When Pam Bolen tasted a piece of homemade toffee at a church event more than a decade ago, she just had to have the recipe. But when she asked the candy maker for the ingredients, she was told the recipe was a secret.
That rejection inspired her to start experimenting with recipes for toffee.
“It took a few tries, but I finally came up with a toffee that was perfect,” Bolen said of her crispy, thin toffee topped with creamy chocolate and finely-ground almonds. This determination to create her own recipe turned out to be a sweet investment in the future for her and her husband, Ernie.
For several years, Bolen made the toffee for friends and family. Then in fall 2010, the family of five who lived in Montgomery, Ill., at the time, Ernie Bolen lost his job. There was a need to quickly earn some money. Pam Bolen saw a news clip about a New Jersey mom who made her specialty — apple cakes — to pay a mortgage that was about to be foreclosed.
“Pam called me and told me that we should sell toffee to quickly raise money,” her husband recalled. “I told her ‘no way.’ I didn’t really think there was any way this could work. No way.”
But his wife was determined. She contacted the Knights of Columbus in Oswego, (about 45 minutes from Chicago), who agreed to let the couple use its commercial kitchen to make the toffee. They wrote letters to friends, set up an online site for sales and prayed for guidance. An acquaintance at Pierson Photography in Oswego took tempting pictures of the toffee to advertise the product and the couple began to stir the pots filled with candy ingredients.
“Within three weeks, we sold close to 400 pounds of toffee,” Ernie Bolen said, admitting now that the toffee venture was a good idea. They were grateful that friends pitched in to help package and mail the many orders during those first weeks.
The couple cautiously decided to continue making toffee with a plan to also sell the candy at craft shows.
“We went to our first craft show and it was a disaster,” Bolen said. “The first day we sold only two boxes.”
Fortunately, a show veteran offered some friendly advice.
“She told us to do three things,” he said. “She told us to get some mocha-scented spray and spray it all over the booth so people would be attracted by the smell. Then she told us to make smaller samples because our samples were too generous. Then she told us to get attractive food-grade packaging and offer smaller amounts instead of only one-pound boxes,” he said.
The couple hurried home and followed all of the advice. “We sold out the next day,” he said.
In the past nine years, the couple has expanded their candy line, which they call Mamie’s Toffee & Treats.
“People kept asking us if we made peanut brittle. We said, ‘No we don’t, but we will’ and started making peanut brittle,” Bolen said. Over the years, there have been several flavor developments, including beer brittle and coffee toffee.
“I enjoy playing with flavors,” said Bolen, who has become the chief candy maker. He uses a candy thermometer, but after making hundreds of pounds of candy, he can usually tell when the mixture is ready by the aroma and color.
“You have to stay on top of it the whole time. It’s not like cookies that you can put in the oven and forget about for a few minutes.”
He makes the toffee in 5-pound batches and the brittle in 2½-pound batches. Each batch takes about 45 minutes, so he spends many hours stirring and watching to make the candy from scratch.
One of their big breaks was when a large Indiana candy maker agreed to carry the brittle in their sweet shop. They also have been hired to handle event concessions at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Josh, their 17-year-old son with special needs, helps with the business.
Giving back has always been part of the business plan. In February, the couple set up a pop-up shop at a nearby deli and sweet shop, with plans to donate part of the sales to Special Olympics. The store owner has committed to hiring people with special needs and is also an avid supporter of Special Olympics.
Mamie’s Toffee & Treats is also known for awarding “random acts of candy,” a surprise delivery of candy to individuals who make a difference in local communities.
“We want to always give back,” Bolen said. The couple had a booth at the Easter in the Country Craft Fair in Sandwich in early March.
Making candy requires practice, Pam Bolen said. “But there are lots of desserts that are really simple.”
She is not ready to share that toffee recipe she developed years ago, but she does share two simple treats. The first is for a cake constructed from pre-made ice cream sandwiches. The second is for a shortbread cookie sprinkled with toffee that has only five ingredients.
Products can be ordered on their website, www.mamiestoffee.com.