Building a candy brand is a truly entrepreneurial endeavor.
There’s the care and passion for ingredients, flavor, consistency and appearance. There’s commitment of finances to ensure the products can be made, packaged and distributed. There’s creativity required to build a brand around a new product. And there’s effort to keep making, selling and innovating year-after-year to keep the brand relevant for consumers.
North Carolina happens to have a nice stock of local candy makers, companies with national or global distribution or a plan to get to that point. And because it’s almost Easter, the most lucrative week of the year for U.S. candy retailers, we thought it’d be fun to tell their stories.
Note that some of the candy companies listed below aren’t startups. Some, in fact, are really old companies. But each has an element of startup in their story. Scroll through the photos and stories below to learn about the companies, their histories and future plans.
Amy Huffman, Kirsten Barber and Shannon Cuthrell co-authored this piece.
Butterfields Candy company has kept the old fashioned style of candy making alive with its well-known “buds”—Jolly Rancher-shaped hard candy with a sliver of coconut in the middle. The brand was made famous by its peach flavored buds, but fruity flavors include lemon and key lime.
Butterfields dates back to 1924, when it was founded as Cane Candy Co. in Winston-Salem. Owner Charles Doak changed its name to Wilson Candy Co. in 1970, when he moved the company to Wilson County.
After Doak’s death, the company was sold in 1989 to Tracey and James Brooks West III of Raleigh, who transformed the brand and earned national fame after the creation of the fictional character J.W. Butterfield, a seersucker-clad, top hat-wearing gentleman.
But like many candy companies, Butterfields struggled in the 2000s and eventually went out of business in 2009. But Dena Manning just couldn’t let it die. A fan of Buds and friend of the former owners, she purchased the business in 2012 and invested $200,000 to renovate and reopen a decrepit factory in Nashville, NC with plans to resurrect the 90-year-old candy.
Manning didn’t go in blind. She did extensive market research and reached out to wholesalers who used to carry the candy to see if the interest was still there. After she bought the business, she re-hired former Butterfields confectioners, who knew the candy making process already.
Buds today are still handmade—with pure cane sugar and flavoring mixed in large copper kettles, after which a sliver of coconut is added to each piece. Before packaging, the buds are dusted with a coat of sugar. Each batch takes about an hour to produce, and the company ships out more than 1,000 pounds of candy a day, filling orders for brands like Williams Sonoma and Harris Teeter.
Though flavors are all natural, Butterfields is working towards a recipe that will allow for natural coloring in its 20 flavored candies.
French Broad Chocolates
Dan and Jael Rattigan, owners of French Broad Chocolates in Asheville, define their business background as a love story with chocolate. After meeting at a wedding in 2003 and vacationing to Costa Rica together, the couple decided to leave graduate school and purchase an abandoned cacao farm in Costa Rica.
They moved to Puerto Viejo de Limon, a small fishing town, where they opened a cafe and dessert shop named Bread & Chocolate. For the two years they spent in Costa Rica, the Rattigans devoted their free time to exploring cacao plantations and learning rustic chocolate making methods.
“At this point, we were learning about cacao and about working with chocolate, but hadn’t bridged the gap by making chocolate ourselves,” says Jael.
The couple’s love for chocolate and food experimentation helped them perfect their trade, making Bread & Chocolate a success. With the desire to move back to the states, they sold their cafe to one of their cooks and settled in Asheville, where they established the French Broad brand that exists today.
The couple quickly outgrew their home kitchen and expanded to create the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in 2008. Four years later, they opened a second location, where they could use some of the techniques they learned in Costa Rica to establish a bean-to-bar tasting room.
Today, the Rattigans sell much more than chocolate bars. In their lounge, tasting room and Milk & Chocolate boutique, they sell expertly crafted truffles, hot chocolate, coffee, chocolate covered nuts and coffee beans, pastries, as well as 12 flavors of ice cream.
The cacao they use is sourced from small, family owned farms in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru and Nicaragua. The couple still owns the cacao farm they purchased at the beginning of their business venture, and it is nearing the point of production. According to Jael, their farm is too small to be their sole source of cacao, but they hope to eventually create a special micro-batch of chocolate with their cultivated crop.
