Local chocolate lovers should hug Joyce Fowler. She brought Chapel Hill Toffee out of its creator's kitchen.
We should also hug the Toffee Creator, Karen Graves, who has made the confection in her Chapel Hill kitchen for holidays and special occasions for as long as her son, Mark, can remember. In the fall of 2005, Mark said, she read an article about how Southern Season often stocks local products, so she stopped by with samples.
Fowler, the former head buyer for Southern Season, had been looking for a toffee to sell in the iconic Chapel Hill store. She had tasted several brands at food shows, but none stood out. That changed when Graves handed over a piece.
"That's the best toffee I've ever had in my life," Fowler recalled saying. "It still is."
Chapel Hill Toffee has "the exactly right combination of the chocolate part and the toffee part," Fowler said. And the toffee part is crunchy but not hard; it won't threaten your dental work. "It has a tender mouth feel," she said. "It's just wonderful."
She ordered some immediately, and Southern Season began selling it in 2006.Since then, it's been an upward trajectory for the Graves family. Initially, Karen still cooked in her kitchen. In 2008, Mark got laid off from a banking job, so he learned how to prepare the toffee and also applied his business background to the brand's packaging, distribution and market niche.
"He decided he wanted to learn the business of chocolate and learn the business of candy," said Mark's wife, Christy Graves, who joined the family in 2012 and now works for Chapel Hill Toffee full time. "He wanted to be his own boss and make his own company grow." The toffee is still all natural and contains no preservatives or gluten.
In 2009, Mark and Karen changed the toffee's packaging from clear cellophane bags to its now-signature blue and brown box, which they designed. During a walk through Southern Season's candy section, they noticed a lot of brown, red, gold, cream and black, but no blue.
"So, while it is Chapel Hill Toffee, and obviously, Chapel Hill is known for UNC and blue, part of the decision was because there was no blue on the shelves," Mark said. "It was a color that stuck out."
Late in 2009, after much lobbying, Whole Foods Market agreed to sell Chapel Hill Toffee in its four Triangle stores. Now production had to ramp up too. In 2011, they moved to a custom-designed production facility near Research Triangle Park.
"He basically figured out how to build a candy factory," Christy said. "And that's what we have now, is a candy factory."
About 200 stores along the East Coast are selling Chapel Hill Toffee. Karen and Mark still do all the cooking, from two to three times a week during the summer, increasing to five times a week this time of year. Mark also handles operations and deliveries; Christy travels to do in-store demonstrations. After everyone worked seven days a week during last year's holiday peak, they decided to hire a few people this year to help with packaging.
"Even though we're growing, we're still just a really small, family company," Christy said.