As a kid, Alan Silverstone was not allowed to chew gum. Now, at 36, he’s found compensation in all senses of the word. Alan owns the Oakland-based U.S. Chewing Gum and Candy Co., which in three years he’s turned into the second largest gumball maker in the world (Leaf Confectionery Inc. of Chicago is No. 1).
Silverstone was once more involved in debentures than jawbreakers. The son of a New York radiologist, he graduated from Columbia University with degrees in law and business. He became a Wall Street investment banker, then moved on to an L.A. firm. But a $50 thou income and a Benedict Canyon home were not enough to keep Silverstone happy. “I dealt with millions every day,” he recalls of the high-pressure life. “It was like Monopoly for real, but I wasn’t having any fun.” Neither was his wife, Ardelle. In 1971 the Silverstones divorced and Ardelle was given custody of the children—daughter Jayme, now 10, and Mark, 7.
Deciding he needed a diverting sideline, Silverstone opened the Penny Arcade Store in Beverly Hills, specializing in old coins, antique toys—and gumball machines. He soon discovered that his hobby was more rewarding than his job—and about as profitable. “So I stopped working for a living,” he smiles, “and started playing for a living.”
When his major gumball supplier, U.S. Chewing Gum, was about to go out of business in 1975, Silverstone bought its California factory. The company now manufactures some 200 products from Powies and Wowies (candy-coated peanuts) to Fu Man Chews and Puckeroos (hard, tart candy), and its sales have gone from $700,000 to an estimated $6 million last year.
“I’ve turned the gumball industry on to things they had never even considered,” boasts Silverstone, who unflinchingly bills himself “Uncle Al, the Kiddies’ Pal.” On one occasion a mistake in coating produced a mottled batch of jawbreakers. Alan marketed them as giant “Pterodactyl Eggs,” complete with straw nest and instructions for hatching—sit on it for 800 days. Price per egg: $2.
Silverstone’s second career hasn’t been all lollipops and lagniappes. Quaker Oats, which owns the trademark for Willy Wonka chocolates, felt Uncle Al was trampling on its territory by passing himself off as the Willy Wonka of the gumball biz. The conglomerate sued, and Silverstone, settling out of court, hung up his Wonka-like blue velvet coat. Today he sports a star-spangled blazer when he takes kids on tours of his factory.
Now that he has turned his professional life around, Silverstone has reaped an unexpected reward: Last month his wife and kids moved back with Dad. Can the kids chew gum? Sure, but only the sugarless kind.