Curtis Allina’s departure from Pez Candy Inc. in 1979 was abrupt, but his contribution to both the company and food packaging will live on for years.

Star Wars Clone Wars figures are among recent licensed characters to adorn Pez dispensers. Source: Candy Industry.

Allina died December 15 in his Olympia, WA home. He was 87 years old.

A native of Prague who grew up in Vienna, Austria, Allina was appointed head of US operations for Ed. Haas Austria GmbH in 1953 when the Viennese food company was expanding into the North American market. The brick-shaped candies had switched from a tin to a spring-loaded rectangular box with a hinged lid in 1949. It was designed to resemble a cigarette lighter, consistent with the product’s positioning as a cigarette substitute or smokers’ breath freshener. US sales were sluggish until Mr. Allina convinced Austrian management to attach a figurehead to the container, effectively changing the package into a toy that appealed to children. While Mr. Allina championed the change, the originator of the idea is a matter of dispute.

“He was a visionary,” reflects Joe Vittoria, CEO of Pez’s US division. “He was mild mannered, self effacing, and clearly knew what he was doing.” As many as 50 new dispensers were created in 2009, says Vittoria, with the cumulative total “in the thousands.”

Originally available in peppermint flavor-the name is a contraction of “pfefferminz,” German for peppermint-Pez itself was a manufacturing breakthrough in 1927. Eduard Haas III pioneered a cold-press process and used modified machinery for effervescent drink cubes to produce and package his mints. Until then, peppermint oil was added to boiled sugar, resulting in evaporation of costly oils.

Allina was still in charge when Pez Candy left New York and established manufacturing operations in Orange, CT, in 1974. One of three Haas production centers worldwide, the Orange plant is still in operation, producing more than 1 million candy rolls a day. The dispensers are manufactured in Hungary and China.

Sales began to stagnate in the 1970s as promotional support was cut, but the Pez dispenser was reborn as a nostalgia item in the late-1980s, leading to an expansion of the Orange facility. Today, collectors eagerly await each new dispenser character, and the containers are one of the most actively traded items on e-Bay. In 2006, the company made its debut on the list of the Top 100 global candy companies, as compiled byCandy Industry, a BNP Media publication.