Did you know that there's a dessert toppings factory in Pueblo? It's a revelation that might bring to mind a certain film about an eccentric owner of a candy factory. Alas, there's no chocolate river at TR Toppers.
But if you enter the production area you will be overcome by the smell of chocolate.
“We get semi-loads of chocolate in. Butterfinger, Heath, M&Ms, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. You name it. We have it,” says warehouse manager Jay Mahieu while giving a tour. “We chop the product up and then we sell it to our customers.”
That’s right, they’re in the biz of chopping and packaging candy and baked goods. Ever had cookie dough, brownie bites, or cheesecake pieces stirred into a Dairy Queen Blizzard or Sonic shake? That’s TR Toppers.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms shakes that fast food giant Burger King debuted earlier this year? The sugary cereals get chopped up in Pueblo before they make it into your vanilla soft-serve shakes.
"We get people contacting us all the time, 'Hey, would you try chopping this?’ That's how we get a lot of our new business," Mahieu says.
The ‘Ice Cream Men’
Three brothers founded the now $140 million company in 1991.
Tim, Bob and Greg Rode got their start in frozen desserts driving postal jeeps outfitted as ice cream trucks in their hometown of Baker, Oregon. They called it Rodey’s Ice Cream.
"Yes, we were the ice cream men,” TR Toppers president Tim Rode wrote in his 2013 book. “The kids loved us and the parents hated us, but we were in business. We were becoming entrepreneurs."
The brothers ran the ice cream jeep business for several years, later selling it. In the 80s, they moved into J. Higby's Yogurt and Treat Shop franchises and ran a handful of shops in Ogden, Utah and in Colorado. Rode says business started to lag toward the end of the decade.
It was about that time he had an ‘ah-ha’ moment. It came to him while he was out running.
“I was so excited, I could hardly contain myself,” he says. “I got home, told my wife, called my brothers and they were both really excited. Then I started chopping.”
Their best selling topping at the yogurt shops were Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — “but you couldn't buy them chopped up any place,” Tim says. It was a quintessential entrepreneur’s moment. What if they did the chopping and packed it all in a 10-pound box?
“When we were in Ogden, I chopped by hand with two other employees for two years,” Rode says. “We'd chop 10 hours a day, 1,000 pounds a day, of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.”
Eventually demand was too high to continue chopping by hand, so the brothers purchased equipment to chop the candy. Rode called the mechanization a turning point, although he kept one of those early cutting boards as a memento.
Finding Their Footing In Pueblo
The brothers moved their business to Pueblo in 1994. It made distribution easier and brother Greg Rode already lived in the city. In 2015, the Pueblo City Council unanimously voted to give TR Toppers $260,000 of local tax funds to expand. The money came from a half-cent sales tax collected from all sales-tax-eligible purchases within the city limits.
“[TR Toppers has] been a good partner in terms of our community,” City Council president Steve Nawrocki says. “They're a model for other smaller companies, especially for those that are looking to expand.”
The money allowed them to add jobs and expand their facility, including building an 8,500-square-foot freezer.
What’s been good for Pueblo has also been good for the ice cream business. Take it from Malcolm Stogo, president of Malcolm Stogo Associates International Ice Cream Consulting Firm, he’s credited with inventing cookies n’ cream ice cream flavor after all.
“They've certainly made it easier for ice cream shops or frozen yogurt shops to use ingredients that are already cut up, instead of ice cream owners going to the supermarket, buying the bars and cutting them up themselves,” Stogo says.
He adds that TR Toppers has also helped with affordability since most ingredient manufacturers have high minimums, “which makes it almost impossible for a small person to buy ingredients,” Stogo says. The candy toppers in Pueblo are filling that niche for those buyers, in part by selling their product to smaller distributors.
Tim Rode credits his father for the success he and his brothers have shared. Their dad ran a meat company in Oregon and instilled the entrepreneurial spirit into his sons.
“So I think that it's more than ice cream [that drove us], it was the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Which is probably for the best. It turns out that Tim Rode doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth.