Being a Candy-Maker Has Nothing to Do with Willy Wonka

December 14, 2015

If, when you close your eyes and imagine a candy factory, you think of Willy Wonka and his chocolate river, with Augustus Gloop being sucked up the pipe, or the candy conveyor belt scene from I Love Lucy, you’re in good company: I happened to mention both during my visit to Liddabit Sweets, and both were received with weary nods. “Those are the two,” Michelle Miller, one of the candy-making crew, told me, “that everyone asks about.”

Liddabit's Beer & Pretzel Caramels Photo by James Ransom, James Ransom

Liddabit Sweets is, in fact, like neither. Instead, it's a candy company based in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood and the maker of a beer-and-pretzel caramel that we’re over the moon for. I knew they would be in the pre-holiday trenches when I visited, so I had offered to pitch in—and after a quick tour, Liddabit founder Liz Gutman handed me a bandana and an apron and led me into the kitchen, where the candy-making team was buzzing around making nougat, honeycomb, and marshmallows while they finished their morning coffees. Caramel was beginning to boil in a massive copper pot over a flaming burner. Everyone was bopping their heads to Paul Simon’s Graceland album, on repeat.

One of the crew, Monique Henry, handed me a knife and got me set up stemming and halving figs for their fig-ricotta caramels—and for the next five hours I stood at the elbows of Liddabit’s candy-makers Monique, Michelle, and Jessie Euell, learning the rhythms they know so well and trying to keep up with them as they work.

All around the manufacturing room, each team member worked on different tasks, with at least five things (whipping egg whites for marshmallow, boiling sugar for caramel, prepping fruit, piping lettering, spreading nougat onto candybars) happening at any moment, and many instances where someone would put aside what they were working on to help someone else: Monique and I each took a side of the copper pot while Michelle spooned out the still-bubbling caramel into a series of sheet pans, a three-woman job. Jessie and I folded boxes for Liddabit’s Snacker Bar (a candybar layered with caramel, chocolate nougat, and roasted peanuts), packed the boxes with cello-wrapped candy bars, then attached labels to the boxes, lining them up the way Jessie showed me to. Then she and I poured another batch of caramel into sheet pans, and began a batch of apple-cinnamon-tea lollipops.

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Almost none of the Liddabit employees intended to be candy-makers. Liz and Jessie both wanted to be actors; Jen worked in campaign finance for Michigan's house of Democrats; Michelle was a fashion designer. Liz and Jen, both deciding to leave their original industries, were fast friends at the French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center) and several of their employees are also FCI alums. It really is a company of friends, friends who all agreed when I asked about the industry’s challenges that the assumption of femininity in candy-making is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the job.

Left, the flaming copper caramel cauldron. Right, Michelle Miller spreads nougat onto what will become Liddabit's Snacker Bars.

“This is not an easy job,” Michelle told me as she spread a batch of just-made nougat across a sheet pan. Candy-makers are on their feet a lot, have to do a lot of heavy lifting—the team goes through about 200 pounds of sugar every day, and emptied giant, 50-pound bags of sugar into a plastic storage drum twice while I was there—and their arms and faces know too well the shrill burn of boiling sugar. Whether it’s the assumed feminization of pastry chefs (under whose designation candy-making falls) or simply because of an idealized mental picture of candy-making, Michelle, Jessie, and Monique all told me that people tend to think it’s cute that they make candy.

They moved through the morning’s tasks as though their long to-do list, outlined on a strip of chalkboard on the door of one of Liddabit’s refrigerators, was a highly choreographed dance; I was always a few clumsy, unfamiliar paces behind, and grateful to have leads who knew what they were doing, to be riding on the candy-makers’ confident momentum from one task (lollipops) to the next (packaging).

Liddabit got its start in 2009 as a small stand at a Brooklyn flea market. They grew quickly, and since then, they've moved thrice from rented industrial kitchen to another, until they found a home—and a little retail space—last year in the business compound called Industry City. Their space is just five smallish rooms, which is tiny compared to what industrial candy-makers work in: their main candy-making room, a chocolate room, a storefront, a skinny space where they store ready-to-sell products and wrap caramels, and an office that doubles as a break room—plus a hallway that houses storage for boxes, wrappers, and other candy-making essentials.

Marshmallow being spread on the the S'mores Bar.

And while the company has grown since its Brooklyn Flea days, it maintains a sort of start-up mentality: Founder Liz and Liddabit’s wholesale manager Joan Baker tend to man the office; co-founder Jen King heads up new recipe development and experimentation, and “has it down to such a science that she can pretty much get it right in one go,” Liz told me. Jen, Michelle, Jessie, and Monique, staff the kitchen—but when it’s busy, nearly everyone heads into the production room to make and package candy. Liz, Jen, and Joan work weekends to catch up on packaging, staying late so that their employees don’t have to.

