'Jelly Belly' Creator Talks New CBD Jelly Bean, Ronald Reagan and the Dark Side of the Candy Business

David Klein, the 72-year-old veteran candy maker behind Jelly Belly, first saw what CBD could do after his wife hurt her back in a nasty fall.

"We were in Colorado at the time, so we went into a local dispensary and bought some cookies. She felt better immediately," he recalled. "After that, I said we needed to find a way to incorporate CBD into our business."

Thus began a complex, two-year development process to create a new, cannabis-infused product, drawing on over 40 years of expertise in the candy industry.

The result? The CBD jelly bean, which Klein now manufactures out of California.

To sell the product, he started a whole new company called Spectrum Confections in order to make the bean entirely independent from his other, more kid-friendly candies.

"We tell everybody—don’t put it in a package that appeals to kids," he told Civilized. "At $2 a bean, it is way out of a kid’s spending range anyway."

Since launching earlier this spring, Klein said that new batch of beans has sold out within 24 hours of being posted to their website.

The product’s early success is no great surprise. The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized industrial hemp, opened up the doors for CBD products to be sold across the United States. Since then, interest in the non-intoxicating cannabinoid has been at an all-time high, making it a good time to carve your niche into the industry.

For his part, Klein may have been new to CBD, but he certainly knew his jelly beans.

Mr. Jelly Belly

Klein first developed the idea, design, and name for Jelly Belly back in 1976, launching the product out of a small ice cream shop in Alhambra, California.

At the time, jelly beans were just cheap candies — sugar and starch, with few distinct flavours. Klein billed Jelly Belly as a "gourmet" product, featuring a more attractive look and a wider variety of creative flavors such as 'cream soda' and 'very cherry'. They were an instant hit, quickly spreading to candy stores across the country.

As the candy’s popularity grew, Klein even made several TV and radio appearances as "Mr. Jelly Belly," a masked, dancing mascot who wore an Elvis costume and tossed handfuls of jelly beans at people.

"I was having a lot of fun," he told Civilized. "I was very happy being Mr. Jelly Belly."

Klein TV
Klein on 'The Mike Douglas Show' with Henry Winkler in 1979

The fun didn’t last long, however.

"I got a call one day and they said they were coming into town to buy me out, and they weren’t going to leave until they did."

The Herman Goelitz Candy Company, the manufacturers of the bean, intrigued by its success and dissatisfied with their take, bought Klein’s share in the product in 1980 for just under $5 million. The sum was split evenly with his business partner and paid in monthly installments over a period of 20 years. Klein still maintains that what happened to him was unfair, bordering on extortion.

"I did not want to sell Jelly Belly. It was forced from me," he said. "They took my baby away from me."

The Goelitz Company continued to expand the brand after buying the trademark, gradually writing Klein out of their history and removing his name from all promotional materials. The company rebranded under the Jelly Belly name in 2001.

Klein remains bitter about the sale, and disappointed with the direction the company has taken — especially Jelly Belly’s decision to partner with Warner Brothers to create “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.’ Based on the Harry Potter franchise, the line features a variety of new, unappetizing flavors, including "barf," "booger" and "rotten egg."

"I hate them," said Klein. "I would never have done that under the name Jelly Belly. If you want a disgusting product, sell it under a different name. Don’t relate it to a gourmet brand."

Klein’s experience with Jelly Belly and the Goelitz Company soured him on the sweets industry, making him distrustful of big business in general. Still, he told Civilized that the cannabis space thus far has been "completely different."

"We love the people in the industry—they’ve welcomed us with open arms."

That said, he isn’t letting his guard down. He scoffed when asked if he would ever consider selling his new CBD bean to a larger company.

"Probably not," he said. "I really, really doubt it."

Bathing in Jelly Beans for the Cover of Style Magazine in the 1970s
The Cover of STYLE magazine in the late 1970s

CBD and Beyond

Although the product was an instant hit, Jelly Belly didn’t truly solidify its place in the culture until President Ronald Reagan was discovered to be a fan. While serving as governor of California, Reagan picked up a jelly bean habit during an attempt to curb his pipe smoking. He often professed Jelly Belly to be his favorite supplier of beans, and had a regular shipment sent to his office every month.

“We can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around the jar of jelly beans,” he once wrote in a letter to the company.

Reagan’s love for the candy became great fodder for talk shows and political cartoons throughout his presidency and is often credited with making him more palatable as a politician – as well as generating some major publicity for the Jelly Belly brand.

Ronald Reagan
Jelly Bean Portrait of Ronald Reagan, housed at  The Jelly Belly headquarters (Getty Images)

So what would Reagan, a staunch proponent of the War on Drugs, whose wife founded the notorious 'Just Say No' campaign, have to say about his beloved jelly beans being infused with cannabis?

"I’ve thought about that a lot, actually," said Klein. "I really don’t know. He would probably be against it in the beginning. That is, until all of his 90-year-old friends tell him they take it every day and say how much it helps them."

This point is key for Klein. While careful to avoid the pitfalls of making any specific medical claims about the product – as per FDA guidelines surrounding CBD – he believes cannabinoids are the "most wonderful substance that has ever been created."

"For years, I was only interested in selling product that I knew was either making people fat or ruining their teeth," he said. "At least now have a product that helps people, and I feel terrific about that."

Klein, who has just five remaining teeth himself, has always been as much a consumer of his products as he is a promoter. This remains true for the CBD bean, which he now takes for his sciatic pain. But don’t expect the same level of flamboyance he brought to promoting Jelly Belly back in the day. For him, the CBD bean is a medicinal product, not a recreational one.

"I’m more concerned about how they help people than the fun aspect of it, to be perfectly honest." he said. But, being a natural eccentric, he said that some fun is unavoidable.

“We’re going to be doing some things that are a little far out, because I am a little far out. I will be doing things to attract attention – believe me, I will.”

Klein in Jelly Beans
Klein, more recently, bathing in candy.

In truth, the marketing of the product is largely out of his hands. Instead of selling directly to consumers, Spectrum Confections produces the beans for “white-labeling,” a process in which they produce the candy in bulk quantities for other companies and dispensaries to rebrand and package as their own.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for him to be creative with the product. Like Jelly Belly, the new CBD bean comes in 38 assorted "gourmet" flavors, including "toasted marshmallow" and "buttered popcorn".

"CBD doesn’t have the most pleasant taste in the world, so we figured out a way of masking it into a jelly bean," he explained. "You’ll hardly even notice there is CBD in it at all."

The biggest selling point for him, however, is the fact that each bean contains exactly ten milligrams of CBD, so the consumer knows exactly how much they're taking.

"The dosage is perfect," he said. "The oil doesn’t leak out like it does on a gummy bear."

Want to know how it works? Well, you’re out of luck. Having learned his lesson from his experience with Jelly Belly, Klein is keeping this recipe close to his chest, and the manufacturing process entirely under wraps – at least until the patent comes through.

Using his newly developed process, he hopes to expand his CBD line to include other candies as well, including sour gummies and fruit snacks. He’s also open to doing a THC version somewhere down the line, but has no concrete plans to do so just yet.

These are just a few of the ideas that Klein said he hopes to soon realize. He tells Civilized he comes up with new treats practically every day. Nevertheless, the perfect candy continues to elude him – but he knows what it is.

"I’m not telling you," he said, cheerful but guarded. "Ask me again in a couple years."

Latest.

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