WCU’s WILLY WONKA

A creative candy man is savoring sweet success with his confectionary concoctions

By LEILA TVEDT

Derek Lawson ’91 is having a blast. He talks exuberantly about the fun of being creator and maker of large gummy bears – not just slightly oversized gelatin-based candies, but the world’s largest, weighing in at 5 pounds apiece. What began as a class project became a joke and now has turned into serious business for Lawson and his older brother, Brett.

Photo courtesy of GGB of Raleigh

As a WCU student, Lawson wrote an essay, “Twenty-Plus Ways for College Students to Make Money.” “I cringe to remember what some of those ideas were,” he said, but they were interesting enough to attract the attention of his professor, Mary Anne Nixon, who urged him to get involved in a new program in entrepreneurial studies. “I was one of the first to dive into that,” said Lawson, majoring in communication at the time. “It shaped my later success.” Nixon said she is touched to learn of her former student’s success. “To know that something you said has had such a positive impact is extremely gratifying,” she said.

Shortly after Lawson’s graduation, the brothers started working with a family that managed candy stores. “We got the entrepreneurial bug and took over their store in Wilmington, N.C.,” Lawson said. It didn’t take long for the Lawsons to realize they could not compete in sales of existing candy with giant chain stores, so they began to create their own sweet things. “We were the first to make vitamin-enriched chocolate – chocolate infused with B12,” Lawson said, but other companies had greater success with that idea, too. “Out of utter frustration, as a joke, I said to my brother, ‘Let’s just make giant gummy bears, as big as two fists.’ He loved it.”

And so they got started. It was just for fun at first, but friends who saw the big bears wanted them. “We sold two to make four and sold four to make eight, and now we’re making thousands every day. We aspired to and have become the definitive name in giant gummy bears,” Lawson said. “A lot of people are vying to make gummy bears, but we took it a step farther.”

Photo courtesy of GGB of Raleigh

The brothers branched out into gummy worms, bunnies and bottles and began making specialty gummies for sports teams and celebrities. For New York sportscaster Michael Kay and his fiancé, they made a gummy bride and groom. For songwriter Wayne Coyne, they made a life-size gummy skull that holds a seven-pound gummy brain. Inside the edible brain is a flash drive of music by Coyne’s band, The Flaming Lips. The skull-and-brain gummy was featured in an Esquire magazine article, and some of Lawson’s other creations have appeared on The Food Network, History Channel, “Modern Marvels” and “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!”

As the giant gummy bears and body parts began to catch on, friends such as Jennifer Wollan ’91 started calling Lawson “a real life Willy Wonka” after the eccentric confectioner of children’s literature. “I think it’s exciting that something so creative and fun has grown into something so big and been so successful,” said Wollan. “I wish Derek all the best and much more success in whatever he decides to do or dream up next.”

Also watching for new ideas is Allison Rubin, brand manager for IT’SUGAR, a confectionary entertainment company specializing in unusual apparel, accessories and candy, with more than 30 retail stores nationwide. “Our campaign is ‘go big or go home,’” Rubin said, and the giant gummy bears fit right in. She is open to other gummy products, as well. “Derek brings us stuff he is working on. He is very creative and innovative, always up for a challenge. He has a very creative mind,” she said.

Jamie Salvatore, owner of VAT19, an online store for novelty items, agreed. Five years ago, Salvatore began promoting the giant gummy bears on video. “As soon as it got up on YouTube, it started getting tons of attention,” Salvatore said. Eventually, he asked Lawson to make an even bigger model. “His eyes went wide, and he started thinking about it,” Salvatore said.  “Derek came up with a product he calls Big Old Bear, or Bob.” It’s a 25-pound bear with a concave belly that serves as a candy dish. “We call it the Party Bear,” Salvatore said, and it is selling well. Still to come – a 15-pound, two-color gummy snake. “It’s an awesome product,” said Salvatore, who is planning to dub it the Party Python.

In addition to the energy and enthusiasm he brings to his business, Lawson has a passion for encouraging others, especially recent college graduates. “The time to step out is when you are young. You have less to lose and fewer responsibilities. Why not go all in?” he said. “You can’t be afraid to try or to fail. I failed at several things before I found the thing that works for me. You can’t find out what works for you if you are afraid to fail. Try. There’s no magic to it. If you walk enough beaches, you’re going to find the perfect shell.”  In fact, Lawson said, if he could he would make a “fearless candy” – one that would make everyone step out and try.

When he’s not promoting giant bears or imagining new products, Lawson donates time and money to the Raleigh chapter of Autism Speaks. For an annual Walk Now for Autism event, he sponsors a float carrying youngsters who have been diagnosed with autism. “You just want to reach inside these kids and bring out the best in them. Sometimes you can do that,” he said. “That makes all my hard work worthwhile. There has to be a deeper reason for success than making money.”

The brothers recently opened their second manufacturing facility in Raleigh. They are about to launch a new creation that morphs two candies into one. Lawson is not yet ready to talk about that product. But could this creative candy man make a giant gummy Catamount? That’s a sweet idea he is willing to sink his teeth into.