Economic Development, Food Service & Agriculture, and Small Business & Startups

‘Healthy’ candy maker expands operations

Dr. John’s ramps up production after investing $2.3M in new Comstock Park headquarters.

June 7, 2019
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Dr. John Healthy Sweets
he new facility will afford Dr. John’s Healthy Sweets room for an additional six production lines. Courtesy Dr. John's Healthy Sweets

A manufacturer of sugar-free treats has found its sweet spot.

Sugar Free Specialties, dba Dr. John’s Healthy Sweets, last month opened its new 22,000-square-foot corporate headquarters that houses production, packaging, storage, sales and distribution functions for the company.

The new facility is at 5320 West River Drive NE in Comstock Park.

Dr. John Bruinsma, a dentist, and his wife Debra Bruinsma, a hygienist, founded the business in 1995 and are now part owners.

The company makes lollipops, hard candies, caramels and taffy.

Its recipes use natural, sugar-free sweeteners called xylitol and erythritol, which prevent cavities because the bacteria found in the human mouth can ingest but not digest the sweeteners and therefore eventually starve, according to Healthline.

Dr. John’s purchased the new building in October from Moonlight Industries, a painting and finishing contractor, and invested about $2.3 million into the project, which included purchase of the property, renovations, machinery and equipment, furniture, fixtures, computers and IT, according to a previous Business Journal report.

“We started by putting a quarter of a million dollars of food-grade paint in the whole facility,” said Mike McDonald, president, CEO and majority owner of Dr. John’s. “Then, we stripped the floors and ground them and polished them and made them food grade, as well.”

Andrew Stegehuis, vice president of operations, said the renovations included just about everything in the facility.

“Basically, everything besides the roof had something happen to it,” Stegehuis said. “We took out a lot of concrete walls. We redid the office space, which was very, very old, so we just updated it and added a conference room.

“As far as the back of the facility, we re-polished all the floors, added drains, made sure it was up to the ADA standards (and) added a security system.”

The extra space has allowed Dr. John’s to add a second lollipop production line with room for six more production lines.

The kitchen, where the batches of candy are mixed up, currently exceeds the capacity of the two production and packing lines; McDonald said Dr. John’s will add more lines “as our business warrants it.”

Additionally, the building could double in size, if needed, given the space of the lot it’s on.

McDonald said Dr. John’s has more product categories in the pipeline.

“All the items that we’re producing right now are considered food items,” he said. “We have quite a few new items on the board that would be more supplements (such as cough drops and probiotics).”

The supplements would be able to be produced on the same lines currently in operation, just with a different formula, he said.

Dr. John’s also has a manufacturing site in White Pigeon (in St. Joseph County), which employs about 15 people.

Because of the Comstock Park expansion, Dr. John’s was able to hire an additional 20 to 25 people and will keep adding more as production increases. Right now, the company has about 40 total employees.

McDonald said Dr. John’s chose to expand locally over a competing site in Indiana partly because of the previously reported $250,000 Michigan Business Development Program performance-based incentive from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

But the other motivation was homegrown.

“It’s a good business community, and we all live here,” McDonald said.

Stegehuis said the Bruinsmas and himself were born and raised in Grand Rapids, and McDonald has lived here 20 years now.

“We’ve always had our offices in Grand Rapids. The question of where to expand became very obvious. Let’s do it in a thriving business economy right in our hometown,” he said.

Dr. John’s does most of its sales through specialty distributors such as Detroit-based Lipari Foods, with some of its products landing on shelves at independent markets such as Harvest Health and Ken’s Fruit Market. It also sells the sweets at drjohns.com and on Amazon.

McDonald said the company is working on getting a store locator on its website so people can see all of the brick-and-mortar stores where its products are available.

With sweets that are “all-natural, allergen-free and offer 20% of consumers’ daily fiber and 100% of their daily vitamin C,” Dr. John’s markets itself as an “outlier” in the confection business.

“We consider ourselves the healthiest candy in the world,” Stegehuis said.

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