After 10 years in business, one of Jael’s goals is to become a certified B Corporation. She also hopes to expand to other cities and take on partners that align with that mission.
“While we initially thought it was destined to be a sweet little home-based business, we have discovered that we have limitless potential,” says Jael. “We receive messages weekly from customers and developers who want to open a Chocolate Lounge in their town, and from shops who want to sell our chocolate. We definitely have aspirations for intentional and sustainable growth, and to share our values-based business model with other communities.”
The Apothecary’s Kitchen
Though a scientist by trade, Ben Smith has a hidden talent that has caught nationwide attention. His all-natural peppermint bark that, sold under his brand The Apothecary’s Kitchen, broke through the competition in 2014 when it was featured in both Martha Stewart and Bon Appetite magazines in holiday gift guides.
Smith decided on the brand name to honor his ancestors, who ran the oldest apothecary in the country from 1792 to 1933 in Alexandria, VA. His profession mixed well with his passion for good food and cooking, which led to the creation of the business with a push from his wife, Michelle.
Smith uses fair trade dark chocolate, and then sources white chocolate, organic candy canes and peppermint extract from other companies that believe strongly in social and environmental sustainability, which Smith factors into The Apothecary’s Kitchen’s mission.
Though his certified home kitchen is not powered by renewable energy, Smith purchases renewable energy credits to account for his business’ energy consumption, as well as carbon offsets to account for the impacts of shipping the bark. Even his packaging has a low carbon footprint. Each box is made with up to 80 percent recycled material, and they can be recycled again when the candy is all gone.
Locally, The Apothecary’s Kitchen’s peppermint bark is sold at Gather, Sola Coffee and Yellow Dog Bread, but it is also sold through retailers in 14 other states. Five-ounce boxes are $12 and the 12-ounce box costs $24.
The World’s Largest Gummy Bears
There are many unique items that have claimed world records, and one of them is made in Raleigh. Derek Lawson’s five-pound, one-foot tall gummy bears have become monster record setters of the candy world, and along with Lawson’s other giant gummy confections, have earned him the title of “modern day Willie Wonka.”
It all started when Derek and his brother, Brett, collaborated with Michele and Michael Horwitz to establish the Popalops candy store chain in the mid-90s. The chain, however, could not withstand the low-carb trend of the early ‘90s, and the Lawson brothers scaled back the business and reevaluated their goals. The brothers formed BROSCO LLC, an acronym for Brother’s Company, and began experimenting with candy, focusing on the nostalgic effect it can have on consumers.
In 2003, Derek began developing unique molds for gummy candy. He started with heart and brain shaped gummy candy that he sold during Halloween, but soon, he was experimenting with size and variety. The World’s Largest Gummy Bear became his greatest success, and a novelty item on many must-see lists.
Popalops in Crabtree Valley Mall, a BROSCO LLC store, became the official home for the trademarked candy. With the help of Michael Horwitz, Lawson purchased the domain giantgummybears.com. Together, the pair holds several patents for gummy molds and other products unique to their brand.
The bears starts at $29.95 for a pre-made flavor, with the option for customers to create a three-flavored giant gummy of their choice. Joining the bear in the World’s Largest category are worms, skulls, brains and hearts.
The manufacturing plant in Raleigh churns out around 6,000 giant gummy bears a day, along with 300 other gummy and hard candies.
Lawson and Horwitz continue to innovate, rolling out interesting gummy shapes in a range of flavors for their consumers. There are mustaches, a corn on a stick, hamburgers and even snails. And if a five-pound gummy bear is too large, there’s even an ironically small Giant Gummy Bear—get it on a stick for just under $10.
Piedmont Candy Company
This candy outfit is rooted in Lexington, North Carolina history, established in the year 1890. Piedmont Candy makes gluten-free puffed mints and candies out of pure cane sugar.
A variety of flavors are offered under the brand name Red Bird, from lemon to cinnamon. The company’s staple candy is its peppermint puffs, which were historically made using copper kettles that heated pure cane sugar to 300 degrees.
The candies are sold in dollar stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and other locations throughout North Carolina, and nearby at the The Lexington Candy Factory.
