June 4, 2022
Made In Bristol: The Helms Candy Co. Story
Growing up in a candy factory sounds like every sugar-loving kid’s dream; visions of lollipops and chocolates dancing in their heads.
For Buzz Helms, it was his everyday growing up. After school let out, he would race over to Helms Candy Company, where his great-grandfather and grandfather made sure everything was running smoothly.
Today Helms serves as the company’s vice president of sales and marketing as part of the fourth generation to lead the family business. Decades of working in the candy factory haven’t dampened his love for the sweet treats. “The smell of peppermint is a comforting, homey thing for me because I have been around that forever,” he said. “It’s a reassurance that life goes on.”
Helms Candy Company, the oldest manufacturer in Bristol, started in 1909. At the time, Helms’ great-grandfather owned a grocery store in what is now the Sessions Hotel on State Street. In the back of the grocery, the Helms family began making candy to sell in the store. Soon the pure sugar stick candy was in demand all over town and the region.
Helms describes candy making as an art form as he designs treats that appeal to customers while staying true to the company’s roots. “Over the years, we went way outside the box and made some unique flavors like key lime and cappuccino,” he said. “But we’ve learned to come back to the basics—wintergreen, clove, peppermint, sassafras. Those old-timey flavors are still the best.” And they’re all still made right in Bristol.
In addition to the classic stick candy it’s known for, the company has added lollipops, puffs, and nutraceutical products, including sore throat lozenges, vitamin supplements, and energy boosters, to its lineup.
While flavors have come and gone, the candy-making process still looks the same. Simple ingredients—sugar, flavor, and cream of tartar—are cooked over an open-fire kettle. The amount of cream of tartar added depends on that day’s temperature and humidity, as it keeps the boiling sugar from crystallizing. Then automated machines pull, twist, and cut the cooling sugar to create the stick’s iconic look. “That process is as old as the business,” Helms said.
While Bristol was once home to almost a dozen companies making the classic sugar stick candy, Helms Candy Company has outlasted them all. “It’s all I’ve ever known,” Helms said. Over the last 100-plus years, amid all of the perks like riding on a float and handing out candy in the Bristol Christmas Parade, the Helms have built a business based on treating their employees as part of the family and always being fair with their customers.
Next time you’re in a Food City or Ingles, see if you can spot the iconic white box with a red stripe marking the Red Band brand. Or maybe try an assortment of fruit-flavored King Pops.
Between sugary treats and a commitment to the community, it’s easy to see the things that help make Bristol home sweet home.