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Wendy Reuer, Published October 12 2012

Family business really popping

HANKINSON, N.D. - As president and co-owner of Heartland Candies and Dakota Lollipops, Michelle Roeder is getting a taste for the candy business, and for what it’s like to work with family.

It’s turning out to be a pretty sweet gig.

After moving from St. Louis to her hometown of Hankinson five years ago, Roeder was facing an empty nest.

The new grandmother was looking for a new challenge when her father heard of a possible business venture.

A lollipop factory in the Minneapolis area was for sale. Members of the Hankinson Community Development Corporation – which actively recruits businesses to the city of about 900 – thought the factory would be a viable business move for a private investor.

“It looked like it could be a family-owned business that could succeed,” said Bruce Bommersbach, vice president of the Hankinson Community Development Corporation. “Our idea was to keep families in town, working in town.”

Roeder and her sister Dee Ann Bilben bought the factory, and in May 2011, they reopened production as Heartland Candies at 101 1st St. N.E., a former grocery store.

Stove-top recipe

When the sisters moved the factory, production manager Roberto Castruita came with.

The confectionary creator had been hand-mixing lollipop batches for the past 18 years. He uses a 100-year-old recipe he learned while still in California, where the lollipop company was founded before moving to Minnesota.

Castruita begins with a batch of ingredients – too secret to share– and cooks them over an open flame in copper pots that were also imported to Hankinson as part of the business.

Roeder said open-flame cooking is getting rare in the lollipop business. Most factories now use steam.

“It really is an old-fashioned recipe, like one you would cook on the stove,” Roeder said.

From there, Castruita and production staff rolls the nearly 100-pound globs of hot lollipop mix onto a cooling table, where it is hand-mixed and smoothed, ready to be placed in a presser that shapes the lollipops and adds sticks at a pace of 120 lollipops per minute.

All orders are shipped within days of production.

This July, the company produced its one-millionth lollipop.

Branching out

Roeder said the company makes five basic flavors: cherry, orange, lime, lemon and grape but expanded flavor selections including blue raspberry, green apple, tangerine and pineapple are available.

She hopes to offer gourmet lollipops in the near future with test flavors like strawberry-rhubarb, pear and ginger and even chili-mango turning out well. A special order of maple-bacon lollipops is produced exclusively for a local vendor.

“We can literally make any flavor,” Roeder said. “Testing them is pretty fun”

Flavors can easily be changed up, and so can the designs imprinted on the lollipops and sticks.

Bilben and Roeder’s sister, Jolene Anderson, is also part of the business. Anderson works in production, manning the stick-printing machine that cranks out messages and business logos on the lollipop sticks. Her fiancé, John Ringsaker, works in packaging and production and is learning from Castruita how to cook the flavorful lollipop.

Roeder said banks are the largest client of Heartland Candies, although clients range from small businesses to police or fire departments and nonprofit groups that order candies bearing messages such as “Recycle” or “Say No to Drugs.”

Overflow is often given away to local charities and nonprofits.

Under the umbrella of Heartland Candies, which also distributes bulk candies such as Smarties, Dum Dums and Tootsie Rolls, Roeder has created “Dakota Candies” for private orders.

The company is also breaking into specialty markets with items like the green “Bison pops” that feature the North Dakota State University logo or “Dragon Pops” which feature the Minnesota State University Moorhead mascot on red lollipops.

While Bilben and Roeder both owned businesses in the past, Roeder admits she was hesitant to enter into business with family after hearing horror stories of ventures that split families or friends.

Now that she has had a taste of success, Roeder said she finds working with family “a comfort.”

For more information

Dakota Lollipops

101 1st St. NE Hankinson, ND 58041

(701) 242-7181


Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530

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