How Reese's First Attempt At The Candy Business Flopped

It's hard to imagine Halloween without fun-sized peanut butter cups or Easter without egg-shaped Reese's, but there was a time when the popular candy manufacturer almost didn't even make it. The namesake Harry Burnett Reese was a man who found himself down on his luck a few times before eventually finding success with his now-famous creation.

Reese had originally been working for the iconic Hershey company, in charge of the dairy farm in Pennsylvania, until 1919 when he was laid off. His mother had also been a candymaker so naturally he pursued that option as a way to take care of his 10 children, according to Atlas Obscura. His first venture, R&R Candy Company, went under shortly after it got off the ground. After again finding work with the Hershey company, this time in the shipping department, the budding entrepreneur left yet again in 1923 to establish H.B. Reese Candy Company from his own home (under the agreement he'd buy all his chocolate from Hershey) — although the signature peanut butter cups didn't come around until 1928. 

Instead, the company sold Lizzie Bars and Johnny Bars, named after two of Reese's children, says Mental Floss. Among Reese's original flavor combinations were chocolate with honeydew melon, chocolate with marshmallow chocolate, chocolate with almonds and raisins, chocolate with caramel and coconut, and chocolate with molasses — but none were as big of a commercial success as the peanut butter cups would eventually become.

As Reese slowly racked up sales, he eventually moved his candy workshop out of his family's basement and into a real factory, and soon began solidifying the proprietary recipe and manufacturing process for the chocolate-covered peanut butter cups we know and love today. A year into Reese's expected breakthrough, however, the Great Depression hit, leaving the candy scion nearly bankrupt. It was a four-year wait until the candy company was financially stable enough to mass market the peanut butter cups again in 1933, per Atlas Obscura.

World War II actually boosted Reese's peanut butter cups

Though Reese's original peanut butter and chocolate candies ended up being an immediate success upon their 1933 commercial launch, when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, it was a make or break moment for the company. Mental Floss reported that because sugar was rationed, candy makers greatly suffered during this time. 

It was precisely because of this factor that the company shifted exclusively to making peanut butter cups. It was impossible for Reese to get his hands on enough sugar to produce any other candy, so Instead of limiting the production of each variety of chocolates he sold, he decided to manufacture the candy that required the least chocolate — peanut butter cups. While it was the only conceivable way he could keep his company up and running at the time, it ended up becoming his best business decision, and Reese's cups in short time became as popular as Hershey's Kisses

When sugar rationing was lifted, Reese's remained a household name, and was eventually — and quite ironically — acquired by the Hershey's chocolate conglomerate in 1963, according to Mental Floss. Years later, Reese's Pieces would follow and keep the reputation going as one of America's favorite.