Dozens of whirring mechanical arms spin in unison, plucking apples up, dipping them in caramel and rolling them in nuts. It’s a precise flurry of movement that ends with a popular seasonal treat— the caramel apple.
And in the Tastee Apple plant in Newcomerstown, the layout of the production floor is more circular than you might expect an efficient, large scale operation to be. The apples twirl methodically through each station, where workers fill the machines and check for mistakes. It’s a straightforward operation that’s been running for over 40 years.
Greg Hackenbracht started Tastee Apple with his father, John Hackenbracht, to help pay his way through college. In the years since, he’s built it into one of the largest candy apple businesses in America.
"I was 18 and didn’t know what I was getting into," Hackenbracht said. "My dad borrowed money and I sold a ‘56 Chevy I’d spent two years restoring, and it went from there."
Hackenbracht now owns and oversees an 80,000 square-foot facility that produces about 180,000 flavored apples a day. The company employs about 150 workers, most of whom are currently seasonal. Their products come in seven flavors, one of which Ohioans may not be familiar with— the jelly apple.
"I took my caramel apples to New York City, and all the vendors said ‘we don’t buy caramel apples, we buy jelly apples’," Hackenbracht said.
What a jelly apple was, however, was not entirely clear. Each vendor explained it differently, but coconut was the only common ingredient. He went back to the drawing board, and returned to the Big Apple with a red caramel coconut concoction that he said has become the standard for jelly apples. He’s been selling the product since, but has only ever gotten orders of it from New York.
Looking back, Hackenbracht said he didn’t know how he was able to keep up with the business in the early years— they began with a rented room in a canned milk factory in 1974. His father, now deceased, had sold apples for growers from across the state and was very familiar with the product. In its infancy, the father and son handled almost all aspects of the business themselves. In their first year, they made about 700,000 flavored apples.
‘In the first three years, I was sick every November," Hackenbracht said. "I was working 20 hours a day, seven days a week. It took a toll."
Over 40 years, they’ve kept some things the same and changed others. The company has been using the same caramel formula since it started with the addition of a single ingredient. They keep what works and improve what they can. Recently, they’ve been trying to perfect a chocolate mint fudge in time for Christmas, which is part of a larger attempt to give the seasonal business more year-round options. Greg’s son, Chad Hackenbracht, has been handling the development.
"[Greg] came up with the idea and I followed through on it," Chad Hackenbracht said. "I started with a recipe online and tweaked it to taste and flow better."
He’s been tinkering with the mixture for about a year, shortly after he came to work for his father. Before that, he’d been a professional race car driver. In 2013, Chad Hackenbracht won the owner championship of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch. Hackenbracht participated in several of the races that year. Despite a promising racing career, he said sponsorship issues were making it difficult to stay active. Right around that time, his father was trying to decide the future of the company.
"I was at the age where I was trying to decide what to do next, and I didn’t know," Greg Hackenbracht said. "I didn’t know if any of my kids were going to come back."
His oldest child lives in Charlotte, and his daughter has a full schedule as a nurse. Chad, his youngest, stepped up. He’s currently running the production floor, and will eventually take over when his father retires. Greg Hackenbracht said he’s not sure what retirement would even look like for him.
"All I’ve ever done is work," the older Hackenbracht shrugged. "I don’t have any hobbies."
He’s made the business his sole interest, and he said the business is interested in the customer. The company has survived as long as it has on two simple principles— quality and service. With those two things in mind, the Hackenbracht’s are moving forward all the time.