Russ Sifers of Sifers Valomilk Candy Cups
We discovered Sifers Valomilk candy cups whilst buying fishing licenses at a general store in Highlandville, Iowa. A member of our party spied the unfamiliar label in the candy section and — after accidentally squishing the contents — decided to purchase a couple packages. Serendipity, it turns out. The driftless region is popular in the fall. The streams get crowded and, for an out-of-towner, the trout map is almost unintelligible, so finding a peaceful spot can be a challenge. After a lot of wandering, we pulled over to gawk at a shallow stream — twisting, lazy, and forbidden, through a private cow pasture and back into the woods — and to have a much needed snack. Valomilks, we discovered, are a surprisingly delicious combination of milk chocolate and oozing, creamy marshmallow. They reminded of us of a refined Cadbury cream egg, sans yolk.
We returned to the Twin Cities dreaming of Valomilks. Unfortunately, they are not widely available locally, but an Internet search turned up the quirky Kansas City candy company that makes them.
As it happens, Valomilk is not a new candy bar, but the resurrection of one that was created by the Sifers family at the beginning of the last century. Apparently, in 1970 the Sifers sold Valomilk Candy Company in a merger with a company in California. Eleven years later, that company failed, and the factory was shut down and all of its assets sold off.
Russ Sifers had grown up in the factory. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father had all worked there and, until the merger went awry, he thought he would, too. So, in 1985, when the departing owners offered him his grandfather’s old equipment, he decided to buy it up and start making Valomilks the old-fashioned way. Twenty-four years and a few pallets of fan mail later, the company is, if not profitable, solvent. And, it looks like his son David will be the fifth generation of Sifers candy makers.
Here Sifers tells the Heavy Table how he brought the company and the candy back to life and reveals the mystery of both pan-dried egg whites and why you won’t find his candy bars on Twin Cities grocers’ shelves.
The Valomilk story begins a little like an episode of I love Lucy…
Many things that were created quite by accident turn out to be quite good — Post-it Notes, for instance. A long time ago, we were making penny marshmallow, which is cooked up, cooled on a marble slab, and cut by hand into squares, not what you see extruded today in bags. Marshmallow was flavored with vanilla; in those days, it had high alcohol content. Candy makers were notorious for imbibing of different flavorings because of that alcohol and the story I heard, told to me by my dad, who was a master storyteller, and my uncle, who was a politician — so there’s two things you would question — but corroborated by my grandmother, who spoke nothing but the gospel, that it was Tommy Henry invented Valomilks, or at least the creamy flowing marshmallow, quite by accident while he was making penny marshmallow. Whether he was drunk or not… my grandmother said, “I don’t know if Mr. Henry ever took a drink.”
So, the way my dad would tell it, Tommy got drunk and screwed up a batch of marshmallow, and we’ve being making it wrong ever since. At that time, we were also making boxed chocolates. So my grandfather figured he’d put chocolate in a cup, scoop some of the ruined marshmallow into it, and put chocolate on top. In later days, they were hand-dipped, and today we use depositors, which are well over a half-century old, to make the candy cups.
What is a depositor?
Depositors are machines that were built in 1951. Number one, the depositor shoots chocolate into a paper cup, then it goes to the next stage in the production line, where it blows air into the cup, which forces the chocolate up the sides of the cup,Â then it goes to depositor number two, which squirts in the creamy, flowing marshmallow center, then that goes through a long cooling tunnel, and then the third depositor puts on the chocolate top.
At that point, the employees will pick up a tray, which will have 30 cups in it, and they have to shake it by hand to get the chocolate to completely cover the top of the cup.
I’m sure that other companies have higher technology to probably produce same thing, but we continue to use my grandfather’s equipment, production process, and original 1931 recipes.
Now, I understand depositor is a bit of a step back in time for the company, which was bought and modernized in the ’70s, right?
That merger didn’t last long and it didn’t go well. We had an absentee owner that bought us out because he had more money, but the whole thing fell apart — my dad left about four years in and I stayed for 10 years.
In 1981, the Valomilk Candy Company was shut down in Kansas City and sat idle. The owner in Los Angeles took all the high-speed stainless steel equipment and tried to find buyer for the my grandfather’s — and probably my great-grandfather’s — equipment, but it was so old back then that nobody wanted it.
So when the owner sold the old building, a four-story on the edge of Kansas City, he called me: “Hey, we’re going to sell this building, we gotta get all that junky equipment out of there.” So I went down to take a look; it was my grandfather and great-grandfather’s old copper kettle, gas-fired cookers, and mixers.
At the same time, there was a local talk show doing a segment on old-time candy. Once they got to Valomilks, people were calling in for the next hour. I thought, Wow, I didn’t know Valomilks were so important to people.
I looked at that and thought, Well, I might be able to make Valomilks the way my grandfather did, not the way I did. My wife said: “What else are you going to do with the rest of your life?”
So, I quit my job at in management at General Motors and went to work in production, on the night shift. And spent my days resurrecting the Valomilk Candy Company; it took a good two years to accomplish that.
That was in 1987. My dad had died the year before.
Did he get to taste any of your chocolates?
My dad was very excited when I joined General Motors. He said, “They’ll take good care of you.” I’m a little bit too rebellious, being a child of the ’60s, to want to be taken care of. Plus, I didn’t fit in there; I had radical concepts in management and they didn’t.
But just before he died, I sent him some samples of handmade Valomilks that we were going to try at a chocolate festival in Kansas City. My dad’s advice had been, If you bring Valomilks back, make them the best you know how, with the best ingredients, and don’t worry about the cost.
