By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
Original Publication Date: January 27, 2010
Of all the possible reasons to enter the candy business, vengeance doesn’t immediately come to mind.
But for a toy manufacturer best known for its “good guy” action figures of U.S. presidents and its “bad guy” figures of America’s enemies, perhaps it’s not so strange that the war metaphor would apply to its latest product launch, too.
Emil Vicale, CEO of Connecticut-based Herobuilders.com, ambitiously aims to behead PEZ Candy, the iconic company that’s been making plastic cartoon and animal characters for its sugary pellets since the 1950s.
Herobuilders’ new “Head Candy” dispensers will be available this summer as both mass-produced licensed characters and as personalized novelty toys that put a customer’s face on the body of a superhero or a business executive. Vicale is now taking orders for the customized candy dispensers, which cost $299.99 for the first one and $29.95 for duplicates. The price point for the cartoon dispensers, which will go head-to-head with $1.50 packages of PEZ, has not been announced.
Vicale has been making hand-sculpted customized toys for more than a decade. His upcoming Don Quixote-esque retail battle stems from a conflict last year over his practice of selling Herobuilder heads on PEZ bodies. PEZ threatened legal action against Vicale if he did not stop producing so-called “fantasy” dispensers. The company is also suing the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia in California for putting its name on smiley face PEZ and other alleged trademark infractions. The case is expected to go to trial in November.
Both Herobuilders and the Burlingame Museum insist they have the legal right to modify any product and resell it, just like a garage that customizes souped-up motorcycles or cars. But Vicale has since stopped using rectangular PEZ bodies and has designed his own cylinder-shaped dispenser instead. His candies, featuring bright-colored “over the top” flavors such as “Extreme Cherry,” and “Crazy Strawberry,” will be round — and the spring-loaded mechanisms will also hold Sweet Tarts and Spree brand candies.
Vicale dismissively calls Pez candies “chalk,” and predicts a loyal following because his dispensers will be “made in America, by Americans for Americans” at his Connecticut facility. Although PEZ candy itself is made in Orange, Conn., most dispensers are imported from China and Eastern Europe.
The most obvious difference between the two products is what’s underneath their candy-spouting necks. PEZ characters famously sport stick figures with no arms or legs. Vicale gives “Head Candy” dispensers full bodies, hoping children will play with them like they do with action figures. “We’re going to take over this market just like Bratz took down Barbie and took over the entire doll world,” he says.
Repeated efforts to interview PEZ CEO Joe Vittoria about his upcoming competition were unsuccessful. But chances are, he is not losing any sleep over it. According to the official PEZ Web site, Americans currently consume three billion pellets each year. And their market dominance even extends into the Vicale household.
“Whenever my daughter sees a frickin’ Pez, I have to buy one,” Vicale admits. “I have them all over my house.”