His is "the company that a vanilla marshmallow built," says Peter Croyle.

His is "the company that a vanilla marshmallow built," says Peter Croyle.

On that fluffy foundation, Croyle stacked dozens of new colors, flavors, shapes and sizes since moving his business from Los Angeles to Central Point three years ago. In the recent economic slide, marshmallows are cushioning the candy industry's fall, says the owner of Pete's Gourmet Confections.

"I think marshmallows are a really good comfort food," Croyle says. "They're soft, and they don't talk back when you bite into them."

But that doesn't mean candy companies are giving customers the same spongy stand-by. Pete's Gourmet is among the manufacturers delivering swirled, stuffed and chocolate-coated versions. Retail marshmallow sales (excluding WalMart) totaled about $146 million in 2008, up from $141 million the year before, according to market research firm Information Resources Inc.

Last year saw the launch of chocolate-drizzled marshmallows called Zebras by Doumak Inc., the Chicago area-based maker of Campfire-brand marshmallows. For those who want their chocolate on the inside, there's GudFud's marshmallows, which debuted in 2007 and also come stuffed with grape, orange or strawberry jelly.

Marshmallows' makeover from baking ingredient to treat is centuries in coming. According to candy lore, marshmallows date back to ancient Egypt with a sweet made from the sap of the marsh-growing mallow plant that was deemed fit for pharaohs. In the 19th century, French confectioners took the sap and whipped it with other ingredients, making a fluffier version. Eventually, gelatin replaced mallow root sap, though the name endured.

Learning to make marshmallows the old-fashioned way in his grandmother's kitchen, Croyle, now 40, distributed them one year as holiday gifts. He toted the leftovers to Los Angeles movie and television sets, where he supervised construction. Co-workers liked the marshmallows so much they soon inundated Croyle with orders just as the "foodie" movement was renewing interest in hand-crafted, gourmet confections. His contain no artificial flavors or preservatives.

"We actually make every single marshmallow by hand," Croyle says. "You can really tell the difference."

Supplying some 60 products to hundreds of boutique retailers nationwide, including Market of Choice, Ashland Food Co-op, Rising Sun Farm and Rogue Creamery, are 10 employees of Pete's Gourmet. That number is due to increase this month to as many as 40, Croyle says, to stock a major national grocery chain that will double Pete's business. Croyle owes the coup — years in the making — to his new and improved version of s'mores designed to puff and slightly melt in the microwave.

"It's like camping without leaving your kitchen," he says. "The s'mores has come into extreme popularity."

Like several other small confectioners, Croyle produced a s'mores kit before hitting on a better way early this year. The new product combines the three standard s'mores ingredients, including Croyle's pre-roasted vanilla marshmallows, in a single serving that needs no assembly.

The origin of s'mores (as in some more, please) aren't clear, but the first known recipe for the treat came in a 1927 publication "Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts," says Michelle Tompkins, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Croyle says the s'mores may be enjoying a revival as people choose camping over luxury vacations. Because his new s'mores will be sold under the store brand, he can't link his company name to the retailer, which does not have an outlet in the Rogue Valley, Croyle says.

Working out of a commercial kitchen on Bateman Drive, Croyle lacks a retail space of his own. Customers can purchase marshmallows, candies and the microwavable s'mores, dubbed "Seemores" online at www.petesgourmet.com.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.