Health & Lifestyle

Mr. Jelly Belly

  • Sundancer
  • |
  • March 31, 1997

by Karen Feld

To look at jelly bean addict David Klein, he seems harmless enough—a friendly looking thirty-year-old California entrepreneur whose business is selling jelly bellys, made from his own recipe for a new and better jelly bean.

Among Klein’s fellow addicts is none other than former California governor Ronald Reagan, who has probably tried every flavor ML Jelly Belly has to offer. One flavor he might forego, however, is peanut butter. The peanut butter jelly bean was introduced on January 20, President Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration Day, in a ceremony inaugurating “Mr. Peanut Butter” as president of all jelly bellies.

Klein greeted me at the door of Fosselman’s ice cream parlor in Alhambra, California, with a warm smile and a bulging bag of assorted jelly beans.

“Hi, I’m Mr. Jelly Belly!” He wore a yellow “Jelly Belly” T-shirt with a giant red jelly bean covering his belly. As Klein claims, “The T-shirt fits most bellies.” He added: “Of course, this shirt has a registered trademark—because I’m an attorney.’

Klein, after graduating from UCLA and Southwestern Law School, went into the wholesale nut business, a venture in which he is still active. He supplies Wally Amos with pecans for Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, and credits Amos as his inspiration for opening his Jelly Belly store last July, the only jelly bean store in the world.

“I wanted to do something that was fun, that made people happy, and something that had never been done before. Jelly beans are the one product that nobody has ever bothered to update,” explained Klein. “You can go back to the Sears catalog of 1900, and they had jelly beans then—at a dime a pound. The price has gone up today because the price of sugar has increased.”

Klein sells his “jelly bellys” to kids two for a penny. He doesn’t believe in a minimum sale. One pound costs $2.00 and contains 417 beans. The average sale is 834 beans at $4.00. Klein’s retail profit is three-tenths of a cent per bean.

The kids call Klein Mr. Jelly Belly. The inspiration for the name came from a Sanford and Son show aired two years ago, an episode in which the oldtime blues singer Leadbelly was mentioned. The name had a sound Klein liked—”so I use  Jelly Belly.”

Mr. Jelly Belly anticipates turning out a ton of jelly beans a day. He currently has eighteen flavors but hopes to have forty within the year. He boasts about a coconut jelly bean with real coconut and vitamin C added, and a honey bean made with real honey. All flavorings are natural and all ingredients and coloring are approved by the FDA. No preservatives are added. His watermelon jelly bean is the only two-tone jelly bean in the world. (Its green coating gives way to pink on the inside.)

Klein has observed that root beer is a favorite with men; tangerine and chocolate pudding with women; licorice is the preference of the elderly: and bright-colored beans such as the pink cotton candy flavor with the youngsters.

His customers range in age from his eighteen-month-old son, Burt, whose favorite flavor is cream soda, to an eighty four-year-old woman who is a regular. One of the first words in Burt’s vocabulary was “beans.” Beverly Hills ladies drive to Alhambra in their Rolls Royces and Mercedes Benzes and purchase anywhere from twenty to forty dollars worth of jelly bellies at a time. His biggest business. however, is mail-order at fifty cents more per pound to cover mailing fees, with a minimum five-pound order. Beans have been shipped to Denmark and Paris, to the psychology department at Stanford University, and to Anchorage, Alaska. He guarantees that they won’t melt and will last up to six months before showing the sticky signs of age.

The beans are Klein’s own formula and are made by a major candy company. He is breaking ground on his own plant shortly. He is also planning to open Jelly Belly shops in other Southern California locations: Palm Springs, Westwood, and the San Fernando Valley. Broadway stores are currently selling the beans, and Klein is wholesaling them to an ice cream parlor chain in Texas, which has put jelly bean carts in its stores in twenty-six shopping centers. They are now on sale also at Knott’s Berry Farm.

Klein’s earliest jelly bean recollections go back to when he was about five years old. He was at Will Rogers State Beach with his twin sister, who is now a schoolteacher. David took the jelly beans away from his sister and made her cry. He showed me a photo of his sister crying over the jelly beans. She has since been compensated with a lifetime supply of jelly bellies.

On Valentine’s day, Klein held a wed ding for Mr. Coconut and Miss Cherry. Charley Tuna, the DJ on KIIS radio in Los Angeles, performed the ceremony, with Mr. Root Beer standing up as best man and Miss Cotton Candy as maid of honor. Both are popular flavors. Twenty-five jelly belly belly dancers provided entertainment, each with a jelly bean adorning her navel. About nine months after the wedding, Cherry Coke will be born. Other new flavors in the offing include chocolate banana and coconut pineapple.

Klein presented a five-pound chocolate coated cherry bean to Dinah Shore on her show last fall. He made a $19.95 all-week bean, but it has been discontinued because it takes too long to make.

For Easter, Klein plans a jelly belly hunt. Certificates redeemable for up to one hundred pounds of jelly bellys will be hidden around the community. A funeral for Mr. Lime is planned for Halloween 1977. “It’s the least popular flavor and people confuse it with other green flavors, such as pippin apple.”

Klein claims his beans are healthy only four calories per bean. “They have less sugar than normal beans, and we’re working on a bean now made with xylitol, a new low-caloric sweetener derived from Finland’s birch tree. It sounds like it’s from Buck Rogers science fiction, but it reduces cavities.” Xylitol has already been approved by the FDA and is being used in chewing gum. Klein says, “It doesn’t promote cavities, and it does promote good taste.”

Klein describes himself as “very flexible.” “One bean started out as strawberry. A nine-year-old kid came in and said, ‘This doesn’t taste like strawberry. It tastes like cotton candy.’ So we changed the name.” In the same way, the cream soda bean was originally called vanilla. “Vanilla sounds great for an ice cream, but for a jelly bean, cream soda sounds more exotic,” says Klein. “The country melon was the wrong color for a watermelon. Watermelon people associate with pink. Now we have two-tone for watermelon.”

He has observed that “Europeans don’t like root beer because they don’t have a root beer drink and consider it a medicine but it is a favorite of Americans.”

Klein scooped jelly bellys for customers. Some bought them in fancy packages for gifts or decorations. Most wanted free samples. Fred Khazeni, operations manager at the United California Bank next door, stopped in and said green was his favorite color bean. I couldn’t help but wonder: do all bankers like green?

An attractive middle-aged lady selected pippin apple beans. She exclaimed, “I like these green ones because they look like jade.” Another customer commented after sampling the ice mint (light blue), “These taste like Crest toothpaste.’

Klein, who pops jelly bellys in his mouth all day long, claims that “they are addictive.” He is his own best advertisement. “I see more future in it everyday. I don’t want to handle licorice ropes, jaw breakers, it takes away from jelly bellys.” He insists that “jelly bellys” are very special jelly beans.

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