Toffee Talk is owned and operated by cousins and best friends Catherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom who started the business after turning 50 and deciding it was time for a career change. Toffee Talk began operations in 2009, selling hand-made confections online. The Toffee is made from simple, pure natural ingredients and is gluten free. The company is open 24/7 online at www.cjstoffeetalk.com and also wholesales its toffee to retailers. Toffee Talk, 2269 Chestnut Street, #298, San Francisco, CA 94123; Twitter: @Toffee_Talk
In Conversation with Catherine Hughes, founder of Toffee Talk.
The following Q& A is with Adam Smith, owner and proprietor of Fog City News in the SF Financial district. Fog City News has one of the most amazing Chocolate Collections in SF. We include it in our San Francisco Foodie tours. Thanks, Adam, for permission to post this great 'chocolate' interview!
Fog City News: Toffee is something that everyone’s familiar with. How do you make your core product something new and exciting again?
Catherine Hughes: Toffee has been around for centuries! The word was actually first published in 1825 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Almost everyone we meet has a favorite toffee. We are competing also with the Heath Bar and Almond Roca... So our challenge has been to make Toffee Talk stand out. When our confection started garnering awards we knew we had a winner.
FCN: We know that you have always been a fabulous cook, Catherine, but when did you become a more serious cook, one who could launch a food company?
CH: I have always loved cooking! It started when I was a Camp Fire Girl in the third grade. We had to give ourselves an Indian name and I chose right away “Pa shu ta” – which means, “to be a cook”. I believe my cousin Ellin chose “Ay Ashe” or “chipmunk”. From this early age I have always loved entertaining and cooking for friends. I was always the favorite roommate in college!
FCN: When did you first make candy at home?
CH: I grew up right next door to my godmother Suzi Soper. I would watch Suzi from my kitchen window cooking and making toffee at Christmas time. She shared her recipe with me about 13 years ago and taught me all of her secrets. So, 2000 (the millennium) was the first year I made candy at home to share with my friends. I had no idea that I would be running a Toffee company today.
FCN: Were there other items you considered before settling on toffee?
CH: Believe it our not I was going to start a Crouton business. I make the most amazing croutons – which I will share with you one day. My company is called CJ’s Toffee & Toppings for that very reason. You may see a line of my croutons in the near future. Maybe chocolate covered croutons? I have a wonderful friend & partner in my real-estate firm who encouraged me to start my own business. When I told him I wanted to make and sell my croutons he said no way – sell that Toffee! That’s how it all started. What we thought would be a fun new hobby has grown in to growing concern.
FCN: You entered (and won acclaim) at the 2010 Marin County Fair, but before that did you try out versions of your toffee at informal tasting parties with friends? or did you sell at farmers markets?
CH: I started to make and give Toffee Talk to all my friends and family at Christmas time. I did experiment with Suzy’s original recipe to make it my own. I added the different nuts for variations on the original Almond Toffee. Everyone seems to have a favorite nut – which made it more interesting and fun for me. We have never sold at farmers markets, as the weather is too much of a factor when selling chocolate/confections. Once I won the Best Confection/Best in Show Award out of 600 entries at the Marin County Fair, I knew that it was just not my family and friends praising my product. I was on to something.
FCN: Before your real estate career, had you been involved in a startup?
CH: I had never been involved in a startup but have been mentored by many successful entrepreneurs. My thought was if they could do it – so can I! However, my career in legal transactional real estate has proven to invaluable in launching Toffee Talk. There are so many legalities in starting your own business – I had a good understanding. I am now a proud card-carrying member of the Small Business/Entrepreneur Club.
FCN: Have there been any unforeseen challenges so far? Have there been any lucky breaks?
CH: Our lucky break came when my cousin Ellin was networking on the Golden Gate Transit commuter bus and mentioned to a fellow bus rider about what she was doing for Toffee Talk. As it turned out this woman’s sister works for one of the largest food distributors in San Francisco and purchases all the “snacks” for Google. Samples were provided, tastings followed, and the Googlers themselves voted Toffee Talk into the Google micro kitchens. This chance encounter/lucky break took us to the next level.
FCN: How long were you doing production by yourself? As your company grew, did you enlist friends first or did you move immediately to hiring a crew of helpers?
CH: For the first year I cooked at home but soon learned that we needed to be cooking in a commercial kitchen to be a legitimate confectionary company. I was fortunate to find a wonderful kitchen in San Rafael run by Donna’s Tamales that we could rent by the hour. We are still in Donna’s kitchen today using all the hours possible when tamales are not in production. At first we did enlist our friends and family to help with cooking and production. As soon as Google placed their first order we knew it was time to hire a crew of helpers.
FCN: I saw from one of the videos on your website that you have a team that helps you at your commercial kitchen in Marin. Are you still personally involved in daily production?
CH: I am totally involved in the production. Toffee Talk is still made in small batches, hand broken, hand weighed and hand packaged. I am so fortunate that I have a crew of amazing women who can now help me produce the hundreds of pounds of toffee a week to meet the growing demand, but I am unwilling to give up my involvement. It is a true artisan product and my personal responsibility to oversee the quality.
FCN: Have any items in your line surprised you, either as successes or failures?
CH: Our Crumble Mumble (ice cream topper) has turned into a runaway success. We were giving away the “toffee shrapnel ” to my brother-in-law by the bag full! One day my cousin Ellin asked if I had a Mason jar – and Crumble Mumble was born! The bits and pieces too small to package after hand breaking have turned into the most profitable item in our line.