A lot of children dream of nabbing the golden ticket and running a quirky candy factory a la Willy Wonka. But that was never Derek Lawson, who admits, "Truth be known, I don't really eat candy." Still, he has the tall brown squire hat and velvet purple jacket. And he has a warehouse off Departure Drive in Raleigh, where he manufactures gummy bears that weigh 5 pounds—the equivalent of 1,400 traditional gummy bears that total 6,120 calories—gummy worms that measure a yard in length and a gummy python that stretches almost 8 feet (450 servings for a mere $149.95).
"In our estimation, I'm the closest thing to a real live Willy Wonka in this world," Lawson says. "If you're talking about someone who owns a candy company that sells around the world, not just on the block; is recognized around the world for their product; that makes odd, never before seen candies; and has a big brown hat, I'm the closest thing in the world to that."
Lawson made his shift toward candy king in 1996, having before worked in sports, news and at a traumatic brain injury unit. His brother, Brett Lawson, had befriended Michele Horwitz and her son, Michael, who owned a candy chain in North Carolina called Popalops, and the Lawson brothers became store managers.
Candy stores weren't doing a great business at that time, a victim of a low-carbohydrate craze and big-box venues that could sell goods more cheaply. But the Lawsons were undeterred. They bought a Popalops store in Wilmington when the Horwitzes began selling off their chain in 2003. Under BROSCO LLC (short for brothers company), Derek and Brett worked to create a flagship product to call their own.
They dabbled first with vitamin-enriched chocolates, but they found their actual answer in a joke. "I thought it would be funny to come in one day with a giant gummy bear," says Derek Lawson, who created the large cherry candy with his mother using a double broiler at home. "I never expected it to go anywhere beyond 'Ha ha.'"
Today, a world map in Lawson's office is blanketed with gummy bears that have been skewered on pins and placed wherever the candies have shipped. Only gummy bears are visible. (In his office, there's also a giant promotional picture of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.)
The oversized gummy bear—now sold as "The World's Largest Gummy Bear"—was immediately popular at the Wilmington Popalops shop and on its website. But the real boon came when Lawson purchased a Popalops store at Crabtree Valley Mall in 2008 and reconnected with Mike Horwitz.
The two founded GGB of Raleigh (short for Giant Gummy Bears) and opened a manufacturing facility in town. Counting Lawson's home kitchen, where he initially made the bears by melting and reshaping plastic food containers to use as molds, the company will soon upgrade to its seventh and largest factory, capable of producing thousands of gummy bears per day. "There was no making Giant Gummy Bears Book for Dummies," says Lawson. "We wrote that book."
The Crabtree Popalops serves as GGB's only storefront. Additional sales occur online (giantgummybears.com) or at retailers including IT'SUGAR. GGB also makes appearances at the North Carolina State Fair, the Dixie Classic Fair and the Coastal Carolina Fair (near Charleston, S.C.). At those events, Lawson dons his Wonka-ish attire.
The giant gummy bear comes in an array of flavors, including cherry cola and pineapple. Despite its name, GGB also creates other gummy variations such as bear earrings and oversized candy bowls. Other highlights include gummy shot glasses, worms, snakes, tongues, mustaches and peppers. A jalapeño version of the latter rates around 3,000 on the Scoville scale, which measures heat, while a forthcoming habanero gummy comes in near 30,000.
For Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne, GGB created limited-edition gummy skulls intact with gummy brains. Encased within the gummy sculptures were four Flaming Lips songs on a USB drive, part of the band's series of untraditional record releases. As Coyne told Esquire about his collaboration with Lawson, "We found him online and saw that he was doing like five-pound gummy bears, and we called him up and said, 'Hey, we want to do this life-sized skull.'"
It proved the perfect challenge for Lawson, who says, "More than worrying about the bottom line, I want to make the best, coolest candies in the world."
In his eyes, that can mean almost anything (at least in gummy form). As he puts it, "Everything I see, I see through the prism of how I can make that into a candy."