I wrote last week about Grand Street Candy, a candy company I started a few years ago, and the idea of publishing all my work (business plans, graphics, recipes, etc.) under an open source license. But what was Grand Street Candy, how did it get started and how did it end? Here is the exclusive inside story...
Several years ago -- I think it was early 2004 -- I was on one of those stupid low-carb diets. I never go on diets and in general never worry about what I eat, but for some reason decided to try this one. Anyway, I lost a few pounds without any trouble and I didn't at all miss sweets and whatever else wasn't allowed. This surprised me, because I definitely have a sweet tooth. Then at some point during that period I heard from a friend about the Chicken Dinner, a defunct candy bar from the 1930's that was marketed as being as being able to satisfy you just like a chicken dinner for only a nickel. This little nugget of forgotten Depression-era Americana captivated me. I thought the idea of selling a candy bar (which had peanuts and caramel, but no chicken of course) based on an association with a chicken dinner was pretty funny. I searched online to try to find more info, but couldn't learn much. What exactly was in it? When did it stop being made? What did they taste like? Would it be possible to make one myself? Well how hard could it be? How do you make candy bars anyway?
Then I read a review of a book that had just come out called Candy Freak, by Steve Almond, which told the story of the American candy bar boom and the few small independent candy bar companies still in business. In brief, shortly after the turn of the century and until the 1940's, there was an explosion of candy bar companies in the US. Every city had their own brands and there were hundreds on the market. In fact, most of the candy bars we know today were developed during this period. Eventually the candy bar market crashed and the most popular brands were acquired by a handful of major international candy companies, while nearly all the rest disappeared forever. As you can guess, the Chicken Dinner didn't make it.
I loved the idea of an independent candy company and there's such a big trend these days toward small batch, artisanal foods that I thought maybe it was worth exploring. There were tons of independent chocolatiers and candy makers already, but they all seemed so fussy and fancy. They made great chocolates and candies and they charged a lot for them, but it was as if in order to justify the cost they felt the need to telegraph how fancy they were. They lacked the campy fun of an old fashion American candy bar, the silly name, the catchy logo, the candy bar form factor. And while there are plenty of good candy bars out there, almost all were mass produced and not exactly gourmet quality. So I started thinking that if I could use the techniques and high-end ingredients of the best gourmet chocolatiers to create a candy bar (rather than fancy bon bons) and package it with a cool retro candy bar wrapper, I'd have something really great.
So I set about doing just that. First I did a lot of research on how to make candy and work with chocolate. I downloaded recipes for caramel and nougat, bought some basic equipment and a lot of ingredients and started to experiment. The first thing I tried to do was recreate the Chicken Dinner. I didn't know exactly what that was, but I just made caramel, added peanuts, cut them into bar shapes and dipped them in tempered chocolate. (Learning how to temper chocolate was the hardest skill I had to acquire, but after some practice I got the hang of it.) When I was done with the first batch and tried one I knew right away that I was on to something. They were amazing. I realized that given good ingredients, even with the basic skills I had just picked up, you can make really, really good candy. I mean unless you really screw up, caramel, peanuts and top quality Belgian chocolate is going to taste good.
Needless to say, my stupid low-carb diet was over. I realized that maybe my candy obsession had been fueled by carb deprivation, but at that point I was in deep and I would be for a couple years.
I gave away most of the first batch and got rave reviews from friends and coworkers -- and a lot of questions about when I was going to make more. I started experimenting further, improvising with the recipes for caramel and nougat until I came up with ones that were just right. I decided to make my first real candy bar as a sort of gourmet take on the Snickers bar. The Snickers is a layer of caramel and peanuts over a layer of peanut butter nougat, dipped in milk chocolate. The bar I made -- which I later dubbed the Monkeybar -- had a layer of caramel, almonds and cashews over a layer of peanut butter nougat (made with all natural peanut butter), dipped in top quality Belgian milk chocolate.
They were unbelievable.
I set to perfecting the recipe and working out how to make them more efficiently. This was a big challenge. To make them by hand was a many-step process and with prep and cooling time a full batch could not easily be completed in an evening. After several batches I had the process down, but it still took a lot of time, which eventually came to a critical point once I had the business running and orders coming in faster and faster.
But in the meantime I kept perfecting the Monkeybar, trying to hone my chocolate tempering and enrobing techniques, and began working on additional candy bar ideas. There were a few good ones I came up with, but many were too time consuming to make regularly. The other one that I ended up going with was, as my Web site pointed out, not technically a "candy" bar, but a bar-shaped dark chocolate truffle dipped in milk chocolate. It seemed dangerously close to being classy, so I called it the Easy $treet.
The Easy $treet was probably the densest chocolate experience ever created. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but there's a reason why truffles are usually little bon bons; it's just too much for a whole bar's worth. I loved them, but felt they were overkill. However a lot of people were crazy for them and those who were tended to come back again and again with orders.
But that was all some time later. At this point, I was still experimenting and putting together my plan. I was convinced that this could really work and spent every evening making candy, researching the candy market, working on wrapper designs, writing a business plan, designing the Web site, etc. Within a few months I was ready for business.
To be continued...