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Family Business Built on 75 Years of Fluff

December 20, 1995

LYNN, Mass. (AP) _ It’s just Fluff.

It’s just corn syrup, sugar, egg whites and a touch of vanilla _ the same ingredients that have been used for 75 years. It’s just a kid food, an adult guilty pleasure, the stuff of sandwiches with peanut butter, of grandma’s secret fudge recipe, of that dollop in a cup of cocoa.

Marshmallow Fluff will win no awards from the nation’s gourmets _ or its nutritionists _ but it has won a sticky place in many hearts.

``It’s a lifestyle, emotionally. It’s a fun kind of food,″ says Don Durkee, president of Durkee-Mower Inc.

It all started when Durkee’s father, H. Allen Durkee, and high school chum Fred Mower decided making lollipops and hard ribbon candies was too seasonal a business. They wanted to add a more food-like product to their repertoire, paid $500 for the recipe to a sugary concoction with potential, and started selling ``Toot Sweet Marshmallow Fluff″ door to door.

``It is a fairly common recipe known to anybody in the candy making business,″ concedes Don Durkee, who started in the company’s labeling room. ``The whipping and cooking time, the manipulation of the ingredients are what make it unique.″

Don Durkee smiles a lot as he walks through the factory’s store rooms and machine shop to the sticky production floors. In one room, 13 vintage beaters whip the dried egg whites and vanilla with a heated mix of corn syrup and sugar. Once fluffed, the mixture is poured 85 pounds at a time down a hole in the floor to a bottling machine one flight down.

There, Jim Osborn _ one of just 20 people at the plant _ makes sure enough Fluff goes into the 7 1/2-ounce jars. He keeps a spatula and a bowl of the white marshmallow creme handy in case the machines come up short.

``We get some good messes now and then,″ the 16-year production line veteran laughed. ``It’s a good company, good people. I’ll be a lifer.″

This is just the fourth place where Fluff has been manufactured; in 75 years, the factory has moved three times within two blocks along the same set of railroad tracks.

The founders both have died and the Mower family has left the business. And while Durkee owns the company with his three sons, only his youngest, 31-year-old Jonathan, has joined the family business.

Jonathan Durkee is the company’s treasurer; he would like to put the company on-line, perhaps with a home page on the Internet. He sees the future of Fluff in overseas marketing.

Fluff already is sold in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Holland, Israel and South Africa. It is particularly popular in the United Kingdom, where it has been sold since 1991 as ``The Incredible American Marshmallow Spread.″

Yet Durkee-Mower has had trouble marketing Fluff in some Western states, where distributors want the small company to pay tens of thousands of dollars just to put the product on store shelves.

Still, Fluff has become a standard in the aisles of jelly and peanut butter in the Northeast, where Durkee-Mower has a 90 percent market share over its two competitors, Kraft General Foods and Kidds. Durkee-Mower sells about 5 million pounds of original, raspberry and strawberry Fluff a year.

Just about everyone in New England has a favorite recipe for the sticky stuff. Durkee-Mower even puts out The Yummy Book of recipes such as ``Never Fail Fudge,″ ``Whoopie Pies″ and even ``Sweet Potato Souffle.″

And then there is the Fluffernutter, a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich the company actually patented in 1961.

Don Durkee’s favorites are ``Marshmallow Treats,″ made with Fluff, butter and Rice Krispies.

``I’ve had a good time with the Rice Krispies recipe,″ Durkee admitted. ``When we were working on the microwave version a few years ago, I did quite a bit of experimenting at home and broke one of my wife’s good beater bowls in the process.″

But for others _ like the newlywed who stopped off at a Newton, Mass., supermarket recently to stock up on cocoa and a one-pound jar of Fluff in advance of an approaching snow storm _ innovation is anathema.

``I don’t know how long I’ve been using this. As a kid it was Fluff, peanut butter and bananas on toast,″ she said. ``Now it’s just hot chocolate.″

Of course, she wouldn’t give her name _ she was too embarrassed.

Adults who eat Fluff are often like that.

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