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Life is Like a Box of Caramels

Jan 29, 2015

By Dean George

Forrest Gump may have said that life was like a box of chocolates, but one North Carolina couple could argue its more like a box of caramels. And after reading their inspiring story, you’d probably agree.

Xylitol-Sweetened Caramels

Earlier this month we learned about a Durham-based dentist and her business-consultant husband who have started a candy business. A dentist that admits to having a sweet tooth is one thing, but hearing of a dentist that is such a candy lover she cofounded a candy company – while working on teeth all day – is a sweet paradox that made us curious.

Meet Sindhura Citineni and her husband Tommy Thekkekandam, co-founders of Tom & Jenny’s. Those readers paying attention to this point may be asking, “Who’s Jenny?” Jenny was Sindhura’s childhood nickname and one of two names the couple decided to brand for their candy startup.

“We evaluated hundred of names, including some in Sanskrit,” Tommy admitted last week during a phone interview. “We eventually came back to our own names because we want the company to be authentic and seen as a personal thing.”

A New Kind of Caramel

Both Jenny and Tommy aren't new to the idea of trying new things and making a difference, so why not candy? In 2003 as undergrads at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Jenny and a group of students founded an anti-poverty program called Hunger Lunch that later became Nourish International. Today Nourish International has completed 113 projects in 28 countries and has 60 college chapters around the country.

Now Tommy and Jenny are bringing that same enthusiasm and passion for making a difference to their fledgling North Carolina candy enterprise.

As reported earlier in Dental Wire, Tommy & Jenny created an all-natural, gluten-free caramel that doesn’t stick to your teeth.  The “X” component that makes their candy healthier than regular caramels is xylitol.

“It’s common knowledge among dentists that xylitol has a huge impact on the bacteria that cause cavities,” Jenny said. “That got us to thinking why aren’t people using it more and why isn’t it available more for the consumer?”

As readers of this blog may remember, xylitol is a plant-based natural sugar that has 40% fewer calories than regular sugar. Because it is hard for bacteria to digest, Xylitol also reduces the number of S. Mutans – the bacteria that cause cavities – from our teeth.

Candy and sugar-free gum makers have increasingly used xylitol in recent years because it helps users keep a healthier pH balance in their mouths. Xylitol raises the amino acids and ammonia levels in saliva and plaque, increasing the plaque pH. When the plaque pH raises to a certain level, the calcium and phosphate salts in saliva seep into softened enamel, hardening it again.

“We’re one of the first entrants into dental-friendly candies,” Tommy said. “But our purpose is more than that. We want to be more than just a medicine-first candy, we want to be a deliciously good candy that is good for you.”

Enter Jenny and her pediatric dentistry background. 

Back Story Before moving to New York for 2 ½ years to complete her pediatric dental residency, Jenny worked in rural North Carolina in areas entrenched with poverty. What she saw was disturbing and it motivated her to make a difference.

“I constantly told parents of children suffering from tooth decay what foods and drinks their kids should avoid: Mountain Dew®, sticky candy and so on,” she said. “When I really got the parents to talking though, they would tell me my recommendations weren’t possible. ‘Every children’s party has candy,’ they’d say.”

“It really bothered her that parents and kids never changed their behavior,” Tommy added. 

“But how can you combat all the sugar and candies from the big candy companies when you only see a patient every six months?” Jenny asked. Pausing, she added, “I remember thinking, ‘can we actually change people’s behavior and health without creating a brand?’” 

“That got me to researching guilt-free candies in order to see what tooth-friendly options were available,” she recalled.

Kitchen Experiments

Between Tommy’s consulting job with McKinsey and Company and Jenny’s dental residency, the couple experimented with different candy recipes in their New York City kitchen. After experimenting with hard candy, they briefly considered making gummy bears before putting that idea into temporary hibernation.

“We got close, but in order to get gummies going you need a huge initial investment,” Tommy recalled. How huge? “A minimum investment of 50,000 lbs,” Tommy said with a chuckle. After learning that the couple voluntarily left the bear market to Wall Street types and turned their focus to caramels.

Early on they learned an important fact about using xylitol with handmade caramels; xylitol doesn’t caramelize like sugar; it burns. Not wanting to play like Nero and fiddle around while their candy dream burned, they switched to a technique called the Maillard process.

Using this process Tommy combined cream with the xylitol before heating the mixture above 260 degrees. This process breaks down the cream’s proteins, fats and sugars and most importantly, worked well with xylitol.

About this same time Tommy heard back from famed New York City pastry chef Michael Laiskonis. “I made a list of eight to ten accomplished pastry chefs and emailed them what we were working on,” Tommy said. “Michael is one of the top 10 pastry chefs in the country and I was thrilled when he responded. He invited me to come in and meet with him to talk. He was really interested in the idea and thought it would be fun.”

More Than Eye Candy

Tommy and Jenny worked with Laiskonis for four to five weeks. “He was very generous with his time,” Tommy said of Laiskonis. “We used the logic tree approach. I’d give him a recipe, Michael would tweak it and give it back and we’d try it out. In fact, the chocolate caramel was Michael’s idea.”

After several trials Tom and Jenny decided to beta test their new caramels in the Big Apple. “Over four or five days we sold like $3,000 worth of candy,” Tommy said.

He said they’ve also done blind caramel tasting tests and “sixty to seventy percent of the time the public is picking our caramel over other gourmet caramels.” They’ve also run similar tests asking the public to identify which caramel is sugar-free by taste alone, and the majority of people can’t tell their candy uses a sugar-substitute.

Jenny added that many of the dentists in New York City liked it. Was it just me or did she wink when she said that?

Return to Tar Heel Country

In September the 32-year-olds returned to their roots.  On the same day Jenny completed her pediatric residency, Tommy quit his job. They both liked New York City, but North Carolina is home “sweet” home and that’s where they want to raise their 11-month-old daughter, Ava.

“We both love North Carolina,” Tommy said. “The people are great. And North Carolina is a hot bed for entrepreneurship where there’s a community of mentors and advisers to help you accelerate your growth.”

Just two weeks ago Tom & Jenny’s began participation in the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator program, an incubator for new local businesses. Their company is part of the third cohort of teams accepted into the entrepreneurial program.                 

Another consideration for returning to North Carolina was their belief that their product will stand out more for its uniqueness and health conscious approach. “There’s a real trend in today’s culture to reduce sugar intake,” Tommy said. “We think this is a big trend and handcrafting our caramels is one way to help others indulge in life without having too much sugar.”

Tommy said the next step in their Candy Land adventure is to identify distribution channels and explore retail possibilities.

 “We’re very eager to find the right partners in this,” he said.  “We want to partner with people that really care about teeth and natural products. Some company that appreciates gourmet foods and high quality, slow batch cooking.”

Until then, Tom & Jenny’s caramels can be found in North Carolina stores like Foster’s Market, Respite Café, Oasis in Carr Mill and on the Tom & Jenny’s website.

Tom and Jenny are smart to have a business plan, and we have one too: to offer a wide range of affordable dental plans for any type of need! To see plans available in your area, click here

And here’s one more plan: follow us on FacebookTwitterPinterestGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

Photo Source: Tom & Jenny's

Copyright 2015, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC

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