Piedmont Candy also has an e-marketplace on its website, along with a series of candy recipes and ideas created in 2015 to celebrate Piedmont Candy’s 125th birthday. The company makes 55,000 pounds of candy a day.
Doug Reid purchased the company from the founding family, the Ebeleins, in 1987—his son Chris Reid now serves as CEO. Then in 2013, Lexington’s The Dispatch reported the company received a $14.4 million investment from Charlotte firm Plexus Capital. The parameters of the deal also included a 100 percent of sale proceeds to buy out inactive shareholders and provide funds for growth.
A company representative declined to discuss specifics of the investment or goals as a result, other than Piedmont Candy plans continue to grow the brand and add new flavors, like birthday cake, pictured above.
Escazu Artisan Chocolates
This is a charming chocolate shop and mini-factory is tucked in Raleigh’s Mordecai District, alongside historic homes and village-style streets. Escazu was founded nearly a decade ago when Hallot Parson, a native North Carolinian chef, returned to the U.S. from an enlightening trip to Costa Rica.
The business spun out of an inspiration Parson had after visiting an organic cacao farm there, and he decided to teach himself the tricks of bean-to-bar chocolate production and open up his own retail and production business.
Escazu’s process of making truffles and confections requires a lot of space and machinery. As such, Parson is looking for a larger space to move operations in the coming years.
Oscar William’s Gourmet Cotton Candy
In 2013, Tasha Kornegay, a mental health therapist in Apex, answered a personal calling to start a nonprofit to educate and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and raise money for prevention. She needed funding to do so, and wasn’t having success with the grant applications she’d sent in.
One day, her son came up with the idea to raise money by making her own cotton candy business, and then came the accidental startup Oscar William’s Gourmet Cotton Candy (named after a family inside joke).
The business sells an array of cotton candy flavors, from pineapple and grapefruit to almond toffee and caramel truffle to marshmallow and licorice. All items are organic, allergen and gluten-free, vegan and kosher. And a portion of proceeds go toward Kornegay’s nonprofit Partners Against Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Chapel Hill Toffee
Multiple generations of the Graves family have contributed to the success of this Chapel Hill-based toffee company.
After spending many years tweaking and perfecting a family toffee recipe passed down to her, family matriarch Karen Graves decided to start selling it in 2006. Soon, it was a family affair. Her husband, Griff, helped get the business off the ground with his legal expertise. And Graves enlisted her sons, Mark and Scott, and daughter-in-law, Christy, to run the business. Their mission is laser-focused on selling toffee—it’s their only product.
Chapel Hill Toffee is unapologetically Southern—crushed pecans (a southern staple) are incorporated throughout and sprinkled on top of a caramel toffee that is sandwiched between thin layers of Graves’ secret dark chocolate blend.
The singular focus and southern twist has paid off. In 10 years, the family went from selling in one Southern Seasons store in Chapel Hill to selling between 5,000 and 20,000 pounds of toffee monthly in over 500 stores across 30 states.
And despite the growth, they continue to hand make each order, and only sell directly to consumers through their own website (in lieu of Amazon or other third-party online vendors). They are committed to hand-packing each toffee order with ice packs to ensure the product arrives at a customer’s house unscathed by the South’s notorious heat.
Still, Chapel Hill Toffee has big dreams—the family hopes to have a presence in all 50 states, and to expand retail relationships in existing states—all while introducing customers to the quintessential southern toffee.
For its five-year anniversary last year the Raleigh craft chocolate factory known as Videri, invited Raleigh residents to celebrate in the best way they knew how—with edible posters made of chocolate posted around Raleigh.
According to founders Sam and Starr Ratto and Chris Heavener, the whimsical and adventurous posters perfectly encapsulate the company’s mission—to create handcrafted artisan bean-to-bar chocolate that makes customers feel happy and at home.
Videri is one of a growing number of bean-to-bar chocolate factories in the US. The founders import organic, fair-trade cocoa beans and transform them into chocolate bars, confections and hot chocolates through a lengthy process of roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering and packaging.
In addition to its factory, Videri’s products can be found in 167 stores across North Carolina and 17 other states. Patrons can also subscribe to a monthly “Videri Direct” box filled with three different chocolate bars and delivered each month.
