When Ted Cohen launched Hillside Candy’s brand of GoLightly sugar-free hard candies in 1980, he created an alternative to the candy diabetics or health-conscious customers couldn’t eat and the less-than-tasty existing sugar-free brand. Nearly 30 years later, Hillside is one of the industry leaders around the world for high quality, delicious, sugar-free candy, and Cohen and his team are replicating their success with the launch of the GoNaturally organic candy line.

“Our goal is not to be the largest candy manufacturer in the world but to sell the best candy option for health-conscious consumers,” said Cohen, who said the plan to launch an organic line was a few years in the making. “I’m always looking to see how else we can use equipment that’s a little different, and this is a natural extension of our established success.”

He explained that as he watched the rise of natural food chains like Bread and Circus in the Northeast and, later, Whole Foods, Hillside was working with a nutraceutical manufacturer to develop an all-natural and tasty product. After playing around with different natural syrups and ingredients, the company struck on a delicious recipe with no additives to market to the growing all-natural and organic market.

One of Hillside’s biggest opportunities for growth is the aging baby boomer population, which is learning for the first time to manage weight as they age or cope with late-onset diabetes. Of course, the general shift in the American consumer toward organic options is an added advantage for the company, which prides itself on healthy alternatives that don’t sacrifice on flavors. Its GoLightly line has been offered in numerous flavors, and GoNaturally is available in six already with two or three more planned for the next few years, Cohen said.

“Another big opportunity for us is the growing awareness in this country of celiac disease and other digestive disorders that are commonplace in Europe but are only now getting attention here,” he added. “As the diagnoses rise, those consumers will be looking for a tasty treat they can enjoy.” 

Growth strategy

Cohen also notes how crucial Hillside’s dedication is to customer service. He said the company has developed flavors of GoLightly at the request of distributors or retailers and works with customers to help them sell as many Hillside products as they can. 

A few years ago, the company cut back the number of flavors in that line to increase turnaround time on orders; now, customers receive shipments within seven business days of placing an order at Hillside. Furthermore, rather than the typical 15-pound bag most candy manufacturers sell, Hillside offers three five-pound factory-sealed bags per bulk case, allowing retailers to open only the amount they need without sacrificing freshness. 

When launching GoNaturally, Cohen said the company initially opted for eight-ounce plastic tubs designed for produce sections. Although the company experienced some success, Cohen and his team switched to 3.5-ounce, less expensive stand-up pouches made of recyclable materials, which can also be hung on a peg. Cohen said they have an interesting look and feel to them. Since their launch early 2008, he said they have been very popular.

Currently, Hillside continues to target three of the four major players in retail with GoNaturally, namely supermarkets, wholesale clubs, and mass-market retailers. Drugstores, Cohen said, aren’t quite ready for organic products. The fourth target area for the company is strictly the organic retail industry, which is still largely fragmented despite the omnipotence of Whole Foods. 

“We’re learning how to get GoNaturally on the shelves of those one-store chains on the coasts selling fresh food and all-natural or special dietary products, but we’re making progress,” said Cohen.

The personal touch

Hillside’s experience breaking into the international market will be helpful. The company started taking advantage of the market access program (MAP) from the US government, which helps small businesses market products to export overseas. Hillside started at the National Candy Association’s booth at the International Sweets and Biscuits Show in Germany 12 years ago and today sells its candy in 20 countries.

Although a company its size can’t afford dedicated overseas staff, Hillside has been remarkably successful by relying on a personal touch supplemented by shrewd strategies and use of technology. Cohen said 98% of sales come from meeting a customer at a show and e-mailing him or her promotional materials. The clincher, though, is the personal phone call.

“Abroad and at home, myself and my executive team make as many trips as we can to visit with customers, and we’re on the phone as well,” he said. “A personal call from us or our sales team goes a long way in showing potential customers how dedicated we are to serving them right.”

Luckily, Hillside has maintained a strong position to grow from despite the recession. According to Cohen, its candy lines continued to sell where they were already on the shelves, allowing the company to hold its own, but most retailers were hesitant to invest in new inventory until the economy started to turn around. 

That may be happening now: one of the domestic shows Cohen attends annually was well attended a few weeks ago, he reported. However, he is confident no matter that what happens Hillside will continue to grow.

“Things have to get really bad before people start denying themselves a few piece of candy, especially ours, which are a much healthier alternative. Everyone here is proud of how we continue to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations, and that will carry us through any economic storm,” he concluded.

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