What do you get when you put a dentist and an MBA in the kitchen?
The answer is probably not what you’d expect. It’s candy.
The alumni winners of this year’s UNC Carolina Challenge, MBA-lawyer husband Tommy “Tom” Thekkekandam and dentist wife Sindhura “Jenny” Citineni, are taking on the $34 billion confections industry with candies that protect the enamel of the teeth and are made of natural sweeteners. Called Tom & Jenny’s, they taste great too, and will soon have branding and packaging the founders believe will compete with major candy brands and hop on the natural foods trend.
Online sales have doubled over the last three months, and four local retailers now carry bags of Tom & Jenny’s caramels. A big win will come late summer, when Whole Foods Market in Durham stocks its shelves. The pair has signed on some impressive advisors too—internationally-known NYC pastry chef Michael Laiskonis helped finetune the recipes and Mark Ramadan of Sir Kensington’s, an NYC-based gourmet condiment maker with products in 4,000 grocery stores and 500 restaurants, is helping Tom & Jenny’s get on, and off, store shelves.
According to Ramadan, “food is having a moment right now”, and though it’s easier than ever to start whipping up concoctions in the kitchen, few companies have what it takes to get to the next level. That’s “getting distributors, getting into stores, merchandising appropriately and learning how to support your stuff on the shelves when it’s 3,000 miles away in California or 5,000 miles away in Hawaii.”
He believes Tom & Jenny’s has promise. “I was drawn to the authenticity of the brand. They’re one of the few companies I’m interested in advising,” he says.
As the founders begin to ramp up production and look for outside investment, they let us inside the Morrisville kitchen where caramel-making magic happens today. Check out the video, and read below for the full story behind Tom & Jenny’s.
Early seeds of entrepreneurship
Thekkekandam became interested in entrepreneurship as an undergraduate at UNC in the early 2000s. He and Citineni (then girlfriend) co-founded a sustainable development project called Nourish International and placed second in the very first Carolina Challenge in 2004—Nourish has gone on to establish chapters at more than 60 universities in 28 countries. But Thekkekandam wanted to get a law degree—fighting for social justice was his original goal—and Citineni planned to become a dentist.
It was during law school at Duke University that Thekkekandam’s passion for business returned, so he decided to pursue a dual JD/MBA degree and joined the Program for Entrepreneurs at Duke to test out several ideas.
He calls that time of life “failing our way to success.” None of the ideas panned out, and he ended up at McKinsey for four years working on sales and marketing strategy for major brands and regulatory work around global energy. He was based in Charlotte, and Citineni ran a dental clinic in Lexington, N.C. after graduating in 2010 from dental school.
It was her work at the clinic that inspired Thekkekandam to start tinkering in the kitchen. Citineni had become tired of telling parents to keep their kids away from soda and candy. She knew it was a futile effort. She wanted to give them a better option—a candy that tasted great and had an appealing brand.
Dreaming up and executing on the idea
Thekkekandam calls Citineni the visionary and himself the executor. Research led Citineni to a natural sweetener extracted from the fibrous part of a North American Birchwood tree called xylitol. Studies showed that unlike sugar, which feeds the bacteria that wears holes in the enamel, it reduced the cavity-causing bacteria that live on the teeth. It’s most commonly used in gums like Trident, and in hard candies that are marketed to look like medicine.
When the pair moved to New York for Citineni’s residency in 2013, Thekkekandam took six months off work to experiment with recipes. He considered gummi bears, hard candy and even came up with a decent chocolate recipe. But caramel seemed to have the most promise—after three tries, he had a really tasty caramel with very simple ingredients—xylitol mixed with cocoa butter, heavy cream, salt, maltitol syrup and vanilla.
They began to host blind taste tests with family and friends, comparing the caramel with store-bought gourmet versions from Whole Foods Market. After more than 100 trials, 60 percent preferred Thekkekandam’s caramels over the full sugar versions. They called it tastier with better consistency and aroma.
