Just over a century ago, in 1920, German confectioner Hans Riegel Sr. struck out on his own, establishing a new candy company called Haribo—an abbreviation derived from his name and hometown of Bonn (Hans Riegel Bonn). Working out of his kitchen with little more than a copper pot, a rolling pin and a stove, Riegel hired his first employee, his wife, Gertrud, the following year. While she delivered products to customers via bicycle, he experimented with hard candies before creating an entirely new sweet treat: the gummy bear.
“We know the stories of today [of] Apple [starting] in a garage, and at that time [Haribo] was a little bit like that,” says Christian Bahlmann, Haribo’s senior vice president of corporate communications. “[Riegel had] the will to do something different, to do something on his own, and to start with very few opportunities ... and very [little] money.”
Riegel debuted his gummy prototype, dubbed the Dancing Bear, or Tanzbären in German, in 1922. Larger and slimmer than modern gummy bears, the Tanzbären’s shape was reportedly inspired by the real dancing bears that once entertained children at festivals across Europe.
“The bear character is something cute and loved by children,” says Bahlmann. “... The idea was not to [make] sweets without a certain shape.” Instead, Riegel wanted to give his candy a face and a personality.
Haribo’s gummy bears have undergone multiple makeovers over the decades, most prominently in 1960, when the company rebranded its Dancing Bears as Goldbears. Today, these small, chewy gummies come in a golden bag packed with five flavors (at least in the United States): raspberry, lemon, strawberry, pineapple and orange. They’re available in more than 100 countries, with 160 million Goldbears leaving factory floors around the world every day.
This year, Haribo is marking the centenary of its flagship gummy bears with limited edition releases, including single-flavor bags and blue raspberry–flavored party hats, as well as a contest giveaway that will send four winners on a weeklong vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“Haribo is the original creator of the gummy bear, and we’re so excited to celebrate the 100th birthday of our iconic Goldbears in unique and meaningful ways,” says Rick LaBerge, chief operating officer of Haribo of America, in a statement.
Though Riegel was the first to create gummies shaped like bears, the history of these gelatin-based sweets actually predates his invention. According to Beth Kimmerle, the author of four books on the American confectionery industry, gummy bears descend from precursors such as the gumdrop, Turkish Delight and wine gum (a non-alcoholic treat originating in the United Kingdom).
“My feeling is that the gummy’s true predecessor is jelly or jam, as a way to preserve fruit cooked with pectin, and sometimes starches,” says Kimmerle. “[L]ater on, Japanese rice candies [made] the appeal of jellies portable. Gummies became a way to have a bite of a fruit jelly” on the go.
Susan Benjamin, a candy historian, author and the owner of True Treats Historic Candy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, notes that these earlier candies had “already set” the formula later finetuned by Riegel. His innovation was, in part, “the shape of the bear, [which was] very comforting and sweet.”
Riegel was far from the only candy entrepreneur active in the early 1920s. American Fred W. Amend came up with Chuckles, a sugar-covered jelly confection, while Henry Heide, a German emigree to the U.S., created Jujubes and Jujyfruits. But Riegel made his mark through strong business acumen, applying new advancements in flavoring and coloring methods “because he understood candy is all about appearance and texture,” says Kimmerle. “He took the latest confectionery flavor and color technology and applied them to the nth degree to formulate his gummy bears.”
In 1925, Haribo began producing black licorice treats, including sticks, wheels and—of course—a black bear known as the Schwarzbär. During the 1930s, the company grew to 400 employees, introduced a teddy bear gummy variety, and debuted a new slogan: “Haribo macht Kinder froh,” or “Haribo makes children happy.”
After the highs of the 1930s, World War II brought Haribo’s success to an abrupt halt. Riegel’s sons, Paul and Hans Riegel Jr., fought on the German side but were captured and held in American prisoner-of-war camps; Riegel himself died in 1945 at age 52, leaving his wife, Gertrud, in charge of company operations. The couple’s sons assumed leadership of Haribo the following year, with Paul overseeing production and Hans Jr. managing marketing and sales.
“They had to almost close [down] the production, so they started really from scratch after the war,” says Bahlmann.
