Just like many other kids in America, Shawn Peterson received PEZ dispensers in his Easter basket and Christmas stockings. But his passion for PEZ dispensers didn’t take hold until 1990 when, at age 20, he was browsing a flea market in Kansas City, saw a few dispensers for sale and was drawn to the colors and characters. He bought them, then returned for more, noting in hindsight, “I thought they were neat.”
Today, 26 years later, PEZ is his life’s work. What Peterson hadn’t imagined was that someday he’d come up with the concept of a PEZ Visitor Center and leave Kansas to sell the idea to the PEZ company in Connecticut. He also hadn’t imagined that his vast collection would actually be the display at the center, or that he would become the company’s direct to consumer business manager.
“To get to share something you love so much and have a passion for with so many people” has been “satisfying,” he said. Now, Peterson has also written a book about its history: “PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon,” (arcadiapublishing.com).
The book, a departure from the three collector’s guides he’s written, tells the story of the product’s evolution, from its origin in Austria in 1927 and its introduction in America during the early 1950s. PEZ was originally marketed in Europe as an upscale adult product — a mint touted as an alternative to smoking. The product was a huge success. But when it was brought to America in the 1950s in mint and lemon flavors, the product didn’t sell well because there was no demand for smoking alternatives, according to the book.
To boost sales, the brand was redefined as a candy — they added fruit flavoring — and in 1955 the first full-body dispensers were marketed in the forms of Santa and a robot. But it still had a way to go in sales, so they worked out some design and function glitches, introduced more three-dimensional characters and PEZ went on to become the pop culture phenomenon it is today.
David Cadden, a professor emeritus at Quinnipiac University’s School of Business, said, “They are able to keep the same basic design even though they are constantly changing the heads at the top of dispenser.” He added, “I also think it is a product that recalls a simpler time, a memory of youth, especially for baby boomers. As adults, those people want to share the PEZ experience with their children.”
Peterson said he was “a lucky individual” because he got a job out of high school at Hallmark Corp. in Kansas City, and worked his way through the ranks. He stayed with the company despite employee cuts, but he saw the fragility of the situation and wanted more control of his destiny. When the time was right, he met with PEZ’s CEO and proposed the concept of a visitor center modeled after many he had seen back home and in other places: you show how the product is being made, put up a special display and sell merchandise.
In 2009, he got the call that PEZ was ready to proceed. Peterson started at PEZ as project manager for the center and two years later, in December 2011, it was opened. “The question was, ‘If you build it, will they come?’ The answer seems to be a resounding yes, he said. They average 70,000 to 75,000 people per year and in 2015, according to a locator pin board, they had visitors from all 50 states and 50 countries. Peterson said 99.5 percent of the items on display are his collection of 26 years.
And collectors are cropping up among younger generations. Jamie Horton, 14, of Northampton, Massachusetts, began collecting PEZ dispensers as a child. He now has more than 20 dispensers — mainly his favorite Star Wars characters. According to his mother, Nicole Horton, the family made the nearly 90-mile trek from their home after learning about the center online. While the visitor center was not the family’s only stop in the state, it is one that appealed to all ages, she said. “We are really enjoying ourselves. It’s something a little bit different. Both an 11- and 14-year-old are enjoying it, which is sometimes a challenge.”
Peterson said he wants the colorful trip through PEZ history to be fun and so when he hires workers, it’s more about their personalities, he said, because, “anyone can ring a cash register.” He said he encourages employees to chat with customers and ask, “Did you guys enjoy your visit?”
He loves sharing the collection, and because he works for the company, he is known as the only professional PEZ collector in the world. Peterson said it’s not known how many collectors there are, but his search for pieces through the years has taken him throughout the country and the world. PEZ is sold in more than 80 countries, according to its website.
While most people have seen hundreds of PEZ dispensers in stores throughout the years in hundreds of character forms, the magnitude of what’s been produced through the years can’t be appreciated until a trip to the center. Just about every popular movie or television character of each decade is represented by PEZ dispensers — Disney characters, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, comic book characters, superheroes, sports teams.
Peterson said his collection isn’t the biggest in world, but it is the most well-rounded, with not only dispensers but other PEZ-related items and memorabilia, including old-time store racks, promotional items, lunchboxes, thermoses and collector storage tins.
Of his PEZ passion becoming his career, Peterson said, “When you get to do essentially what you love, the worst day is not so bad.”
Register reporters Luther Turmelle and Sam Norton contributed to this story.