There's Easter candy, and then there's Louisiana Easter candy, homegrown in Ponchatoula.
From Elmer Chocolate comes Gold Brick Eggs, Pecan Eggs and Heavenly Hash Eggs.
For only seven weeks each year, between late December and early February, and only in Ponchatoula, Elmer's produces the iconic candies that fill local Easter baskets.
Surprisingly, said Elmer's CEO Rob Nelson, Easter candy accounts for only 5% of the company's sales, with Gold Bricks taking the No. 1 spot.
"It's regional, but when it comes to Easter, it's our biggest local seller," said Nelson of Gold Bricks. "There's a strong tradition between this region and our Easter candy."
So much that when it comes time to make the candy, the company returns to the "old way" to produce it.
"It involves 1970s technology and the human touch," Nelson said. "It wouldn't turn out right if we did it any other way. And, if we did it any other way, we would start getting letters from our customers."
He said when people move away, they don't realize the candy is regional. According to the company's website, Gold Brick, Heavenly Hash and Pecan Eggs outsell national leaders five to one along the Gulf coast.
"They get upset, and they start calling us," Nelson said. "They want their Gold Brick Eggs, so we do everything we can to ship them out on time."
While the rest of us are dreaming of a chocolate-filled Easter day, Nelson has already moved on to Valentine's Day and is meeting with retailers about Elmer's heart box candy. The company is the nation's second-largest producer of that holiday's boxed chocolates. Elmer's also has nationwide business for its boxed Christmas chocolates.
But Easter candy is still a company specialty, a tradition that dates to the early 20th century when Elmer's produced its candy on the corner of Magazine and Poydras streets in New Orleans.
"We're the oldest candy company in the United States, founded in 1855," Nelson said. "What you had at the time were a number of general line candy companies spread around the country. We were the southern candy company. There were some out in California, some in the northeast, Chicago, and these companies would make all the different candies."
Elmer's early variety included hard candy and the invention of the cheese curl, a predecessor of Frito-Lay's Cheetos.
"It was really in the 1980s when (companies) started finding a specialty," Nelson said. "And if you didn't find a specialty, you weren't going to last, because now you had national retailers, refrigeration and the whole landscape changing."
Elmer's began producing Heavenly Hash chocolates in 1923 after purchasing the recipe from a Canal Street department store that created and sold the candy. The Gold Brick made its appearance in 1936 as a candy bar that sold for a dime.
"Let's rewind back to the 1930s," Nelson said. "This is pre-World War II and after the Depression, and candy bars at that time generally sold for a nickel. And the Elmer family formulated this bar, they wanted it to be premium chocolate with a melt-away center. They came out with it, and it was smaller than other candy bars, and they sold it for a dime."
Everyone predicted it would sit on the shelf because it was too expensive.
"It was the first candy bar that cost a dime, and it sold," Nelson said. "And it was the first candy bar sold by a general line candy company in the South. It was Gold Brick, but it was a bar, it wasn't an egg."
The Gold Brick eventually morphed into what everyone knows and loves — an egg of premium milk chocolate and the highest quality Louisiana pecans with a melt-away center.
Then, there's the Heavenly Hash with its premium milk chocolate shell wrapped around a marshmallow and almond center. Both the Gold Brick and Heavenly Hash also come in dark chocolate these days. There's also a Strawberry Heavenly Hash Egg and Double Nut Gold Brick Fudge Egg, along with Gold Brick Rabbits. And, there's Gold Brick Topping.
"The Gold Brick and Heavenly Hash run neck-in-neck in popularity each year," Nelson said. "We'd have to look at our records after the season to see which one won out this year. Our Pecan Egg is always our third-most popular Easter product."
Nelson doesn't refer to a written company history when telling the Elmer story. He grew up in this business, first skateboarding on the plant's smooth floors as a teenager, then working in every position from housekeeping to CEO.
Nelson's grandfather, Chicago native Roy Nelson, bought the company from the Elmer family in 1963 and moved it to Ponchatoula in 1970.
"Our plant was downtown New Orleans, and we didn't own the land or the building, and it was just an old plant," Nelson said. "My grandfather was a great salesman. He was just one of those guys that was really good at that, and my father was a physicist who worked for McDonnell Douglas out in California at the time. So, my father came to the company and ran the manufacturing side, and my grandfather was the sales side."
The Ponchatoula company was state-of-the-art in 1970. That status still stands with automated additions and added building space in 2016.
But only the 1970s technology matters when it comes to making Easter candy.
"There's really an art to it," Nelson said. "And everybody in the plant looks forward to it. From Beaumont, Texas, to Mobile, Alabama, and as far north as I-20, Elmer's Easter candy is a tradition."