Shawn Peterson parlayed his world-class collection of thousands of PEZ dispensers into a dream job with the company. In fact, he's the first collector to work for the company.
"It's just the novelty of it all," he says, when asked why he started collecting the classic candy dispensers.
Peterson oversees the in Orange. Part museum and part interactive exhibit, it's an ode to PEZ's foothold on nostalgia and its plans for the future. Some of the highlights include a towering PEZ dispenser, a timeline on the company's unlikely trajectory, and a look at the factory that goes through 100,000 pounds of sugar a week.
The hundreds of dispensers on display are from Peterson's personal collection. Sports teams, Disney characters, Santa Claus and many others iconic faces and themes are represented as plastic heads on the candy dispensers.
New PEZ Products
In addition to his work at the visitor center, Peterson sits in on marketing meetings to discuss future product lines.
"It's hard to predict what the hottest film in two years is going to be," he says, but it's a gamble the company has to make. Once a product line is determined, it takes about a year to go to market.
The company has been making the cartoonish plastic heads for 60 years now, representing everything from Star Wars to U.S. presidents to the Geico chameleon. A collector's set of the musicians from KISS are on the horizon. Peterson said Disney characters have always been the most popular, but superheroes are also lucrative.
"That's been a staple forever. People love it. It'll probably be around forever, too."
Peterson, who lives in Waterbury and has written several "field guides" on PEZ dispensers, is often asked if he could keep only one, which would it be. He doesn't have an answer.
"It wouldn't be one. If it had to be just one I'd let them all go," he says. "Why just keep one?"
From Austria to America
As Peterson explains, PEZ got its start in 1927 as an Austrian alternative to smoking. It was simply a mint in a container with no colorful dispenser. In 1949, a plain dispenser came out for hygienic reasons, as founder Eduard Haas III found it uncouth to offer someone a mint only to have them reach inside the container and touch the other mints.
Several years later the company set up in the United States with little success. A marketer had the idea to put cartoon heads on the dispensers and fill them with candy to appeal to children. Haas was skeptical, but he went along with the idea. The gamble was a hit with children, and eventually collectors.
"[The figurines] are inexpensive and mean a lot of things to a lot of people," Peterson says. "It's not just kids and it's not just adults. It's not just men or women. It's everyone.”
In 1973, the company set up in Orange and has remained in the same building since.
There are an estimated 1,000 or so different PEZ dispenser heads, but the "debate rages on" about how many variations there are, Peterson notes. Some colors are exceedingly rare and can sell for thousands of dollars. Over time a devout group of collectors grew and conventions are now organized throughout the world. Of course, there's also a PEZ Facebook page with about 66,000 likes.
The company's early records are incomplete, so there's no idea how many types were made. Collectors like Peterson have compiled all available knowledge into books (his "Collector's Guide to Pez" is in its third edition).
While his collection, which is available for all to see at the visitor center, is among the world's finest, he says he's "seen some collections that have made my jaw drop."
And while collecting is his passion, he enjoys the candy as well. His favorite flavor is sour watermelon.
The Pez Visitor Center on 35 Prindle Hill Road in Orange is open on Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Hours on Sunday are 12 p.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children. Included is a PEZ lanyard and $2 credit for the store (which covers the cost of the average dispenser. .
What's the first PEZ dispenser you ever had? And your favorite? Tell us in the comments.