South Florida business leader Jarett Levan has found a sweet spot in the candy business.
Inside an Orlando confection factory that would make Willy Wonka proud, a conveyer belt is rolling with rows of Hoffman’s Chocolates chocolate-covered pretzels. Without missing a beat — or a pretzel — a female employee meticulously oversees the march of sweets, hand-drizzling each treat with far more ease than Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz mustered in the iconic bit that made TV history.
Nearby, beyond palettes of peanut butter, chocolate and coconut, boxes of ready-to-ship products fill floor-to-ceiling shelves in an 80,000-sq.-ft. candy mecca — think Home Depot or Lowe’s steeped in machinery and shelves of sugar. In another corner of the sprawling operation, metal tables are covered with another Hoffman’s delicacy, Coconut Cashew Crunch, with workers sprinkling a tasty powder on freshly baked brittle prior to packaging.
In an adjacent section: Seemingly endless strands of multicolored taffy — cooked and stirred in massive copper kettles, then cooled to a chewy texture — are being guided onto another conveyer belt.
The taffy is threaded between brass wheels that create thin ropes of the eye-catching concoction and then fed by hand into a futuristic contraption. In moments, the machine jettisons fully-wrapped, individual portions of Anastasia Confection’s Salt Water Taffy into a bin — 400 to 500 pieces in a minute, 20 hours a day — like a scene from a Technicolor childhood dream.
No wonder the man in the midst of it all at this given moment, Jarett Levan, can’t help but smile.
Levan, 49, is the quintessential kid in a candy store — the president and CEO of BBX Sweet Holdings, which has amassed a small empire of candy entities: national candy store chain IT’SUGAR; candy brands Hoffman’s Chocolates and Anastasia Confections (recognizable for its yellow-packaged Coconut Patties), Money on Honey, Williams & Bennett; and the Hof’s House of Sweets shop in Fort Lauderdale. Las Olas Confections and Snacks serves as its Orlando manufacturing, marketing and distribution center.
BBX Sweet Holdings is a division of BBX Capital (NYSE: BBX), a Fort Lauderdale-based diversified holding company for which Levan also serves as president and CEO. But here, you might as well call him Mr. Wonka.
“Candy is my passion,” he says during a recent tour of the plant. “I love it, and I’ve loved it since I was little. This is such a satisfying business. It’s very hard to find someone walking into our stores or buying one of our products who isn’t happy.”
Part of Levan’s exuberance over his candy business is understandable, considering it represents about a $150-million slice of the $38-billion confection industry in the United States. His $57-million acquisition in 2017 of IT’SUGAR — one of the largest specialty candy retailers in the country with approximately 100 locations in 26 states — has given him a large brick-and-mortar footprint nationally.
Levan may have graduated cum laude from the University of Miami School of Law and followed in his father’s foosteps when he became CEO of BankAtlantic, but he’s emerged as Florida’s undisputed candy king.
Levan’s entrepreneurial ways began in elementary school. His dad, Florida business legend Alan Levan, would drive him around their South Florida neighborhood, where young Jarett had a bagel, cream cheese and orange juice delivery route. By sixth grade, he had parlayed his bagel earnings into a new pursuit: Selling candy to classmates.
“This was before Costco and Sam’s, and I would go to the local five-and-dime store and buy a 12-pack of sweets,” he recalls. “Then, I’d unbag it, take it to school and sell it at 25 cents apiece — Blow Pops, Lemon Heads, Red Hots, you name it.”
His business model worked smoothly until Levan was called into the principal’s office one day at the private school he attended and had his candy confiscated. Switching to a public middle school, with a whole new candy-buying audience, Levan soon was selling store-bought chocolates and assorted goodies from a table he set up in a nearby park.
By high school, the banking business beckoned. Levan started working as a teller for BankAtlantic and began following a path into finance, earning a bachelor’s of business administration from Emory University and the law degree. But somewhere inside, a sweet tooth was waiting to be reawakened.
Levan never actually planned to follow a path paved in chocolate. He immersed himself in online banking at the advent of the internet in the late 1990s, handling legal agreements and eventually running the bank’s online department.
In 2007, at just 33, Levan took the BankAtlantic reins from his father, becoming CEO and president of an institution that billed itself as “Florida’s most convenient bank.” The bank and the Levans saw rocky times with the Great Recession in 2008 and a protracted legal battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ended with exoneration for BankAtlantic and Alan Levan. In 2012, BankAtlantic was sold to BB&T, and the bank’s former holding company, now named BBX Capital, went on to focus on acquisition, ownership and management of real estate projects and middle market businesses, targeting companies with revenues of $10 million to $250 million.
In 2013 came one of its sweetest acquisitions, bringing Palm Beach-based Hoffman’s Chocolates into the BBX portfolio. Jarett Levan loved the quality of the family-run brand founded in 1975. The cherry on top was it gave him a reason to attend a candy trade show in New York City in 2013 where Hoffman’s Chocolates was exhibiting.