The Riegel brothers transformed their father’s company into a candy superpower, expanding its product line and upping the number of employees from just 30 after the war to about 1,000 in 1950. As Haribo continued to grow in the 1950s and ’60s, executives capitalized on new marketing tools, including television. “The brand was one of the first in Germany to do advertisements on television,” says Bahlmann, “so that made [Haribo] and the product really popular.”
In the decades following World War II, Haribo expanded throughout Europe, with Goldbears even making their way across the Berlin Wall to East Germany. Though the gummies were sold at government-owned Intershops, most East Germans couldn’t actually buy them, as these stores catered to outside visitors and only accepted foreign currencies. Instead, says Bahlmann, some residents of West Germany included Goldbears in care packages sent to friends and family members in East Germany.
Despite its popularity in Europe, Haribo only arrived in the U.S. in 1982, when the company’s first American office opened amid stiff competition. The Herman Goelitz Candy Company, now known as Jelly Belly, had manufactured the first gummy bears in America in 1981. As Kimmerle notes, Goelitz already made jelly beans—starch-molded, pectin-based fruity candy—but “wanted to emulate fruit-flavored gummy bears” enjoyed across the Atlantic. That same year, Trolli, another German company, released the first gummy worms.
To compete with Goelitz, Trolli and other candy companies, Haribo updated its packaging and flavors and started selling its products in supermarkets and other major retailers. “They made gummies into something that Americans wanted to buy,” says Benjamin, immortalizing the sweet treat in Western pop culture. The bears proved so popular, in fact, that Disney aired an animated television series titled “Adventures of the Gummi Bears” between 1985 and 1991.
Haribo is currently building its first-ever North American manufacturing facility. Slated to open in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, in 2023, the site will bring Haribo’s total number of worldwide facilities to 17.
In the 102 years since its founding, Haribo has attracted its fair share of criticism. At the turn of the millennium, the company declined to join Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, a foundation established to compensate individuals—including civilians, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates—forced to work for German companies during World War II. In a 2000 statement to German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Haribo refuted claims that it had relied on forced labor under the Nazi regime, adding, “There is no doubt about the suffering that existed but that cannot be righted now.”
According to Bahlmann, an archival investigation conducted by Haribo found no evidence of the company using forced labor during the war.
“Confectionery was not part of the industry that was considered important for the German government at that time,” he says. “These people [mainly had to] work in coal mines and in other industries that were considered critical for the country.”
More recently, in 2017, a German documentary alleged that Brazilian plantation workers tasked with producing carnauba wax, the ingredient that gave Haribo gummies their shine and prevented the candies from sticking together, were being treated as slave labor. Once again, Haribo launched an official investigation into the accusations.
Lauren Triffler, head of corporate communications for Haribo of America, says the investigation found no evidence of modern slavery being practiced by the company’s wax suppliers. Still, the company decided to switch suppliers and eventually discontinued its use of carnauba wax, replacing the ingredient with beeswax. Haribo also became a founding member of the Initiative for Responsible Carnauba.
With an inventory of more than 1,000 products, Haribo’s offerings go far beyond its flagship Goldbears. Among other candies, the company’s lineup includes soda-flavored Happy-Cola gummies, Sour Goldbears, Alphabet Letters and a Starmix featuring Haribo bestsellers.
Some Haribo candies are unique to certain countries. Turkey boasts denture-shaped teeth gummies. The U.K.’s got milkshakes in strawberry, banana and vanilla cream flavors. In France and Germany, blue-hued gummies pay homage to the cartoon Smurfs.
The keys to Haribo’s success include its consistency and the quality of its candy and product marketing. “They’ve really been able to maintain that position in the marketplace,” says Kimmerle.
Another point of strength is Haribo’s continued expansion and ownership by the Riegel family, now in its third generation of candy-making. (Paul died in 2009, while Hans Jr. died in 2013, leaving nephew Hans-Guido in charge of the company.) “They have a tidal wave of competition there,” says Benjamin. “They’ve been able to overcome a lot.”
Bahlmann, for his part, attributes the company’s enduring success to the burst of childhood nostalgia triggered by any purchase of Haribo candy. “Maybe [our products] are completely different” in different countries, he says, “but this [feeling] is something that unites us worldwide.”