When the National Confectioners Association (NCA) search committee was looking for a new CEO, they brought in candidates and had them pick their favorite candy out of a bowl.
John Downs, now the group’s chief executive, picked out candy from a small family company, Goetze.
“I picked out the Goetze cow tail that was in the bowl and Mitchell Goetze, who’s the owner of the company, was on the search committee and he likes to say, ‘I don’t know what else you said the rest of the way or how you answered the questions but when you selected my product out of the bowl, you were my guy,’” Downs recalled.
Downs, a Maryland native who previously spent nearly 30 years at Coca-Cola focusing on public affairs, is now known as the candy man in his neighborhood and is the most popular person on his street every Halloween.
“I have a big selection because I’m in a unique position as the candy man to get all this candy from our member companies and so everybody likes to come to our house for Halloween,” Downs told The Hill in a recent interview. “We have great candy.”
The holiday is an important day for the industry. In 2018, the Halloween season saw about $4.5 billion in chocolate and candy sales. Overall, the confectionery industry generates $35 billion in retail sales per year.
“We call that the Power of Sweet, where over 600,000 Americans rely in part on the production of confectionary products for their livelihood,” Downs said.
And the lobby also has data on American’s favorite treats. For Halloween, those are candy corn and chocolate. Eighty-five percent of Americans who give out candy for Halloween choose miniature treats, according to the group’s data.
For Halloween, NCA holds events around Washington, D.C., for disadvantaged children, including on Capitol Hill.
And when Downs isn’t providing sweet treats, he is talking to Congress about the important issues involving the industry.
The top issue for NCA right now is trade, in particular pushing through President Trump‘s new trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
“USMCA [The United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement] and getting that passed is a very important priority for NCA as well as others in the business community,” Downs said.
At NCA’s Washington forum in September, 160 chocolate and candy markers came to the capital and trade was an important part of their discussions with lawmakers.
NCA is also focused on reforming the U.S. Sugar Program, that maintains a minimum price to help domestic sugar producers.
“We always take an opportunity to talk to folks on Capitol Hill about trying to do something in terms of coming up with a win-win for both small family farmers as well as small family-owned chocolate and candy manufacturers who are put at a real disadvantage with this U.S. sugar problem, which is outdated and outrageous and reform is long overdue,” he said.
And the NCA is also working on health issues. It launched the #AlwaysATreat initiative in 2017 with the Partnership for Health America, a nonprofit to improve children’s health and address childhood obesity.
“I think it really demonstrates our companies’ have made a real commitment to help our consumers and their families manage their sugar intake while still enjoying their favorite treats,” Downs said.
The initiative helps promote portion guidance and transparency on ingredients and calories. Half of NCA’s members’ instant consumables and individually wrapped products will have 200 calories or less by December 31, 2022, Downs noted.
The industry has strong ties to lawmakers in both parties and is closely connected to a Capitol Hill tradition, the Senate’s coveted “candy desk.” The desk has belonged to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) since the 114th Congress, who stocks it with candy for colleagues, following a tradition started in 1965 with then-Sen. George Murphy (R-Calif.).
“We’re the only industry that I know of that has a desk on the Senate floor, the candy desk…it really represents how important chocolate and candy are as a fabric of our society here in the U.S.,” Downs said.
Over in the House, the group helped create the Congressional Candy Caucus in 2016, which now has over 50 members from both sides of the aisle.
“It is bipartisan because, I said this when I first came into the job, everybody loves candy, whether you’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican or you’re independent, or whether you’re young or you’re old,” Downs said.
When he talks to lawmakers, Downs stresses the impact the candy industry has on American traditions, like Halloween, and on the economy overall.
“Candy has just such a strong currency as it relates to this concept around emotional well-being and social connections people have with our products,” Downs said.