“They liked it and the story, and they would taste it at the table and buy it,” Thekkekandam recalled. Next, it was time to refine the recipe. Thekkekandam emailed 15 culinary experts in New York City for advice. After no response for two months, he was surprised to receive an email from the most prestigious chef on the list, Michael Laiskonis, a James Beard award-winning pastry chef and creative director at the Institute for Culinary Education. He wrote, “Let’s talk.”
Laiskonis iterated on the original recipe, charging Thekkekandam a highly discounted rate for the winning recipe. Thekkekandam says that Laiskonis liked the story and it gave him the opportunity to learn as well.
His next step was to determine if people who didn’t know him would pay for it. So he went to a flea market in Long Island City over the 2013 holiday season to sell the product. After selling $3,000 worth of caramel in five days, he determined yes.
But the timing wasn’t right to start the company then. The pair had a baby early in 2014, and Thekkekandam needed to make some money while Citineni finished her residency. So he went back to McKinsey until September 2014, when they packed up to move back to North Carolina, he quit his job and she took a job as a pediatric dentist in Burlington.
Turning candy-making into a business
His first step upon founding Tom & Jenny’s (after a long search for a name, they kept it simple and used their nicknames) was to begin sampling it at Foster’s Market in Durham. He also got a kitchen inspection and approval to operate a home-based business.
He was accepted to Launch Chapel Hill, where he’d get help from mentors in the incubator and participate in UNC’s Launching the Venture course. Very quickly, the program forced him to question assumptions about the market for kids and rethink the branding—Tom & Jenny’s should be friendly and fun and accessible for kids, but high-end and gourmet to appeal to adults.
“The number of households with kids 14 and under is falling, but there are skyrocketing rates of diabetes,” he says. “Anecdotally from sampling, the vast majority are buying it for themselves or their parents, not their kids.”
Packaging was also a concern. He and Citineni had to learn how to hand-wrap each caramel to prevent it from flowing out over the wrapper. They bought gusseted plastic bags with re-closable zippers and slapped Tom & Jenny’s stickers on each bag by hand. They realized their first major investment should be a $40,000 machine for automatic wrapping.
Besides Foster’s, Respite Café and Oasis Café in Carrboro wanted to carry the candy. But Facebook advertising led to an influx of online orders throughout the holiday season, so Thekkekandam held off on entering more retail stores until this year.
He also knew he’d need a full product line to get more attention from larger stores. He began to experiment with “in vogue flavors” like ginger and coffee. And he went back to chocolates too, with advice from an award-winning chocolate entrepreneur in Baltimore—he’s got low-glycemic, good-for-teeth dark, milk and white chocolate in the mix. These new flavors and candies will be introduced over time.
What’s next for Tom & Jenny’s
Thekkekandam now makes 15 to 20 pounds of candy three or four times a week. But a recent big decision was to secure a relationship with a contract manufacturer to help scale up the stove-top process. His plan is to complete the process this summer to be prepared “to hit the Halloween season hard.”
“We are excited for contract manufacturing to really open up our opportunity to go out and grow sales in a big way,” he says. More professional branding is coming too.
A key person helping him think through that strategy is Sir Kensington’s Ramadan, who believes two major challenges for food companies are keeping the quality of a product as production scales up and marketing it in the right way and at the right times. Tom & Jenny’s has to avoid sounding clinical or medical, he says, and it has to think through packaging and product development to take advantage of major candy holidays like Halloween. That advice is guiding much of the founders decision-making now.
Ramadan also points out the power of the story in building the Tom & Jenny’s brand. Few food brands have such compelling stories behind them.
“There’s never been more attention paid to sugar as a source of a lot of health issues and a lot of brands are being developed to address that,” Ramadan says. “But what they’re doing is really interesting because Jenny is a dentist. There is legitimacy and authenticity to someone creating something from her own experience.”