This is what it takes when you do every single part of the candy-making process, from the production to the packaging, by hand. It’s also something they cite when people ask, as people do, why their candy costs what it does—$10 for a box of honeycomb candy, between $8 and $15 for a box of caramels, $9 for a candy bar. It’s not exactly the dollar-a-pop stuff you grab as you’re checking out at the drugstore.

It costs more because when you eat a Beer & Pretzel Caramel, you don’t get sweet right away—you get the butteriness of the caramel, the salty pretzel bits, the bitterness of the Brooklyn Brewery IPA they stir into the mix. And because their chocolate-covered honeycomb (which sticks, pleasantly, in your back molars and is marketed as “coal” at this time of year) actually tastes like honey, so significantly that the mellow, floral sweetness stands up to the intensity of dark chocolate it’s been dipped in. And then you realize that there are no Christmas elves or Oompa Loompas working magic: There are just four people who make all of the candy that Liddabit produces, and only two people coordinating its sale and delivery. And suddenly a $9 candy bar doesn’t seem so bad, especially when the act of consuming one is a lot like that Willy Wonka scene where Charlie wolfs down a Scrumdiddlyumptious (“Hey, hey, take it easy, you’ll get a stomachache if you swallow it like that!”).

George, Liddabit's cut-and-wrap machine.

Slowly, and as demand has increased, Liddabit has invested in a few tools to make the candy-making process a little easier on themselves: While they dip all of their candies by hand—a process I watched Jen perform with an industrial mixing bowl full of glossy chocolate, a tray of honeycomb candy, and a pair of tweezers—they now have a chocolate-tempering machine (lovingly nicknamed Renzo) that circulates the melted Valrhona they use for dipping in a room that smells dreamily of chocolate.

And while they once hand-wrapped every hand-cut caramel in a piece of paper, they now have a 100-year-old, tangerine-colored cut-and-wrap machine, named George after Liz’s dad, to do that job for them. It’s increased their production hugely, as it can wrap about 160 pieces per minute (rather than less than half that without the machine’s help). They still stand by to feed long ropes of caramel into it, and to fix it when it inevitably jams. Cleaning the thing, Liz explained at our Makers Conference this fall, is an exercise in zen, but it saves them from the repetitive motion injuries their team suffered before George joined the Liddabit team.

Lollipops. Can you tell which were made by the, um, "apprentice"?

George reminds them of how lucky they are to be in the midst of a veritable glut of candy- and chocolate-makers. Brooklyn is a hotbed: Directly across the street from their production space is another chocolatier, Li-Lac; Liz worked for another another Brooklyn chocolatier, Roni-Sue, before opening Liddabit. And Salty Road, a Brooklyn saltwater taffy company, was founded by a Liddabit alumna. She has an old cut-and-wrap machine similar to Liddabit’s, so when one of the pullers breaks or needs a piece replaced, the two businesses turn to each other for help. There’s a lot of chocolate being made in a relatively small region, but the competition is friendly.

What’s the hardest part of being a candy-maker? This question got me some laughs, some shoulder shrugs. No one missed a beat in their work to give their answers: That assumption of femininity, a pre-established notion about what the job entails; whether they’re making the candy or selling it—or managing a quickly growing startup—it’s a craft that requires a lot of skill and strength and assertiveness. The daintiness of candy is in the science of it, not necessarily its makers. And the job is also very physical; you’re on your feet all day (by the time I made it back to the Food52 office, after just five hours on the floor of Liddabit’s production facility, I felt wilted).

Part of Liddabit's library in the production room.

The seasons make it hard, too: Candy does not like summertime. The heat is one thing. It’s not fun to be a candy-maker in July, one of the Liddabit crew told me, because the job is so physically demanding and you’re working with screaming-hot sugar all day. Every warm day threatens a candy meltdown, and Liddabit ships overnight all summer, with ice packs in the boxes, to make sure that you receive a candy bar and not a puddle of chocolate. But even worse than heat, candy hates humidity. Hard candies and caramels don’t set the way they’re supposed to, and stay sticky. When I asked the team whether they’d rather it be the holidays—their busiest season—all the time, or summer all the time, they immediately voted for the former.

The job is not always cute, and it’s certainly not easy, and it’s not breezy fun. It's their jobs, the thing they get up and do every day—which isn’t to say they don’t love what they do. They do, and they’ve stuck with it: After Liz, Jen, and Joan, Jessie has been with Liddabit the longest, since 2010; but all of the employees have been there upwards of two years, despite, for many of them, very long commutes. “I haven’t had the same day twice,” said Michelle. Plus, there are some very sweet employee benefits.

What would you ask a candy-maker? Ask away—in the comments.

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1 Comment

Erica K. December 15, 2015
I would love to know the financial investment that they had to make to get started; I have been thinking for years about starting a small online candy business but haven't quite been able to wrap my head around the numbers and planning involved.