Bitterman’s: A family business with 160 years of history in Hyde Park

Excerpted from the April 2013 Hyde Parker

To survive after a quarter century in gumball machine vending, Alan Bitterman realized in 1980 that he needed a new business model, one focused outside Kansas City. Yet even as Bitterman Family Confections began to change, the company never left North Hyde Park.

Today, with three buildings, 40,000 sq ft. of space on Gillham Road, 35 employees and a nationwide wholesale distribution network, Alan, at age 75, is still moving the company in new directions — from social media sales, to private label candy packaging to a 7,000 sq ft. combination candy and antique store that opened in October.

“Sales have been very good. We’ve been very pleased,” Alan says of the foot traffic patronizing Bitterman’s Eye Candy. “The area has gotten a lot better, and the opportunity was there. We see lot of young couples moving into the neighborhood. Almost every week, someone comes in who is new to the area, a lot of folks from Armour.”

Half the retail store’s sales are from antiques and retro knick-knacks  offered by local artisans, the rest, a line of 300 varieties of candy, chocolates and treats neatly stocked on vintage display cases. It’s a local version of World Market, set in a plain-looking former Borden’s Ice Cream Co. research plant. Bitterman’s wholesale candy business, the mainstay of the company, is located in a former H.E Miller Dodge and Plymouth showroom two doors down.

Alan has seen a lot of change since 1936, when his father, Bernard, managed gumball machines in Midtown and founded the company. They sold peanuts for a penny a twist at Kansas City drug and grocery stores. At age 16, Alan says he started out with 100 gumball machines, a 1949 Ford and a $500 loan.

“The ability to be flexible and response to change” drives success, he says.

The 3107 Gillham store is the Bittermans’ third retail location since the 1970s, when the company had candy-only stores on 17th & Oak and 31st & Oak. The new store is far larger and builds on a merchandising concept Alan says was pioneered in Midtown by Urban Mining.

Relative to mass market chocolate distributors such as Russell Stover, Godiva and Fannie Mae, Bitterman has succeeded by being a niche business, with a focus on marketing small batches from U.S. manufacturers the way a microbrewer is to beer.

Gummies seem especially popular these days, Alan says, and Bitterman’s catalog features 27 varieties including butterflies, flowers, and red, 12-flavor gummy bears. One new source of wholesale business the company is hoping to tap are schools and non-profits doing fund-raising, he notes.

Store hours of Bitterman Eye Candy & Vintage Market are from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.


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