He never did see the company up and running, but after he died we went to clean out his house in Sun City, AR, and on the table he had saved one of the handmade Valomilks under a Mason jar. I kind of think he knew what I was going to do.
How about the ingredients?
I took it to heart and researched to find the best ingredients. My dad tried to help me. He said, “Russ, you need to get pan-dried egg whites.”
I said, “Dad, Monarch Egg albumin here in Kansas City, it’s the finest they make.”
He said, “Nope, that’s not good enough, in the old days we used pan-dried egg whites.”
I’m afraid I don’t know what that is…
Well, let me tell you. In modern days, eggs are separated by machinery in a centrifuge and then spray dried, but what happens is that, because it is a mechanical production, you can still get some yolk in with the whites.
Pan-dried egg whites are done by hand, slow and tedious. I had studied that in candy technology school, but I didn’t think anyone did it any more.
Somebody suggested the American Institute of Baking. Where are they? This is before the Internet, remember, so I called Kansas State — it’s an agricultural school — and they said, “Oh you want the AIB? I’ll patch your right over; it’s here at the campus.”
Three people later: “Oh yeah, there’s one company that makes ’em and they’re in Oskaloosa, Iowa.” They mostly ship it to Europe, but they said they’d send me some.
The cost was 53 percent more than spray-dried. Are they 53 percent better? I don’t know about that, but they’re the best in the world.
How’d you get a hold of the old Valomilk recipe?
Well, remember, I worked there for 10 years. Straight out of college, I went to Ambrosia Chocolate in Milwaukee and learned to make chocolate hands-on, then went over to Madison, WI, to the school of candy technology. So, I knew the recipe, but the one I had was for stainless steel high-speed automated equipment, continuous production.
We were going to be using copper kettles and Hobart mixers; we were setting candy making technology way back half a century. Most of our equipment is from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. I needed the original 1931 recipe.
I asked my dad. He gave it to me and I wrote it down. Then I asked my Uncle Burr and he gave it to me — but they were off just a little. So I called my dad: “Yours has a little less water; Burr’s has a little more.”
“Oh,” he said, “Burr gave the winter recipe and I gave you the summer.”
Well, sure you did, I thought. When you do it by hand, there is a difference. In the winter, the marshmallow got stiff and people started complaining about it not running down their chin, and I thought, Well darn it, dad wasn’t lying. When it’s dry, you need more water.
I learned the art of massaging the recipe as the seasons go.
How many people do you have working for you now?
We have a total of 10 — two in the office, eight in the factory.
How does that compare to its size in the ’70s?
Well, actually the most employees must have been before and during World War II. The Valomilks were hand-dipped and wrapped in those ancient days. My mentor, Dave Denton, started off as a salesman, but during the war was called out of the field to work in the factory because my dad and uncle went to war. Dave had already served and was too old, so he came in to work in the factory, and he told me there were 150 employees.
How many Valomilks do you make a day?
We make just under 10,000 packages a day, which is probably what Hershey and Nestle do in an hour.
We bring our ingredients in every day and whatever we produce tomorrow will ship tomorrow. So those Valomilks will be two to three days old when they get to their destinations. The big candy companies freak out on that; they can’t do that.
Do you eat Valomilks?
Yes, but I limit myself. When I was 6 years old, I wanted to be a running back like my father, 6-feet tall, 200 pounds. I surpassed one of those goals a long time ago, and I’m not any taller than when I got out of college at 5-feet 9-inches tall. So, I eat one cup each batch.
I’ve been eating them virtually all my life. I can taste the difference between one made today versus last week or a month ago — you can just taste the vanilla. Well I can, I don’t think a consumer would.
Will you ever distribute to the Twin Cities?
Otherwise, we don’t have a distributor there, but we also don’t have one in Chicago or Dallas. Trying to get into the bigger cities is difficult. We were in one of the grocery distributors for a while, but sometimes people want a slotting fee, which can be tens of thousands of dollars to put one product in their warehouse.
For the big companies that’s chump change; it might be my entire profit for the whole year. Even in Kansas City, it would cost us $25,000 to get into the grocery stores, but we’ve been here forever, so we’re grandfathered.
We look for niche markets, country stores and hardware stores. Cracker Barrel has been a good fit for us.
So, you’ve been making Valomilks for a while now. Any regrets?
General Motors, that was exciting. I can claim that in my life I’ve worked at the largest corporation in the world — or what was, at the time, the largest — and for the smallest.
When we started, we had no employees. I relied on friends, family, and people from church. I’d cook the chocolate on Friday, volunteers would come in on Saturday, and we’d put the chocolate and marshmallow in cups, and after church on Sundays people would help us wrap it and I’d deliver it on Monday.
No one was paid, except in what fell on the floor.
You know, I could have retired at General Motors — or so I thought at the time — but I think I have an obligation to bring it back. Not just to restore the family name, but because people do care about our candy. Online surveys tell us that about 60 percent of the people who buy Valomilk remember it as a childhood favorite. You should hear the stories people tell us, heartbreaking.
One guy said his grandfather used to take him out on the lake. When the fish weren’t biting, he’d open up his tackle box and pull out a couple of Valomilks and say, “Well, maybe this will change our luck.”
Valomilks are so nostalgic. Sometimes I say we’re not in the business of making candy, we’re memory makers. So, it’s a calling really.
Around here, we also like to say: We make Valomilks, not money. On the other hand, we’re also debt free, and that’s more than I can say for a few car companies and a bunch of banks.
So, no — no regrets.