Shawn Peterson knows that people often feel overwhelmed when they walk into the PEZ Visitor Center in Orange, but that’s OK.
“There’s so much, visually,” says Peterson, the PEZ direct to consumer business manager. “It’s what you think a candy store would look like.”
But the most interesting thing about the 5,000 items on display, ranging from rare dispensers to original ads from the 1930s and PEZ jackets, is this: almost all of it is Peterson’s.
“They built this place from my collection,” he says with a proud smile.
“My collection came with me.”
As Peterson writes in his fourth book on the subject, PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon, the visitor center is “part museum, part retail store, part activity center and part party venue. It is a whole world of all things PEZ.” (Admission is $5 for adults, $4 ages 3-12. See pez.com).
Peterson adds in his book: “Guests can see the world’s largest PEZ dispenser, play PEZ trivia, learn how a dispenser is made, shop the factory store, taste any of our 12 different candy flavors, view the production area and enjoy the largest, most comprehensive collection of PEZ memorabilia on public display in the world.”
It all began on a fateful day 27 years ago when Peterson, then 20, stopped at a flea market near Kansas City, where he was living. He spotted several PEZ dispensers and decided to buy them. “It was just something to do.”
Asked what’s the appeal of these whimsical little dispensers, he replies: “Everything! The colors, the characters, the nostalgia, how they work. It’s got so much history to it.”
The PEZ history is outlined on the wall near the visitor center entrance: In 1927, Eduard Haas III of Vienna, Austria, created a peppermint tablet for use as an adult breath mint, an alternative to cigarettes.
He was an avid non-smoker.
Searching for a catchy name, Haas started to play with the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz. Shortening that mouthful, Haas focused on the first, middle and last letter. Presto! PEZ was it.
After decades of sluggish sales, the PEZ marketing department unveiled the first full-body dispensers: Santa and a robot. And the product was re-oriented toward children; fruit flavors such as orange, lime, grape and wild cherry were added to the product line.
Consumers, including many kids and parents, began to take notice and to buy the dispensers with accompanying candy rolls, usually offered for 25 cents. (Today they go for $1.99). In 1952 PEZ started operations in America, choosing New York City.
By 1972, the company’s directors wanted to open a manufacturing plant in the U.S. Peterson, touted on the back cover of his fourth book as “the world’s first and only official PEZ historian,” credits Roger W. Boyd, who then was chairman of the Economic Development Commission in Orange, with bringing PEZ manufacturing to Connecticut. He used his international business connections to persuade PEZ executives that Orange was the ideal location. They broke ground in November 1973 and opened in 1975.
Fast forward 30 years to the spring of 2005. Peterson, then working for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, came to Stamford for a PEZ collector convention, where he met PEZ CEO Joseph Vittoria and pitched his idea of a visitor center. When Vittoria said the company didn’t have an archive of material for such a facility, Peterson said, “No problem. I’ve got this.”
Four years later, Vittoria called Peterson and said the deal was on. In January 2010, Peterson came to PEZ with his collection and became a full-time employee.
In 2016 the center celebrated its fifth anniversary. A poster commemorating this states: “350,000 guests have visited from all 50 states and over 50 different countries.”
Peterson notes, “We’ve had people come from Japan specifically to see this center. I had a lady and her daughter here from the Netherlands a week or two ago. They were here for about 3½ hours.”
Peterson says if a dispenser is rare enough, it can be worth several thousand dollars. “That would probably be something I haven’t seen. That’s what makes this hobby fun: there are unknowns out there that could pop up.”
“Fun” is what it’s all about for Peterson. He advises: “Buy and collect what you think is fun, what makes you happy. It’s not as much fun if it’s just an investment.”
While strolling around the center, Peterson says: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day! To get to do what you love and share that with other people, that means a lot. And to have the company believe in what you do! It made my dream come true.”
We pause to look through a window to a portion of the factory where packaging is done. Peterson tells me, “We make 12 million tablets a day; that’s a million rolls of candy. We use 100,000 pounds of sugar per week.”
Here’s another staggering nugget from Peterson’s book: PEZ candies are sold in more than 80 countries and more than 65 million dispensers are bought annually.
When asked how his dispenser collection is progressing, Peterson frets he’s not getting out to as many flea markets and tag sales as he should be. “You’ve got to go to a thousand of them to make a good find.”
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.