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How Werther’s Original Became the Go-To Candy of Grandparents

Ellen Gutoskey
They're a classic grandparent treat.
They're a classic grandparent treat. / Leonid Mamchenkov, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 (Werther's Original candies); Enjoynz/Getty Images (background)
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In October 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune printed an obituary for 84-year-old Fay Watson King, a dedicated church librarian survived by three children, 13 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren. Though almost solely comprising biographical information and funeral logistics, the clipping did close with one personal detail about the matriarch:

“One of Mom’s little pleasures was to give a Werther’s Original to anyone who did something nice for her…we’ll miss that and we’ll miss her. We love you, Mom.”

King is far from the only golden-ager whose obituary has featured a call-out to the classic caramel candy. In 2008, Texas resident Eugenia Gonzalez’s obit mentioned that her 30 grandkids would “miss her endless supply of Werther’s.” A 2007 memorial for 87-year-old Joseph “Papa Joe” Rotar said that “many people affectionately knew him as the ‘Candy Man’” due to his habit of handing out Werther’s Original. Alabaman Wilburn Seamon, who died in 2014, was also called the “Candy Man” for that reason. Doreen Willis was the “Candy Lady.” George Edward Percival was the “Werther’s man.”

In short, a Werther’s Original reference in an obituary is about as rare as the candy itself. But it does help illustrate a certain universally acknowledged truth: Grandparents love to give out Werther’s any chance they get. And they didn’t come up with the custom alone.

The Candy Man Can

werther's original mural at Karamell-Küche in disney world's epcot
A mural in Karamell-Küche at the Germany Pavilion in Disney World's EPCOT. / Steve Miller, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1903, August Storck opened his own confectionery factory in the small town of Werther, Germany. By 1909, he was already shipping sweets to neighboring towns, and his workforce had grown from three people to 12. One of them, Gustav Nebel, invented a rich caramelly offering known as butter candy—which, in addition to butter, contained cream, white sugar, brown rock sugar, and a dash of salt. 

It would be a while before butter candy had its day in the sun, in part because August Storck’s progress was interrupted first by World War I and then his own health issues. But he passed the torch to one of his sons, Hugo Oberwelland, who took the company to great heights during the 1930s. Over the next three decades or so, Storck (the company) saw success with chocolate-covered caramels called RIESEN, Mamba fruit chews, and more original brands.

And then, in 1969, Storck unveiled a hard caramel called Werther’s Echte, from the German word for “real” or “genuine.” True to its name, Werther’s Echte was made with real cream and real butter—just like Nebel’s old recipe. Werther’s Echte was later rebranded as Werther’s Original for the international market, and when it first showed up in the U.S. around the late 1970s, it wasn’t associated with old people.

A 1981 ad in the Los Angeles Times presented it as an artisanal favorite from the bucolic idylls of the “Old World.” “Imported from Europe,” it said (twice). “It’s time to have it good again!”

When Storck began advertising on American and British television several years later, it continued angling the gold-wrapped goodies as old-fashioned. But this time, it had a spokesperson to help sell the concept: Grandpa.

Sweet Smarts

Debuting in 1989, the commercial features an archetypal, cardigan-sporting grandfather who, from a high-backed leather chair, reminisces about eating his first “sweet and creamy and just plain good” Werther’s Original. He was 4 years old, and his grandfather gave it to him.

“Now I’m the grandfather,” he says, straight into the camera, “and what else would I give my grandson but Werther’s Original?” The clip also shows his doe-eyed young grandson sampling the treat himself.

Though the British and American versions of the commercial followed the same script, they starred different actors. In the UK, the grandfather was portrayed by Arnold Peters, best known for voicing Jack Woolley in the BBC radio drama The Archers. U.S. audiences got Bob Rockwell, the charmingly clueless Mr. Boynton in the ’50s sitcom Our Miss Brooks.

As for how many grandfathers actually saw their own memories mirrored in the ads, it’s unclear. Sure, it’s possible that certain senior citizens living near Werther, Germany, circa 1909 gifted their grandchildren Nebel’s butter candy; and that those grandchildren then grew up, moved abroad, and continued the custom for their own offspring’s offspring when Werther’s Original showed up in stores decades later. But the TV commercials weren’t reflecting a widespread, longstanding tradition. Instead, they were trying to create one.

And it worked. Aside from helping Storck rake in impressive profits throughout the 1990s, the commercials were considered an absolute marketing triumph. They helped Storck position itself abroad as a heritage brand, leveraging people’s nostalgic tendencies to create a customer base founded on tradition—one that future generations would feel moved to uphold.

The U.S. branch further embraced the elderly demographic by sponsoring a “Grandfather of the Year” contest in 1994. Grandfathers were asked to submit photos of themselves “enjoying a special moment with [their] grandkids.” The winner received $10,000 and a professional family portrait session.

Candy Grams for Life

Various iterations of the commercials ran well into the early 2000s, and various grandparents stocked their pockets, purses, and car consoles with the toothsome treats. Not only did Werther’s Original become a popular reference for anyone trying to paint the picture of a typical grandparent, but people also started invoking it to convey the opposite. 

In a 2008 Dayton Daily News article on Frank Lloyd Wright’s grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright, writer Andrew McGinn described the Fallingwater architect as “too avant-garde to pass out Werther’s Originals.” A 2007 piece on Tuki Brando used the term similarly while describing his grandfather, Marlon Brando.

In 2006, the UK side of the business retired the classic TV ads in favor of a fresher take on the story. A father and son share Werther’s Originals in the car as the son lists all the flashy electronics his friend gets from his absentee father—the implication being that it’s better to have Werther’s and an active dad than an Xbox 360 and no dad in sight.

Storck has continued trying to pivot from the now-entrenched notion that Werther’s are for AARP card holders. Over the last several years, the company has rolled out trendy new flavors like caramel apple and pumpkin spice and launched ads focused on people of all ages. 

But the association is tough to shake, especially since so many real-life grandparents still keep Werther’s Original in their candy bowls.

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