“I was handing out my BBX Capital business card, and the candy people would look at it and say, ‘Oh, I need capital,’” he recollects. “All of a sudden, we started getting introduced to companies that were looking for an exit ramp, and we ended up buying a company in California and Utah and three in Florida.”
To house those brands, Levan launched BBX Sweet Holdings under the BBX Capital umbrella, purchased and revamped the Orlando production facility and began producing the brands under one roof — soon shipping products across the nation.
But in 2015, an opportunity took BBX Sweet Holdings to a new level. Levan sat down with IT’SUGAR founder and South Florida resident Jeff Rubin to discuss acquiring the brand and its multitude of retail outlets, mostly in malls across the country. They had met nine years earlier when their companies served as sponsors of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. Rubin — who had been a co-founder of national chain Dylan’s Candy Bar and is a 2018 inductee to the national Candy Hall of Fame — was looking to bolster his business and help with capital, but a deal with Levan never materialized.
When a mutual friend reintroduced them, they met at a Boca Raton breakfast spot. Rubin wanted to visit Levan’s candy factory to see if it could produce IT’SUGAR items. Casual conversations led to meetings over the next six months, and Levan wound up purchasing Rubin’s company. “Our first meeting at breakfast cost me $11.56,” Levan says, smiling. “Our second one cost me $57 million.”
Behind the scenes
Inside the Orlando production facility, the aroma of chocolate and coconut lingers.
Greg Power, CEO of Las Olas Confections and Snacks and a 33-year veteran of the candy business, oversees all facets of the operation, which manufactures the products of Anastasia Confections, Hoffman’s Chocolates, Money on Honey and Williams & Bennett.
On this day, the plant is producing mountains of fudge for a business partner in addition to all of its own brands. The raw ingredients are stored on rows of shelves packed with everyday items like peanut butter, coconut and pretzels.
You want butter? Forget the store-bought sticks for the dinner table — 55-pound blocks of butter are needed here to create the candy magic. And if you like Oreos, consider that 95,000 of the cookies dipped in Hoffman’s chocolate are made in just one hour, with 6 million manufactured in a year.
“Right now, we have some 200,000 pounds of chocolate in here and 100,000 pounds of coconut,” Power says. “And we have 40,000 pounds of corn syrup and another 40,000 pounds of sugar, constantly getting trucked in.”
Around the corner, he points to tall shelves holding colorful postcards that the plant also prints. Each one is customized with a greeting from a given Florida tourist town — soon to be attached to the front of a taffy gift box and sent to Cracker Barrel restaurants around the state, Hudson News stores at airports and other outlets.
In an adjoining area, workers are creating the signature Anastasia item, Coconut Cashew Crunch, for BJ’s Wholesale Club and other retailers. The process includes cooking the liquid delicacy in kettles and pouring it over beds of coconut rolling by on a conveyer belt. Another worker holds a fan to blow coconut powder atop the brittle as it dries. The candy is broken into small bites and packaged for shipping. “We’ll make about 5,000 pounds of this in an eight-hour shift,” Power says. “It’s a complicated operation, but it’s very rewarding to see it all come together — and it definitely beats working on an auto assembly line.”
Levan isn’t only a candy man. He sits on the boards of BBX Capital and Bluegreen Vacations Holding. A passionate arts supporter, he also is a board member of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and chairs an organization he started in 2010, Business for the Arts of Broward.
Married with a son and a daughter, he’s also a board member of the Broward College Foundation. “Arts and education have always been important to our companies and to me,” he says. “Education especially, because it’s a pipeline to our future workforce.”
But sweets will always hold a special spot in his heart.
“Candy can co-exist with a healthy lifestyle — everything in moderation,” he says. “But we all need to celebrate, and what we produce gives people a smile, a brief escape from everyday life and maybe an emotional connection to childhood.”
Levan’s enterprise not only connects to his childhood but also those of his kids.
“When we bought Hoffman’s in 2013, they were 9 and 7,” he says. “And I suddenly went from a banker to Willy Wonka. It’s funny — people call me Willy Wonka all the time. And I don’t mind it at all.”
Taking Some Lumps
In 2020, roughly three years after BBX Capital acquired IT’SUGAR, the national candy retail chain was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The retailer temporarily closed its 100 locations in March of that year and reopened a few months later, but a travel slump — the company attributes 60% of its annual sales to tourism — continued to take a toll on business in the months that followed. In September 2020, IT’SUGAR filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company emerged from bankruptcy less than a year later with 96 locations open and was back up to around 100 locations this year. Challenges remain — including a recent slowdown in store sales and “general economic uncertainty and volatility,” according to BBX’s first quarter 2023 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company also noted increasing freight and inventory costs, as well as higher payroll costs associated with hiring and “maintaining” staff at its retail and administrative offices. In July, Jarett Levan stepped into the role of interim CEO of IT’SUGAR as founder Jeff Rubin transitioned to an advisory role as chairman of the company. Retail industry veteran Stephen Lovell, who most recently served as president and chief operating officer of costume jewelry accessories store Charming Charlie’s, was named COO of IT’SUGAR and the business is recruiting a chief financial officer.