The downtown Raleigh factory employs 27 employees, but more space and staff will be needed to continue to grow. The team is in talks to expand production in a location close by. Until then, customers can continue to visit Videri to watch the chocolate-making process or purchase chocolate bars and bunnies designed for Easter.
Tom & Jenny’s Candy
The dentist-designed, sugar-free candy company by husband and wife Jenny Citineni and Tommy Thekkekandam has made significant progress since ExitEvent first profiled it back in 2015.
In two years, Tom & Jenny’s went from a two-person team making the caramels in 20-pound batches at home to producing an average of 3,000 pounds of candy per month at a full-scale manufacturing facility with six full-time employees. What makes Tom & Jenny’s caramel unique is that it lacks sugar, corn syrup or synthetic sweeteners. The company uses natural sweeteners with a low glycemic index like xylitol.
To date, the Durham company has sold over 10,000 bags of candy, most of which were sold directly to consumers either through their website or Amazon. They’ve not focused on establishing a presence in retail stores yet, but they plan to raise a round of capital this fall to fund “aggressive growth into the specialty retail channel,” says Thekkekandam.
The company has been a constant and active member of the Triangle’s entrepreneurial community since 2015 too. Thekkekandam pitched at Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest competition and took part in Launch Chapel Hill’s third cohort. The pair won an NC IDEA grant in fall 2015. Now, Tom & Jenny’s is part of American Underground’s consumer product accelerator, Startup Stampede.
The founders’ deep investment in the community has paid off. They recently made it to the final four of ExitEvent’s first annual NC Tech Madness tournament. And while they didn’t take home the title, Thekkekandam says, “We truly have felt like we’ve had the backing of the whole community and that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our supporters in NC and across the country.”
Boston Fruit Slice and Confectionary
It’s busy season for a Sanford, NC plant that makes sugary, certified kosher “fruit slices” popular during Passover.
Boston Fruit Slice is one of the primary manufacturers of the gummy treats shaped like slices of lemons, oranges and limes (but offered in 12 flavors). And while the 32-year-old company (which traces its roots to the first fruit slice maker in the 1940s) started just outside Boston, the owners relocated it to a renovated manufacturing facility southwest of Raleigh last year.
While products are certified kosher year-round, special efforts are made to ensure they’re wheat-free during Passover. Corn syrup is swapped out for potato or tapioca syrup, and the product line shrinks to four types of candy. The entire process is overseen by a rabbi.
According to a story in the Sanford Herald, the south represents a growing market for the national company.
Mona Lisa Chocolate Decorations
If you’re a cake decorator, you might have purchased this Hendersonville company’s chocolate cups and shapes, fondant and other edible decorations.
With decorative chocolate creations distributed to bakeries, restaurants and retailers globally, the 30-year-old company was founded by Peter Thom in Salinas, Calif. He relocated it to North Carolina in 1993.
Mona Lisa hit $10 million in sales just before it was acquired by Swiss cocoa producer Barry Callebaut in 2012. The company has been committed to Mona Lisa’s growth in North Carolina though, drastically expanding and upgrading its factory to increase production. Fondant was its latest new product launch in December 2016.
Rebecca Burnett started making her unique toffee—a blend of caramel, organic dark chocolate, espresso, sea salt and almonds—as a hobby. Once she realized she had a knack for candy-making, she began gifting it to friends and family each holiday season. The gifts eventually led to seasonal sales, which led to the launch of Durham Toffee on Valentine’s Day 2016, selling through the Smitten Boutique in downtown Durham.
In the year since, she’s formed partnerships with multiple vendors in and around Durham, from Southern Season to Sam’s Bottle Shop. Durham Toffee can also be found in stores in Raleigh, Topsail, Swansboro and the Outer Banks. In December, Burnett filled over 1,100 wholesale orders (to vendors) and 1,850 retail units (online).
Despite the rapid growth, fans shouldn’t expect to find Durham Toffee on the shelves of the stores nationwide just yet.
Burnett says her primary goal is to “keep the heart in this business”—she prefers to grow slowly so as not to degrade the product by “going too big too quickly.” She’ll continue to develop strong relationships with individual vendors and scale at a pace that works for the business and her family.