Food by VICE

Bean Counter: The Revival of America’s Jelly Bean King

“I’ve always had jelly beans in my blood," says David Klein, the inventor of Jelly Belly. "I’ve always wanted to get back in the bean business."

by Alex Swerdloff
Mar 28 2016, 8:00pm

"They're the kind of people you don't even need a contract with. Have you ever come across people like that?"

David Klein, the man who invented Jelly Belly jelly beans and now regrets selling the trademark back in 1980, is talking about his new partners—the ones with whom he hopes to reinvent himself and his business.

If ever a person's business life could be explained by a single quote, this would be Klein's. Klein feels like he got a raw deal when he sold the Jelly Belly trademark held by the company he founded in 1976 to the Herman Goelitz Candy Co., and now he's ready to make his comeback.

All photos by Ben Karris.

David Klein. All photos by Ben Karris.

His next move? Gourmet, coffee-flavored jelly beans, which he's crowdfunding on Kickstarter. And despite the fact that he sold Jelly Belly with almost no legal advice—or so he claims—he's getting into business with his new partners with little more than a smile and a handshake.

Having lived and worked in Corvina, California for decades, Klein is now almost 70 years old, yet he is nothing if not energetic and full of ideas. The serial entrepreneur—he's also the mastermind behind Sandy Candy and Raven's Revenge—has hooked up with Stephanie and Jeff Thirtyacre, two aspiring businesspeople from Illinois who joined an entrepreneurs club that Klein runs on Facebook. According to Klein, they want to fill what they see as a glaring gap at the coffee shop near you. Every coffee purveyor, from Starbucks on down, should be selling their new line of coffee-flavored jelly beans, Klein says.

David Klein bathtub beans

During the four years he controlled the company (1976 to 1980), Klein was Mr. Jelly Belly. With their dizzying range of flavors, the beans were a newfangled taste treat back then, embraced by ritzy stores like Bloomingdale's and touted in the White House (then occupied by Jelly Belly fan Ronald Reagan). Klein appeared on TV shows and was photographed by People in a bathtub filled with jelly beans.

In 1980, Klein sold the rights to Jelly Belly—and has spent the last three decades deeply regretting that decision. Pressured by a retiring partner and a manufacturer who threatened to cut him off, he says, he agreed to sell his beloved creation, trademarks and all, to the Herman Goelitz Candy Co., which has since changed its name to the Jelly Belly Candy Company.

coffee_chaitlatte_jellybeans1

David Klein factory David's factory

"I've always had jelly beans in my blood. I've always wanted to get back in the bean business," Klein told me. "I had a 20-year non-compete [agreement with Jelly Belly], where I was shut out of it for 20 years, and every second, I was looking for that right opportunity. And when [the Thirtyacres] approached me with the coffee jelly beans idea, I knew it was perfect. Coffee is everywhere. We're gonna reach out to all the coffee shops. I don't think we'll have a hard time finding a market."

Klein and the Thirtyacres' crowdfunding campaign has raised $13,650 for the new venture, which is called "Original Coffee House Jelly Beans." They won't be energy treats—a pound of beans contains the caffeine equivalent of about two cups of coffee. Four flavors have been perfected so far: Coffee and Donuts, Double Buzz, Macchiato, and Chai.

Although he's looking toward the future, Klein can't help fixating on the past. A 2010 documentary called Candyman: The David Klein Story, produced by Klein's son, outlined the sale of his company. A Jelly Belly representative would not go into the details of the sale, but confirmed to MUNCHIES that the company paid Garvey Nut House, a business in which Klein was a partner, an amount of $20,000 per month for 20 years. That's almost $5 million—nothing to sneeze at, but Klein says he had to share that with a partner. (And Uncle Sam took a cut too, of course.) While Klein says that he didn't have an attorney before he sold Jelly Belly, he claims to have graduated from law school before getting into the candy business.

David Klein Candy tray

This is not Klein's first attempt to make it back into the world of jelly beans. A few years ago, he came out with a line of beans that were in direct competition with Jelly Belly. According to Klein, his non-compete agreement—the existence and terms of which Jelly Belly would not comment on—would have expired in 2000. Although that business went south quickly, he is convinced that the coffee-flavored jelly bean business will be a success.

Klein wants to fill coffee shops with jelly beans from coast to coast, making them in the 10,000-square-foot candy factory he has owned for 20 years. "Coffee is so universally loved," he says. "Sure, jelly bean companies have a cappuccino, a java. But nobody has a whole line that can specifically go into a coffee shop or a gourmet shop."

David Klein signing plate

Ideas come easily to Klein, and he keeps track of them by writing them down on paper plates. He explained that the inspiration for Sandy Candy, that niche favorite, came to him after his daughter visited Knott's Berry Farm and made a sand art sculpture there. The cult-popular Raven's Revenge, a derivative of Sandy Candy, came in plastic squeeze bottles that looked like test tubes.

Raven's Revenge

And then there was the candy called Snot. That idea was born after Klein watched an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman that featured a guy doing science experiments made something that looked like mucus. We can do a candy version of that, Klein told himself. "So we put it in a nose and it came out of the nostrils. We sold millions of them. A lot of the ideas come from everyday life, from suggestions of people, looking around, keeping your eyes open."

Richard Schaffer worked with Herman Goelitz Candy Co. around the time Klein sold Jelly Belly. He says he does not believe Klein was given a raw deal, but that the candy man certainly is one-of-a-kind. "David's a different type of individual. He has an entrepreneurial spirit to him, he likes people, and he likes getting out and promoting and doing things like that," Schaffer says. "People call him a little bit on the strange side because people don't quite understand him, but that's just the way he is."

David Klein outside factory

Outside David's factory

Regardless of the past, Klein says that he's ready to move forward. This time, he is certain his business is going to work, and he's going to remain in control.

Maybe Klein's belief in his new partners—and his youthful, endearing trust in his fellow man—will pay off. Or maybe not. In the end, though, it's all in the pursuit of jelly beans.