Red Vines, the company’s of raspberry-flavored licorice twists, first kicked around the idea of developing a natural version of its flagship product two years ago. American Licorice Company was in the midst of a mission realignment around the time of its centenary, and VP of marketing Kristi Shafer told us that understanding core values – of integrity, compassion, engagement and teamwork – became essential to preparing for the next 100 years.
“It was a good two years in the works of, ‘We want to do this. How do we do it?’” she said of those conceptual meetings. One of the ideas, focused on ‘Peace, Love and Vines,’ hit shelves this summer.
The team decided a natural licorice – one made without artificial flavors or colors – was the smart choice. Tacking on the quality of non-GMO added “another layer of challenges,” as did ensuring that ingredients met expectations and that the final look, feel and flavor of the finished product met expectations.
“Made Simple is as close as we can get to the original flavor of Red Vines, but using 100% natural, non-GMO ingredients,” Shafer told ConfectioneryNews.
The result: a five-ingredient licorice twist made with cane sugar, not corn syrup, and radish extract for color. (The coloring proved most challenging, according to Shafer, as natural colors have a tendency to fade.) Wheat flour, citric acid and natural flavoring from a mix of four berries round out the deck.
Comparatively, the original Red Vines contain molasses, caramel coloring, artificial flavors and Red #40.
Made Simple also features a new design to highlight that fresh recipe, swapping the brand’s iconic blue wrapper with an earthy tan accented by graphic green leaves. “We wanted people to realize it is different,” said Shafer. “Red Vines didn’t go away: this is something different.”
The paper tray that holds the licorice is recyclable, though the company continues to seek a paper bag or different type of plastic film to make the whole package fully recyclable.
Testing the natural licorice waters
To launch the new recipe, Red Vines inked a pilot deal with Portland, Oregon-based Fred Meyer and Walgreens. “If we put the [natural] next to the regular, and the Made Simple is at a higher price point, what is the consumer going to choose if given the choice?” asked Shafer.
Sales of Made Simple were sluggish at Walgreens but boomed at Fred Meyer. Why? Fred Meyer had undertaken an initiative to set aside space specifically for ‘better-for-you’ confections and snacks.
“That was a destination if you were looking for those products,” said Shafer. “If our industry starts recognizing this – and they have over the years – [and] they carve out that destination spot, it’s only going to benefit everyone across the board.”
American Licorice Company’s forethought to enter that space has already paid dividends, ‘catapulting’ Red Vines Made Simple into Whole Foods – somewhere the brand had never secured shelf space.
Looking to November, the brand will release a cherry and black licorice flavor, as well as ‘berry bites.’
Natural Rainbow Sour Punch ahead of the curve
American Licorice Company has been making Red Vines since the 1950s, though Martin Kretchmer and his son-in-law Peter Shock first sold black licorice from a Chicago street cart in 1914. Unlike the brand’s main competitor, Hershey’s Twizzlers, Red Vines carry a raspberry flavor known simply as ‘Original Red.’
In 1990, American Licorice expanded into the sour gummy space with Sour Punch straws. Today that brand is produced exclusively in its La Porte, Indiana facility, while Red Vines are made in California.
Believing that sour candy deserved a natural version, too, the company developed Real Rainbow – using naturally derived colors for strawberry, lemon, apple and tangerine flavored straws. They “didn’t quite take hold like we had hoped,” said Shafer. American Licorice discontinued this natural version in 2018 but told us it is already working on a resurrection plan.
“Sour candy fans aren’t really ready for it, or [aren’t] seeking it out quite yet. We’ll be ready when they get there.”
Asked about the proliferation of sour gummies in recent years – let alone since the early 1990s – Shafer pointed to Sour Punch’s balanced fruit-and-sour flavor and unique straw format. Many products unveiled at Sweets & Snacks (one of the largest annual gatherings of confectioners) three years ago have fallen by the wayside, she added.
Sour Punch continues to stick to its roots, while refreshing its branding earlier this year under the tagline, ‘Embrace Your Punch.’
“We definitely saw the floodgates open. Everybody came out with a sour product. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon…we as a brand said, ‘Let’s stand for what we stand for.’”
Zero waste candy with nostalgia intact
In July, American Licorice joined two cooperative initiatives to reduce waste. With the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Global Commitment, all of the company’s plastic packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. Under the Organic Sustainable Community’s Packaging Coalition (OSC2), it aims to use non-petroleum-based materials for a sustainable, circular packaging economy.
Both of American Licorice’s facilities are certified by the Zero Waste initiative, meaning recyclable materials like cardboard boxes and pallets are recycled. The company has also taken steps to eliminate hard-to-recycle PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic for its distinct licorice jar filled with dozens of Red Vines.
“Reducing plastic is great across the board, but what can we do about that iconic jar?” asked Shafer. It wasn’t as simple as swapping the plastic for the same design because PET (polyethylene terephthalate) does not, for instance, easily take to handles or labels, according to the Association of Plastics Recyclers – but it is highly recyclable.
Developing an easy-to-recycle PET jar that consumers would recognize as Red Vines took 18 months, she said. Packaging manufacturers “are doing great work in finding other materials,” she added, “but we lean on them to kind of move along this process as best they can and as quickly as they can.”
The new version prominently features the brand’s blue, which differs from the dominant red associated with other licorice brands.
As a company, American Licorice has also undertaken efforts to support its local communities while “taking a look at ourselves as a manufacturer and the impact we have on this planet,” said Shafer. It will soon remove shrink wrap from its boxes shipped to retailers, and by 2025 aims to use recyclable materials in at least a quarter of its supply chain.