derousseau (ph) outside a candy store in Washington, D.C.
HANNAH DEROUSSEAU: I'm sorry. If they can put a man on the moon but they can't make hearts...
DEROUSSEAU: I'm sure that someone could do it. If they really wanted to, they could.
GOULART: Yes. It's a great way for kids to talk to each other that are shy when they're little. And I just think it's sad.
INSKEEP: Chris Stanovic (ph) in Los Angeles was one of those kids who used the candies to let his grade-school crushes know his feelings.
CHRIS STANOVIC: You know, I was a little kid walking up with those little heart-shaped candies in your hand. You know, sweaty palms-type of Valentine's, queasy stomach. You know, I think every kid did that at one point.
MARTIN: Let's be honest, though. These candies didn't taste that great. Carissa Brones (ph) from Los Angeles never cared for the chalky taste.
CARISSA BRONES: I would always throw 'em out and give 'em away. (Laughter). I'd rather have, like, chocolate candy or something better-tasting.
MARTIN: There are versions from competitors available, but not the classic. And you can still find Sweethearts on eBay for your valentine.
INSKEEP: Good to know. They may not be fresh, but it's the message that counts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.