For years, an enormous pink Easter bunny would greet motorists driving in to Baltimore on Interstate 83 each spring.
The mascot for Mary Sue chocolates, perched atop its warehouse in Woodberry, was a reminder that Easter season was nigh and it was time to stock up on candy, particularly the company’s trademark Easter eggs, a tradition dating back to the 1940s.
But the company relocated last year to Baltimore County, in a newly developing area called Baltimore Crossroads, just north of Martin State Airport, and the bunny is nowhere to be found.
“This location doesn’t really lend itself to putting the bunny on the roof,” said Bill Buppert, owner of Ruxton Chocolates, the parent company of Mary Sue chocolates.
It’s the company’s first Easter at the gleaming new facility in White Marsh. It moved last year, packing up two locations, one in Southwest Baltimore and the other in the Jones Falls Valley.
Though Buppert said Baltimore leaders tried to entice him to stay, ultimately “there was no way” he could keep the company in Baltimore.
“The issues we had were sort of synonymous with the city’s bigger issues,” said Buppert. “Crime was an issue. The city’s aging infrastructure” was another, he said.
At the time, city officials expressed disappointment with the decision.
But unlike other members of the Baltimore business diaspora — in 1996, the brewers of National Bohemian left not only the city but the state, later selling to a Russian company — Ruxton Chocolates remains close to its roots.
“I think they think of themselves as a Baltimore company — I certainly do,” said Mark Berman, who previously owned Mary Sue.
When asked how the move has been for his company, Buppert smiled.
“Baltimore County’s been great. Everything we’ve needed, they’ve been on the ball,” said Buppert, who wore a white hair net with his button-down shirt so he could easily move between the factory floor and his office without having to put it back on.
Mary Sue was in desperate financial straits when Buppert bought it at a public auction for $890,000 in 2001. The company had recently merged with Naron, another candy company founded in Baltimore in 1905. Their owners filed for state court insolvency, which is similar to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in federal court.
He was just 23 and dropped out of an MBA program to take over — “Dropped out and got my real world MBA,” he said. Seven months later, he acquired Glauber’s Fine Chocolates.
Though Mary Sue had financial problems, it also had one essential asset that gave him a head start on turning it around.
“The hardest part of any business is building up name recognition,” he said.
Along with the chocolates came decades of nostalgia for a brand whose jingle rang in the heads of generations of Baltimoreans. Mary Sue and the sister companies “have a very loyal following” among customers in the region, he said.
Mary Sue’s most devoted followers are getting older — Buppert said the company regularly ships to Baltimore retirees who now live in Florida — but the company isn’t worried.
“Your current customer base is always aging,” he said. “Hopefully there’s a certain nostalgia that is created within families that is passed down from generation to generation.”
According to a survey by the National Confectioners Association, treats like bunnies and the Easter eggs Mary Sue produces are the preferred choice among American consumers for the Easter holiday.
Easter is second only to Halloween in sales for candy companies, said Christopher Gindlesperger, vice president of public affairs & communications for the National Confectioners Association.
“When it comes down to it, chocolate and candy have been ingrained in family traditions and celebrations for generations,” Gindlesperger said.
Like many American traditions, Mary Sue candies have roots in a faraway land. Morris “Pops” Spector, a candy-maker, moved to the United States in the early 1900s, bringing with him a certificate from the tsar of Russia attesting to his skills at making marmalade. Spector’s son, Sacha, founded Mary Sue chocolates in the basement of a southwest Baltimore rowhouse in 1948. In an era where every chocolate maker had a specialty, Spector’s was vanilla butter creams, which he eventually started making in the shape of an Easter egg.
One situational irony: “The Easter Egg king was Jewish,” said Berman, Sacha’s grandson, who took over the company in the 1990s.
Berman, who went on to co-found a Baltimore firm called Think Stack, said he understands why Ruxton and Mary Sue needed to relocate.
“I think the facilities had aged and methods changed,” he said. “It needed to find a new home”
In the former kitchen, built in the 1960s, Buppert said, low ceilings meant the room overheated to 115 degrees at times.
“We’re in the food business,” he said. “The regulation, the requirements are becoming ever more stringent — it requires us to have modern facilities.”
Baltimore County issued $8 million in bonds to fund construction of the generic-looking warehouse tucked in the back of Baltimore Crossroads’ industrial park that Ruxton Chocolates leased.
“Mary Sue and their iconic pink bunny have truly found a wonderful new home in Baltimore County,” Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in a statement. “It’s great when a company with brands that date to 1905 stays and grows here.”
In the new space, which spans 100,000 square feet, the ceilings are high, the walls are white, and much of the machinery is new. The aroma of chocolate and sugar fills the air.
A slab of taffy is kneaded by machine and cranked into a thin piping while workers in hairnets look on.
In addition to its chocolate eggs, Mary Sue also makes a pecan nougat egg, peanut brittle, almond bark and chocolate assortments. It sells some under it own brand in the mid-Atlantic and also does private-label chocolates sold under other names, Buppert declined to identify those clients or company sales figures.
The factory currently employs about 50 people, Buppert said, but hopes to grow to 67 within the next two years. There were a few layoffs after the move, Buppert said, but he estimates that 95 percent of the original workforce has remained intact.
One is Tim McCurley, 55. He calls himself “plant manager extraordinaire” and has been with the company 10 years. Though the new location has added 30 minutes to his commute to work from Relay, he said he “loves” it.
“We worked hard to get here.” The new place offers “More room. More possibilities. Open spaces,” he said. “We can grow here.”
And in Baltimore, Mary Sue still retains a presence on Easter weekend at the Maryland Zoo, though the giant pink bunny won’t be there.