Durkee-Mower Inc. is located at the end of a long residential street in East Lynn. The somber two-story building could easily be mistaken for a suburban office park or a manufacturer of paper goods, except for the intoxicating emissions billowing from pipes mounted on the periphery. The fragrance of vanilla and caramelizing sugars permeates the surrounding neighborhood for miles.
“You could smell that?” says Jon Durkee. Jon is now the fourth in his family to hold the title of president of Durkee-Mower, the grandson of cofounder, H. Allen Durkee, and quite possibly the last in his lineage to oversee the production of Marshmallow Fluff. “I guess I’ve built up a tolerance. I haven’t smelled it in years. If you’ve ever been to the Teddy Peanut Butter factory it’s the same thing. As soon as you get out of the car, it’s like ‘wham!’ I imagine if you have a peanut allergy you just go into shock and die right there. But I don’t think people who work there even notice it. People in the neighborhood don’t even notice it. You just build up a tolerance to it.”
In his pleated khakis and neutral, baggy dress shirt, Jon seems about as nondescript as the building’s taupe facade. Yet beneath his careworn expression, there’s a certain waggishness and a tendency toward self-mockery.
“I’m forty-ten,” Jon said when I asked him his age. “Seriously though, I’m a 20-year member of the 30-year-old crowd.”
Marshmallow Fluff has now been in Jon’s family for 94 years. His grandfather, along with his partner Fred Mower, famously purchased the brand from the recipe’s originator, Archibald Query, for $500 in 1920 to help bolster their hard candy business in Swampscott.
“Query developed the recipe during the war, but he couldn’t get the sugar to make the marshmallow cream because it was being rationed for gun powder,” says Jon’s father Don, who popped into the office after a round of golf. “So when the war ended and the sugar came free, an arrangement was made with Query to buy the name and also the product and the formula and so forth. It’s really more of an ingredient, than a product. So, Query didn’t have any need for it because he didn’t want to get into the marketing and advertising of it all.”
Don, who’s in “semi-retirement,” sporadically drops by the Lynn office when he’s not playing golf. Like his son, Don grew up in the Durkee-Mower plant, after H. Allan moved his thriving Fluff business into the 10,000 square foot warehouse in 1929. Almost nothing has changed since its inception: wood-paneling cloaks the first-floor offices; early cartoons penned by The Daily Item regarding Fred Mower and H. Allen’s war exploits still hang in the hallway; a mounted three-foot Tarpon, caught by H. Allen, lords over the second-story landing. Even H. Allen’s office remains unblemished, having long ago been turned into a museum honoring the man who turned whipped sugar, corn syrup, dehydrated egg whites, and “flavoring” into one of America’s favorite confections.
Outside of the office is a commissioned oil painting of H. Allen himself along with the centerpiece of the impromptu museum: a curio cabinet lined with vintage cans of Sweeco, a powdered instant cocoa mix abandoned by the company in 1962, tubs of Fluff spanning its near century-long existence, and a skateboard used by Andy Mac (now a pro skateboarder) in an early ’90s TV ad for Fluffernutter.
Marshmallow Fluff might only have one legitimate market rival today, Kraft’s Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Creme, but back when Archibald Query was perfecting his recipe, there were dozens of companies dabbling in the marshmallow cream business.
“There were other brands prior to Marshmallow Fluff,” Jon says. “There was Hippolyte out of Ohio and even a couple in the New England area that existed. Over time they just disappeared. I wouldn’t call them copycats or anything like that because they were all unique products that came out at roughly the same time ours did. Just through the war of attrition, you could call it, companies go out of the business.”
What helped Durkee-Mower rise above its competitors was the idea of pairing peanut butter, Fluff, and white bread; a sandwich first featured in the company’s cookbook, “The Yummy Book.” Dubbed the “Fluffernutter” in 1960 by a mysterious Don Draper-like ad man from the New York agency Richard K. Manoff, it has sustained the company for decades. Don can remember donating Fluffernutter kits (Fluff, peanut butter, and Saltines) to area schools for home economics classes, they’ve been the source of a 2006 lawsuit involving the mammoth culinary retailer Williams-Sonoma, and they’re now a major focus of Somerville’s “What the Fluff?” festival, taking place this weekend in Union Square.
“I think the Fluff festival is a lot of fun and a great idea, but they started it primarily to breathe life into Union Square,” Jon says. “They had the perfect vehicle, being that the product was invented by Mr. Query in Union Square. I think it’s done very well, but we pretty much just stay out of the way. We donate product, but we don’t get involved other than that. One of these days we’ll have to go down there, but we’ll do it incognito”
The “What the Fluff?” festival will celebrate its ninth installment this year, but nobody in the Durkee family has ever attended. One of the major draws for the festival’s annual costume competition is its grand prize: a tour of the Durkee-Mower facilities. Access onto its premises is so exclusive nowadays, that many have likened it to Wonka’s chocolate factory. I asked Jon if he was aware of his company’s enigmatic reputation.
“That’s somewhat true,” he concedes. “We like our privacy. We used to give tours all the time through the ’70s, but our insurance company said we shouldn’t be doing it anymore. It’s not like the Cape Cod Chip factory. It wasn’t built to accommodate tours. Also, it was extremely time consuming.”
After donning a hairnet, Jon and vice president of manufacturing, Paul Walker, a 35-year veteran on staff, led me through the packing and filling areas of the Durkee-Mower plant. Enormous machines—most of which date back to the 1950s— whirred, and chugged, and spat out uniform globs of Fluff into 16-ounce containers. Each jar was affixed with a plastic seal, packed into cardboard boxes by hand, and shot down a conveyor belt.
Most of the company’s current production is being made in anticipation of the holiday season. Jon says that almost 60-percent of their annual sales come during the months of October, November, and December, when families are forging another Durkee-Mower trademark, “Never Fail Fudge.”
I looked around and asked Jon where the Fluff was actually cooked and whipped into its final form.
“That’s upstairs in the ‘making’ room. It’s honestly not that interesting,” he said dismissively. “Plus, you probably wouldn’t be able to see over the giant 140-quart kettles it’s made in.”
Besides its trademark product, Durkee-Mower also produces a strawberry version, and once a month, separate batches of Fluff bound for Europe, Australia, the Netherlands, and Japan. A special beet-dyed version of its strawberry flavor is made specifically for the European Union, raspberry Fluff is made in small batches for the Canadian market, and the company has been toiling for years on a chocolate version at the behest of Germany.
As box after box shot down the ancient conveyor system, Paul regaled me with stories of Jon riding his bike from Swampscott to work in the factory during summer breaks. Jon grew wistful and confided, “Out of all my brothers, I was the only one interested in the business. I knew early on that this was what I wanted to do.”
“So, is their going to be a fourth generation of Durkees running the business?” I asked. “Have any of your sons expressed any interest in taking over.”
“It’s possible I guess,” Jon says. “I have three sons and they’re certainly able to do so. A couple of them have worked here during college vacations; that’s about as close as they’ve come though. Two of them are in college and one of them just graduated. One is more into math and electronics and my son that just graduated is a physics major, so I don’t think he’d ever be interested in the business. It would be nice to keep it in the Durkee name. You never know. It would be nice.”
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