Success and Strawberries
On Valentine’s Day, it’s all hands on deck at The Candy Factory. Friends and family converge on the sweets shop from as far away as Texas for the annual chocolate-covered strawberry production line. They are the workforce that aids Sam and Donna Atkinson in providing a holiday favorite and play a large part during the Valentine’s season. Without them, the Atkinsons admit they would find it difficult to fill orders for the holiday.
Since their children, John, Mike and Jill, were young they’ve helped, too, and by the time they went to college, Donna says, it wasn’t even a question. They came and brought friends. They understood the one simple rule: Everybody helps.
For nearly 30 years, Sam and Donna have been tending Columbia’s sweet tooth not only on Valentine’s Day, but year-round, and it’s hard to separate them from The Candy Factory as most of their lives have revolved around building the business and raising a family in it. These days, though, they are preparing for what comes next.
Both raised on central-Missouri farms and educated in accounting — Sam with a degree from the University of Missouri and Donna from Southwest Missouri State University, now Missouri State University — they have a lot in common. But when they bought The Candy Factory from Georgia Lundgren in 1986, they discovered they had different aptitudes for the business.
“In operating the business, we found that as a husband and wife team…we needed to each have our own areas of specialties,” Sam says. “So Donna managed the retail area and I managed the production side of it as well as accounting.”
They are quick to acknowledge that they could not have accomplished anything without the hands of others in the mix. “We give Georgia a lot of credit, seriously, for starting a business, all that that takes,” Donna says, to promote it, sample it and build a reputation for quality.
They also give credit to their employees.
“We learned pretty quickly that you don’t do this yourself,” Donna says. “I know that’s with any business, but still. You need other people who are good, who like people, who have good attitudes and will buy into our philosophy.”
“We’re really thankful we’ve been blessed with good people,” Sam adds, noting Marjorie Riddles, the candy maker they inherited when they bought the business, was with them for more than 20 years.
“They’re very humble, both of them are,” says their son, Mike Atkinson, who along with his wife Amy, have worked alongside his parents for the last decade. “They always wanted to focus on doing a good job and putting out a product that they were proud of, but I don’t think that they ever really think about how many people have been affected, whether it’s during the holidays or family traditions that other people start that revolve around The Candy Factory.”
But Sam and Donna don’t miss the effect their customers have on them.
“For our particular business, you really do have happy customers,” Donna says. “You are working with a happy public. That’s huge. That is so gratifying, so helpful when you’re working so hard. No doubt about it.”
Even with the positive atmosphere of their workplace, Donna acknowledges it was at times rigorous and “terribly hard.” She is thankful their children have fond memories of growing up there. It tells her that Sam and she must have done something right.
It will soon be the next generation’s turn as Mike and Amy’s three children are about the same ages as Sam and Donna’s were when they started.
“We have [the kids] help out a couple hours a month so they also feel like they contribute,” Mike says. “People ask them, and they say, ‘We work at The Candy Factory,’ and there’s a sense of pride in their voices.
“That’s one of the traits my dad passed on to me that he got passed on to him growing up on a dairy farm,” he says. “When he was old enough to start working, he did. That’s just the way things were. That’s kind of how it happened in my family. When we were old enough to help out at the store, that’s what we did, and that kind of helped us get a very strong work ethic.”
A Purposeful Transition
For the last 10 years, the Atkinsons have been transitioning ownership to their son, Mike and his wife, Amy, allowing them to buy the business in increments. This transition will be complete mid-2016, July 1, to be exact. They chose that date purposefully as it will be 30 years to the day that Sam and Donna bought the business.
“We’re very fortunate to have a child and his spouse who wanted to take it over,” Donna says.
“We’ve had three children, plus, you could say a fourth with The Candy Factory being the fourth child, and we sent all of our kids off to college and now it’s time to send our business off to …,” Sam says, searching for the right word. “We entrusted our kids to college. Now we’re entrusting our business to our kids.”
Before Mike and Amy came on board, they were seldom able to be away from the store for very long, Donna says. Their presence has given Sam and her the freedom to enjoy travel without worrying about the business back home, which come July they plan on doing even more of. But beyond that and spending time with their nine grandchildren, they don’t have a long list of hobbies or interests they have active plans to pursue.
Donna likes photography and Sam is learning to play the guitar. Exercise is important, and they spend time at a second home in Naples, Fla., traveling back and forth often.
“We’re ‘snowflakes,’ “ Sam says, as opposed to snowbirds. The difference? Snowbirds go down and stay. The Atkinsons come back.
“We’ll be consultants for a while,” he says with a grin, in between the trips they’re anxious to take.
For the last three decades, the Atkinsons’ life has revolved around candy, and though it’s almost time for a new focus, come next Valentine’s Day, some things won’t change. Along with friends and family, Sam and Donna will be there to help with the strawberries. It’s the rule.